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It isn’t minimalist… or is it?

2 minute read

But wait…a trend in design where the subject is “reduced to its necessary elements”? As opposed to a design where unnecessary elements are added or kept? Isn’t the removal of the unnecessary a definition of what “good” design is? Design is communication. Design is what allows us to interact with our products and make them work. Good design makes this interaction easy. Naturally, good design also tends to simplify, unclutter and organize.

I can see how minimalism can have a clear meaning in art, where the artist is free to create their own rules and ideas. Minimalism is a style that can be characterized by that use of simple, basic forms and white space. But when we apply this term to everyday design, the term begins to lose meaning. Clear, clean and simple design isn’t minimalist. It’s just good, clear design.

Simplicity isn’t a design trend, it’s an attribute of good design.

— Dmitry Fadeyev (2010) “It isn’t Minimalism”

Dmitry’s point is correct, but I think it doesn’t apply to “design” intended in the overall, complex, sense of the term. I think that you’re talking of a narrow, mechanical definition of design.

I’ll play a bit with an example:

  • Why the XBox and the Wii are so different?
  • Why the iPod (MP3, not Touch) and the Creative Zen are so different?

They do the same things, so why?

The main reason is that XBox and Creative Zen were designed with a few ideas in mind, it’s more complicated than this but I could summarise that they went for the “technology power“: the glowing parts, the “look at me I’m great” features, and all.

On the other side, the Wii and the iPod were designed with other ideas in mind, that could be summarised as minimalist.

As you can notice, there’s a huge difference between the final results of those objects. I will not argue here that it’s better or worse, that’s another discussion, but the difference is clear, I think.

Also, you said that “Clear, clean and simple design isn’t minimalist.”, and that’s absolutely true: you can make a clear, clean and simple design without being minimalist. But still, the reverse is true: minimalist design means also simplicity and clarity. It’s quite clear that they are two different dimensions.

Also, even if you’re “reducing to its essential elements”, you can still make a choice if you want to be minimalist, or not. It’s a matter of choice: it’s not rare to have in front of you different but similar in the result design choices. Ditching the minimalist choice doesn’t mean that you haven’t reduced to its essential elements.

We could grow this conversation a lot, for example we could even go deeper asking “what are the essential elements?”. Because I can consider just the functionalities, as it seems you’re implying, or you can consider also the perception of the user. Simplifying the functionalities *and* the perceptions are two different processes: I can reduce functions, in order to create faster, simpler flows, or I can take any set of function and reduce the perception of them. Those are two different processes.

“Design” should and must be a multi-factorial approach, with different disciplines converging (i.e. visual design, user experience design, industrial design, psychology, social psychology, etc.) and to do a good design you have to choose, consciously or unconsciously, a direction for each one of them. “Minimalist” is one of those choices. :)