not so minimal
– by Cristian Rus
Bored of boring designs
The last design project I did was the concept of a calendar app. It's cool (I think it's cool), it has an interesting and intuitive navigation, giving great importance to the user experience. Also, the interface looks modern and nice. And yet, I look at it and I'm not proud of it.
It's a design for which I applied a similar structure and grid that I used in the past for a different app. It's a design that respects the style guide and the rules of the Apple’s App Store so that I wouldn't have any problems, in case it had to be published there. It’s a design that uses only one typography and just three colours. It’s a design that is not going to excite any future customer. It's a boring design.
Why is it boring? Because I did it following rules and ideas that I knew would work. There is no risk in that design because everything is monopolised by effectiveness. It happens with my calendar app and it happens with hundreds of thousands of apps, websites and other designs in the digital world and in graphic design in general. All influenced by minimalism. My calendar app is minimalist, the device where you are reading this is minimalist and if you raise your head and look around you will see five more minimalist things. Welcome to (the boring) minimalism world.
Minimalism in its origins
You start surfing the Internet looking for topics related to minimalism and you find everything is minimalist. Perfectly tidy computer desks, rooms with hardly any furniture and white walls, grey shoes, coffee shops with wooden tables, matte-coloured telephones and any kind of advertisement. Is that minimalism? For today's society, apparently yes.
There is no exact date to say when minimalism was born. However, we do know that the word was popularised in the 1960s. And, to the surprise of many, more as an insult than as a way of defining the art that was being made. The artists who practised it did not decide to label their art movement with a name; the term was coined by the British philosopher Richard Wollheim. He used it to describe a group of artists whose work was characterised by "minimal artistic content," that is, a lack of art.
The artists who practised this movement sought to show essential, basic and often mundane elements. The purpose of this was not to reduce as such, but to reduce so that the viewer could enjoy the element without preconceived ideas and thus be able to interpret it as they wished.
To understand this with an example, an all-white painting with a simple circle in the centre does not say "the circle is the only important thing". Instead, it rather says "there is a circle with nothing around it that can predefine it, it is your task to interpret it as a plate, a hole, a planet, or the concept of eternal time if you feel like it".
Contrary to what we now understand by minimalism, in its origin, it meant an openness to new options, possibilities and interpretations. This is how it was expressed by artists of the 1960s, such as Dan Flavin, Agnes Martin, Philip Glass or Donald Judd. Artists who sought beauty in unexpected and mundane things, not in empty space or the grayscale.
We got it wrong
Early minimalism doesn't look much like today's minimalism, does it? If we want to see where the rise of minimalism is today in society, we have to go back two decades to about 2007. One only has to look at the design trends of 2006 and previous years in comparison to the trends of 2008 and beyond. 2007 was the year of change, the year that changed our lives and also changed the design. The reason? The global crisis of 2007, the worldwide recession in the West.
Whether we like it or not, everything is interconnected. Therefore, design is influenced (and influences) by other aspects such as social behaviour, economics, politics and the culture in which it develops. The Great Recession of 2007 produced a change of trend in design, betting on a reduction of goods, items, aesthetics and ornaments. A return to basics, a design and lifestyle that many people began to call minimalist.
This is how in the early 2010s all kinds of startups began to emerge, taking advantage of the new trends in society. Startups that sold products without looking for luxury, with sans-serif letters, lots of white space and focused on "the content" rather than the aesthetics of it. "Buy less but better quality" has been the slogan of these startups for a long time, a good way to excuse the price increase.
All this is something that was greatly reflected for example, in the interior design of homes, not in vain the Great Recession began because of the housing bubble. Simple homes began to become fashionable, where they tried to show that they were spacious by eliminating items. Thus, an apartment of 46 square meters was suddenly able to offer calm and order. The calm and order that society did not have at that time.
Another place where we have also seen it, is in businesses. Why are all the fancy coffee shops the same in their decoration? Bare brick walls, bare light bulbs and unvarnished wooden tables try to sell us things as they are, basic and unadorned. Somehow, it makes us trust that business more. Likewise, it helps us feel comfortable because it's an environment we know. After all, we've experienced it before in many coffee shops. Writer Kyle Chayka described this trend of decorating in public places as "AirSpace."
