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What is Modular Design?

The Four Types of Modular Design and How to Make Modular Ads
Brett Friedman

What is Modular Design?

"Modular design, or modularity in design, is a design theory and practice that subdivides a system into smaller parts called modules, which can be independently created, modified, replaced or exchanged between different systems." - Wikipedia

To clarify the picture, here's something highly modular- the table of contents.

Table of Contents
  1. What is Modular Design
  2. Modular Design in Different Forms
  3. Types of Modular Design
  4. Modular Design in Advertising

The table of contents is modular because it takes a system (the article) and breaks it into 'modules' or pieces (the sections), which are interchangeable (other sentences could easily fit into any of those slots, in any order, and still make sense).

Modular Design in Different Forms

To understand modularity a little more, I asked designers and founders of modular-based businesses to describe real-life examples, starting with a more detailed look at blog modularity:

Tamara Olson, Owner of Studio Simpatico

"Our design studio, Studio Simpatico, embraces modular design in the way we plan, design, and build WordPress editorial and marketing sites for our clients. By designing modules (as opposed to static pages), we give our clients a flexible tool kit to craft content and tell stories, as opposed to boxing them into static templates.

For example, these articles in M.M.LaFleur's M Dash and Haven Life's content marketing site (both built by Studio Simpatico) were assembled by our clients using the modules that we designed. Similarly, we created a set of modules for our client Silverline so they can design and build out their own landing pages.

Modular design allows us to provide our clients with dynamic tools, as opposed to static templates that will eventually grow stale."
System: Blog. Modules: Content.

Frankie Shirley, President of HCPR Group discusses Modular Closets:

"These are DIY closet units that you can mix and match to custom fit any space for a fraction of the price of other professional closets. They give you the ability to customize your closet according to your space, your wardrobe, and your needs.

Modular closets are designed so that anyone can install them. The unit-based modular system makes it simple and easy to assemble, and install. Modular closets are made from top-grade and high-density wood. With the closet units being modular, each unit can also stand by itself, which makes it the strongest and most sturdy closet system available."

System: Closet. Modules: Shelves.

Melissa Cales, Senior Marketing Manager, Digital Properties, Pedowitz Group

"We used modular design as a tool to enable a more agile website development process. Knowing that there were a large number of pages to build which would require input from various subject matter experts for content, copywriters, designers and developers to all contribute to the creation of a single page - we knew we needed a system to simplify and expedite the process.

What we created was essentially a library of section templates that empowered copywriters to select the best section layouts for the copy, which is then easily handed off to the developers who can quickly build a first draft of the page.

This has saved us countless hours spent wireframing dozens of individual pages and building each from scratch, which in turn allows us to go to market quickly with new services or offers."
System: Website. Modules: Section Layouts.

David Sandy, Digital Marketer

"Probably my favorite use of modular design that I have in my house would have to be those multi combo game tables which include foosball, table tennis, pool, and more. It's always nice to be able to have it be setup in the house often in a confined space. Yet, you're still be able to have different games that can easily be changed in and out in a matter of minutes."
System: Gaming Table. Modules: Game Boards.

Bas Kools, Founder and Creative Director of Geoship

"Modular design for Geoship means: ultra high quality mass produced homes that are customizable and are modular on many levels. Dome home window layouts, panel colors and textures, entrances and connectors, can all be personalized. When we connect domes we create family homes or co-living spaces, and multiple homes together create a village or community, that is modular by arrangement. A village square, community spaces, gardens, a weave of paths and other placemaking components between the homes are a malleable piece of the system. Geoship communities and villages themselves are a modular part of an interconnected society, a fractal geometry for living in community in harmony with nature."

System: Society. Modules: Communities. System: Communities. Modules: Homes. System: Homes. Modules: Construction Elements.

Ray Gritton, Owner and CEO at Homes Direct

"The modular design is used also in manufactured homes projecting. This type of home is constructed like a LEGO: the home parts are banded together and can be ready for living within 4 months (meaning the process from the moment when you apply for a home till it’s fully constructed).
System: Houses. Modules: Rooms.

Types of Modular Design

In general, there are four types of modular design as pictured above. While models vary, these four designs are the easiest to understand and apply to the majority, if not all, cases of modularity.

Fractal Modularity

When discussing houses, Ray hits on an important point: modular homes are like LEGOs. That's because LEGOs have quintessential modularity. New pieces can be (and frequently are) made for unique sets (e.g. Star Wars or Harry Potter) that can fit into any other set that exists. Every lego piece is a module, every set a system.

To get more granular, consider the smallest system: two rectangular pieces, one red, one blue, stuck together. Either of those pieces can exchange for, say, a yellow piece or even a humanoid lego. Interestingly, that two piece system is a module too, capable of becoming part of another larger system, which in itself is a module, and so on. In that sense, LEGOs, and many other forms of modular creations, are fractals.

