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Your Move, Designers

Your Move, Designers

January 22, 2024

Did you know there's an international celebration of chess, the pastime that’s endured for centuries? Let’s just think about the weight of that statement for a second. How has it thrived? And could design hold the answer?

Want to play a game?

Since its inception in India during the 6th century, chess has existed somewhere between a strategic game and political/militaristic allegory. And aside from some minor tweaks here-and-there, for 1400 years, the 8×8 ashtāpada board and use of 32 pieces remains largely unchanged. And this blows our mind.

Because as it spread across time and space, chess organically did the very thing we find ourselves contemplating on projects all the time: how can I appeal to my audience? So many people wanted to play the game but it felt alien and unapproachable. Thankfully, design held the answer.

King to Elephant 3, Chariot to King 6. Wait, what?

Originally the core chess pieces consisted of kings, viziers, elephants, horses, chariots and foot soldiers. But when the game made its way to Persia, representations of men and animals were essentially prohibited, so abstract alternatives were needed.

Similarly, when the game reached northern Europe, it was updated again, to reflect the hierarchy of court. So elephants became bishops, viziers became queens and war chariots became castles.

A pawn is more than just a pawn

For designers speaking to a wide encompassing audience, sometimes the best approach is universally recognisable imagery. Whether that’s geometric shapes, iconography or simple patterns.

This allows you to easily illustrate the effect of a virus entering a computer system or presents a good way to highlight complex shipping routes. Whatever the brief, you are able to dig down into the heart of its meaning and conjure a unique way to represent it.

But of course, this can also be quite literal. A knight on horseback just so happened to be the perfect representation of that chess piece for its European audience. So showing a streamlined version of a software platform, can be the most effective choice to convey what the user can expect.

Sculpted to perfection

The truth is, you don’t need to like chess or even know how to play it to appreciate the aesthetic of the pieces. And that’s the power of good design.

And once you have the design down, then you get to have real fun with textures. Stepping away from silhouettes and outlines, to analyse the “feel” as much as the “look.” Wood, marble, glass, reflective surfaces, matte filling, fuzzy, spiky, your options are endless.

So what can we learn from chess?

Well, from a design aspect, it teaches us adaptability, creativity and possibility. To this day, you can acquire a chess set in any form. From the simple blocky designs of the Iranian shatranj set to the expressive faces of the Lewis chessmen. And beyond, with pieces inspired by skyscrapers, comic characters, animals and flowers.

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.