Indulging in austerity
This kind of austerity and moral simplicity that the new minimalism transmits has caught on with people. It has so caught on so well, that we keep seeing it everywhere. Following the "adapt or die", companies have known how to take advantage of it and do not stop bombarding us with minimalism everywhere and in every way. Instagram and Pinterest are full of minimalist photographs and there are hundreds of books and guides to be minimalist, as well as videos and documentaries. And, of course, gurus who make a business out of it with Marie Kondo as the star protagonist.
This has had a huge influence on us, leaving people obsessed with being minimalist. Some say that minimalism has given them a second life, some talk more about minimalism than they practice it.
Why is it succeeding? The reason is simple. It's because it's relatively easy to apply and promises a lot in return. Minimalist ideas of "get rid of what is not necessary" and of "leaving behind what is not sparking joy" are ideas so vague and general that they can be easily applied to any part of our lives. Ideas that destroy the original concept of minimalism and make us understand it in a completely wrong way just because it gives us more conformity in return.
This obsession we have with the intentional absence of elements and stimuli around us, leads us to a culture of denial. A culture that often deprives people of expressing themselves and incites them to reject what is different and diverse. A culture that labels itself as minimalist, when in fact it has misunderstood minimalism. It reduces options by showing what others decide is essential instead of showing what is truly essential for each one to open a range of possibilities.
The culture of denial also drives us to possess and show less, a yearning for nothingness, emptiness and concealment. Rejecting mass consumption habits to feel better is apparently the lifestyle of a minimalist. The minimalist consumes minimalist products that hide the real problem or complexity behind them. A very clear example, is the popularisation of vapes as a replacement for cigarettes. They promise to give you only the essentials of smoking without the bad stuff, just the nicotine without the carcinogenic properties and bad smell of cigarettes. The vapes are minimalist, offering the essential, but who has decided that the essentiality they offer is what is important and good for the user? It has been decided by the product designers, industrial designers, graphic designers and in general anyone involved in the creation of the vape. They are directly responsible for this.
At the end of the day, minimalism has been absorbed by us as a form of conformity. If I had to say in one word the reason for its popularity it’s "conformity." It's all easier because it involves less to creating, caring, shopping, thinking or designing. Minimalism has been used as an escape tool, yet it has lured us into an even bigger trap.
The good old days
Is the solution to the problems of minimalism to do away with minimalism? Not really. Minimalism today as we have seen can offer great challenges and problems, but at the same time, it is a valid design solution for a multitude of situations. The solution is rather to not rely so much on minimalism and to be aware of all the other alternatives that exist. And for this, nothing better than to see how the design was before minimalism, the good old days.
The good old days, for me, are the crazy years we had during the twentieth century. Years full of artistic movements where each artist sought to be more avant-garde than the other. In 100 years of history, there have been more avant-garde movements than all the artistic styles of the last two thousand years. From Art Nouveau to De Stijl through Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Futurism and Constructivism. Each and every one of them has had a direct influence on design.
Since design can cover a multitude of fields, I am going to focus on graphic design, which is the area in which I have moved the most in my professional life. Graphic design is much more than apps and websites as we have now, graphic design is also books, magazines and above all posters. Poster art played an important role during the 20th century and some artistic movements were explicitly based on it like Psychedelic art or Protest posters.
What did these different methods bring us? Variety, originality, creativity and stimulation. It also pushed designers to use more complex techniques and tools of all kinds. What Photoshop and Illustrator use now to unify and imitate, at the time were dozens of different tools and processes to achieve specific results.
But screens and digital design were not the excuse to do away with all this and focus on minimalism. In fact, digital design has also had in its time incredible contributions of styles and techniques different from minimalism.