System: LEGOs. Modules: LEGOs.

While fractal structure is not necessary for modularity, it is sufficient. That is, every fractal is modular, but not every modular system is a fractal. For example, most of the modular systems above are non-fractal, with the exception of Ray's houses which are fractals in the same way as LEGOs. The key defining feature of a fractal outside of modularity is its recursive symmetry. That is, each piece not only connects with every other piece evenly, but every piece looks the same no matter how many layers deep you look as the gif above illustrates.

The other reason LEGOs are fractals is because each piece has the same interface (the place where two pieces connect). Every LEGO has at least one circular outlet and at least one circular plug. That's what allows them to connect to any other piece. Overall, LEGOs have a universal interface and universal modules.

Slot Modularity

Slot modularity is a little different to fractal modularity in that pieces can not be universally exchanged, but there is a common base holding everything together. For example, weapons in Gearbox Software's video game Borderlands have slot modularity. Each gun has the same core pieces, but each module can only be exchanged for a module of the same type e.g. stock for another stock, barrel for another barrel, scope for another scope, etc.

System: Gun. Modules: Parts.

Borderlands weapons, and anything else with slot modularity, have universal modules but unique interfaces.

Bus Modularity

The third type of modular design is similar to slot modularity, but the interfaces are all identical and therefore interchangeable. Storyboards (and stories for that matter) are great examples of bus modularity. In a storyboard (and a story), there are blank spots on a page (or on a timeline) where events that drive the narrative are placed. While events are typically chronological (and therefore have restricted modularity), plenty of great stories are non-chronological.

System: Story. Modules: Events.

Whether a story is linear or non-linear, it's got bus modularity: a universal interface and unique modules.

Sectional Modularity

If you add our examples of slot modularity and bus modularity together, you get a sectionally modular storytelling video game. There's only one such game in the world, a game built by Media Molecule: Dreams. Dreams is a host of video games within a video game– a meta-video game, a modular video game. It's Inception. And while it's not exactly a fractal, it does allow for infinite flexibility.

Dreams' main gameplay involves a video game creation engine that allows you to make any kind of world with any kind of objective, character, narrative imaginable. The modularity comes from its game builder.

There are no main pieces, just infinite modules with infinite connection points. Users can create any kind of object, save it, then combine with any other object they've created. They can also pull from a growing database of other users' saved items. Notably, object creation is modular itself, lending to the abundant modifiable features of an object such as color, shape, size, animation, effects on the environment, and just about anything else a real world object can do.

System: Game Builder. Modules: Game Objects.

As the video shows well, each piece can mesh with any other piece. Each module is unique and each interface is unique.

Modular Design in Advertising

Like Dreams, ads have sectional modularity. From a high level, ads can take any form, as can their parts. While a traditional ad is simply an image with text, an ad by definition is anything that promotes information on a public medium. That makes advertising modular on multiple levels: the medium, the message, and the format (because they are all shift-able parts).

To make the concept clearer, consider digital advertising. An ad starts as a blank shape, typically a square in an image editing software. Creatives pile on product shots, model shots (or both), brand images, prices, promotions, messages... each addition is one of infinite variations. Any product can take up any space on the blank shape, any model can hold that product, any logo, price, promotion, or copy can be included.

In fact, on the point of copy, language itself is highly modular. The phrase: "Buy now" exists in a complex system of interchangeable parts: a sentence. That sentence is a module that exists inside a paragraph, which is a module inside an article, inside a book, a library, etc. In an ad, it's the same. "Buy now" can switch out for "try now" or "try later" or "buy later" and so on. Words snap in like LEGO pieces, as do images.

To enhance resolution one step further, think about a multivariate matrix. A matrix is built by altering one creative asset per ad. The top left ad has a centered product, bottom-centered, black, sans-serif text on a white background. The ad immediately below it is identical other than the serif font type. The ad below that is identical to the first, but with white text on a black background. The process continues to iterate until a full matrix of every possible combination forms.

System: Multivariate Matrix. Modules: Ads. System: Ads. Modules: Creative Assets.

The important piece to note is that each creative asset (the text, font type, product alignment, colors...) are modules themselves. As are the ads. Not only is this exceedingly cool, but it also gives you immense plasticity in your creative process. Rather than arbitrarily throw together ads, creatives can use modular design to templatize and systematically test their ads.

In addition, just as Studio Simpatico's websites become evergreen through their dynamism, so too do modular ads. Not to mention like the closets, websites, gaming tables, and houses mentioned above, modular ads are assembled significantly faster than through traditional methods of ad building thanks to their plug-and-play format. Plus, with the right tagging structure, modular, multivariate ads gather enough creative data to consistently break new performance records.

Whether you're making LEGO houses, bio-ceramic houses, or ads for either,  design them with modularity in mind.

To learn more about multivariate testing, download the guide below.

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