At an early stage, in the 1990s, everything was a bit chaotic and rough due to the lack of adequate digital tools and experience with the digital platform, but little by little things changed. Designers began to better control the digital world and above all, the world realised how important it was and recognised how it was eating the physical market. This is how digital design raised in the first decade of this millennium, with Flash websites and skeuomorphic interfaces as a peak.
Not so long ago, designers spent hours thinking about every detail of a website or a digital poster to take care of the user experience. 3D digital buttons, animations, digital elements that mimic real-life elements, textured surfaces and so on. It was what you found on the Internet 15 years ago, and it was somehow wonderful the way it was.
Suddenly, order and emptiness became an obsession. Websites and apps started to structure their content better, to remove "unnecessary" elements like animated backgrounds or textures. Icons began to simplify as well, 3D practically disappeared and many elements that tried to imitate real-life elements began to be replaced by geometric and abstract figures.
Branding, one of the most devastated by the wave of minimalism, should not be forgotten. The brand has always been the ultimate representation of a company, a graphic element that defines a company, its purpose and philosophy. In the good old days. Nowadays it seems that all companies are defined by grayscale, calm, order and cleanliness, if they are defined at all, because sometimes homogeneity is so great that it is no longer possible to differentiate one brand from another. Just take a look at the redesign of some fashion companies in the last ten years.
UX, minimalism & complexity
Applied to design and graphic design, in particular, this minimalist style has not always brought the advantages of calm and order that it promises. The epiphanies of authors of minimalism books often fail to tell what happens when "form follows function". Seeking to have only the basics and what they consider best, they often miss out on extra features or deprive other features that are necessary simply because they don't fit into the minimalist framework. For example, a website design may not display information relevant to a small group of users simply because the designer feels it is not necessary because it affects only a small group of users.
The main excuse for designers claiming to make minimalist designs is "simplification". A very powerful concept and almost as misunderstood as minimalism. We simplify designs to make it easier for the user to interact with them. It's making the complicated simple, all for the sake of the user. Are we sure about that?
It turns out that life, in an entropic universe like ours, is not simple. All the elements that surround us have complexity when it comes to interacting with them. Can the designer do away with the complexity of things by applying a "simpler" design thanks to minimalism? Not really.
According to Lawrence Tesler, a computer scientist specialising in human-computer interactions, complexity is constant. Tesler's Law of Conservation of Complexity states that "The total complexity of a system is a constant. If you simplify a user's interaction with a system, the complexity behind the scenes increases." What Lawrence Tesler is trying to tell us with this is that complexity is neither created nor destroyed, it simply changes from one element to another in the system.
"The total complexity of a system is a constant. If you simplify a user's interaction with a system, the complexity behind the scenes increases."
When we design a phone removing buttons, we pass that complexity to the user who must learn what gestures and hidden functions exist. When we design a door with a minimalist door handle, we pass that complexity to the user, who must learn in real time how to open the door. When we design a website with no elements on the home page beyond a small text, we pass the complexity to the user who must learn to scroll or find the button where the navigation menu is to go to the content.
The user experience can also be affected by how the user perceives a minimalist design. When using a minimalist product too simple, the user suspects that they are not in control, because they can hardly do anything with the product. This happened for example with Apple's Final Cut, a professional video editing software that years ago was completely redesigned with a new interface to eliminate complex functions and thus reach a larger number of users. The result was thousands of angry professionals who ended up abandoning the app in favour of Adobe Premiere.
So, if the excuse for minimalist design is to simplify the user's life, you have to ask yourself if this is really always the case. The user's life is simplified when processes are automated, but that does not always mean eliminating elements from a design.
No plurality, no opportunities
As humans, we have created our own living environment over the past thousand of years. The objects that surround us, the objects we carry with us and those we use. In this process of creating an artificial environment, we have often neglected beauty in favour of functionality or efficiency.
But what is beauty? Beauty is not something tangible but something that can only be accessed in our heads, as a pleasurable feeling. We find something beautiful when its colour, shape or proportion in some way or another is appealing to us. It is a universal experience that has made us humans, connecting us as a species for hundreds of thousands of years. But, at the same time, it is mostly subjective.
Throughout our history, the definition of beauty has changed a lot. We have gone from one extreme and style to the other, jumping back and forth, again and again. Therefore, to define the non-minimalist styles as not beautiful would be a mistake, but so would be defining minimalist as beautiful. Beauty is simply subjective, which makes it intrinsically varied and plural.
The problem, therefore, is not in minimalism but in what minimalism these days aims to achieve. By always trying to achieve "less is more" in minimalist design, we risk losing the aesthetic diversity and plurality of design. Homogenised aesthetics is devouring the world of design, and with it the beauty that human beings are capable of creating. If the history of design is a pendulum in which each generation reacts to the previous one, it is time to react.
Why? Because minimalism greatly limits plurality and cultural diversity. Today's minimalism seeks efficiency, it seeks to standardise and offer barely distinguishable content. Isn't that what the Swiss Style was all about? To achieve a neutral design, a system that could be applied to any project. We have to ask ourselves if this really offers more advantages than disadvantages.
In today's world of graphic design, which is so connected to the global economy, the key is to scale. Scaling a product is easier if you can reach and convince a larger number of people. This is where minimalism plays an important role because it tries to offer what it considers essential and thus appeals to the greatest number of people. It tries not to offend anyone. But minimalism, in trying to be everything has become nothing.
In trying to achieve something neutral that pleases everyone, it has automatically eliminated what is not universal and absolute, or rather what it believes is not universal and absolute. We know that minimalism leaves the essential, but who decides what is essential and how? Who decides that the light cream colour of a T-shirt is the preferred and best colour for consumers in both California and New Delhi?
If we start from the premise that graphic design reflects society and the environment in which it is practised, the current situation is a clear example of this. Minimalism perpetrated by the Western world that has always tried to impose itself over any other minority culture wherever it has arrived, telling what is important and what not. Minimalism seeks to standardise and do away with any diversity.
Designer, it's your turn
As we saw, minimalism can become a constant oppression to reduce and follow strict rules. It can become boring and meaningless when everything is homogenised. What we must do as designers is to be aware of this and embrace other styles and options that go beyond grayscale, sans-serif and the perfect grid.
It is easy for the designer to fall into minimalism. On the one hand, the designer feels pressure from the client, who asks to be like his competitor who is already a minimalist, who asks to be the way people think they want things, not realising that they are part of a herd.
While minimalism can be challenging to design, once the designer masters it, it is easy to replicate. A designer who has some experience designing minimalist products tends to do it because it will be easy to do it again. After all, it's following and sticking to a few basic rules and in return, you get a result that always works. Always? Minimalist design is like wearing a black dress, it's the easy solution to look good without having to worry too much, but it's also the solution that requires no effort and is more likely to make you look like everyone else and not stand out.
We must challenge homogeneity and fight for plurality. We must ask ourselves if really ”less is more", rethink the intrinsic meaning and value of design and consider the impact of the design.
Practising design beyond minimalism allows us to have a more open range of diversity and plurality as designers. This has a direct impact on society and the opportunity to make changes in it. Non-minimalist designs are bold, exuberant and exciting. They express ideas and give voice to minority groups, not oppress them.
When it comes to design, unless you are designing for a large corporation where the ultimate purpose is to scale the product to millions of people, there is no point in doing something minimalist and trying to please everyone. That's why we have to know well what is and what is not the product we design, being clear that being small also has advantages. It gives us the advantageous position of being able to take risks. If there is not a base of millions of users waiting... there is nothing to lose by offering a design that is different from the others.
But there are more reasons than just a moral struggle to go for other styles beyond minimalism. It's a competitive advantage, it's a creative facility and it's an inclusive and accessible solution. Besides, it's a matter of having fun and enjoying what we do. Have fun, come up with different and radical ideas, show that you are not like someone else. You are human and every human is different, messy, chaotic and unique. That's a beautiful thing.
We boast that with design what we do is solve a problem. The problem with the problem is that it doesn't have a single solution. I will always remember a teacher from university who explained to us why there are so many thousands of chair designs. After thousands of years, we still haven't solved the problem of sitting down? It turns out we haven't because every designer and person has a preferred way of sitting in every situation and therefore requires a unique chair design at all times. If we haven't managed to solve a problem as basic as sitting, how dare we think that we solve all the problems of our modern and digital lives with a single style like minimalism?
We must also consider the competitive advantages of simply designing something non-minimalist. A non-minimalist design today is a differentiating design, one that stands out above all others by the simple fact of not adding to the current homogeneity. If we design a non-minimalist product, nowadays, it is a shout to consumers, a tremendously effective wake-up call.
A non-minimalist design catches the consumer's attention and at the same time brings the brand to life. It can evoke creativity and create a feeling of energy and excitement, which is not typical with simple and basic designs. A vibrant and loud design, from a marketing standpoint, is almost always going to be better.
It's not always easy, it requires more effort on the part of the designer to communicate the message with style while respecting colour theory, user experience and content structuring. It may be easy to place a white background with a centred text and a geometric figure in the background, but things get complicated when there are four different typographies, six colours and organic figures in between.
If the designers want their design to stand out and be bold, they must face this. They must step out of their comfort zone, as did designers decades ago. They must offer an antidote to the sameness of modern design. They must seek the freedom to experiment and the devotion to offer, again, excitement in design.
Some are doing it. More and more web designers are dealing with "chaotic" websites in a style that has come to be called web brutalism. It is interesting and makes you remember the website and not forget it 10 seconds after leaving it. Interfaces such as Apple's macOS on their computers are recovering textures and 3D elements in what has come to be called neumorphism. Branding is also recovering part of the good old days in an attempt to appeal to nostalgia. An example of this is the latest redesign of Burger King's branding. If others are doing it, you as a designer can too.
All this time, I have been trying to indicate that we must go beyond minimalism and not against minimalism. Inevitably, if what I am urging it is to add more and not to take away as minimalism does, the style par excellence is... maximalism. Maximalism is defined as a reaction to minimalism, an aesthetic with excess and redundancy. So, hail maximalism?
It is not that maximalism is a thing of recent years by a resistance group of designers, maximalism has its origins more than 300 years ago with the first samples of advertising graphic design. With the aim of adding as much information as possible in a limited space, maximalist designs inevitably appeared. We then saw this again in great splendour in the Victorian era.
Maximalism, which tries to leave no white space at all, can be interpreted as a design for those designers who suffer from "horror vacui" or fear of empty space. An interpretation that in certain cases may be true, but certainly not the only interpretation. Maximalism is a way to express ideas in design without being restricted to a series of rules and neutral ideas typical of minimalism.
If we practice maximalism, we have to do it consciously and strategically as well. It is a style that intentionally seeks to attract all possible senses of the user, but you have to know how to combine the elements that are placed and create harmony in the apparent chaos of the final design. As with any design that is made, it also requires that there is a purpose and a concept to convey behind it all.
Be maximalist, minimalist or whatever you want
No more minimalism then? No need to go to that extreme. But perhaps not more of today's minimalism and more of the minimalism of the 1960s. While today's minimalism can be oppressive and limiting in terms of experiences and diversity, the original minimalism was the opposite. The original showed us things as they are, offering the user the possibility to explore and at the same time enjoy things for how, who and what they are.
Minimalism (the good one) is not about simplifying but about creating a way of seeing the world and perceiving each element differently. When a minimalist design is really good, it grows creativity and helps to see things from another perspective without preconceived ideas. If your minimalist design achieves that and doesn't fit the user into the global framework of current minimalism, design minimalist things.
The struggle between minimalism and other styles is ultimately a subjective matter. Too much chaos and filler will make us crave order and empty space, too much order and empty space will make us crave chaos and filler. Now we are at a stage where we crave some chaos and filler. That's fine, minimalism is fine too, as designers we simply need to be aware of all the options on the table. Because as designers we have a direct impact on what is created and those who interact with what is created. In other words, we have a direct impact on the people and the world we create and leave to those of the future.