The Meaning of Minimalism: Minimalism in Design (pt. I)

With its pure materials, simple shapes and lack of extraneous elements, minimalism is often seen as a design truism. Why does it sometimes come across as the blueprint philosophy of design, and what is the intrinsic value of Minimalism that lends it such authority?

This is the first in a series of essays discussing the topic of Minimalism. My intention with this first essay is to try and explain its true nature and the power of this design philosophy.

Forged by Japanese craftsmen, industrialized by Rams’ Braun and popularized by Ive’s Apple, Minimalism is arguably the governing design philosophy of the 21st century. With its pure materials, simple shapes and lack of extraneous elements, minimalism is often seen as a design truism. Why does it sometimes come across as the blueprint philosophy of design? And what is the intrinsic value of Minimalism that lends it such authority?

Often regarded as merely an aesthetic style, minimalism offers more than what meets the eye. While a visual art is an expression of the artist’s mind (which often is the result of sociocultural conditions), the immediate value is usually weighed by how it looks. One could apply minimalism as a purely visual treatment in design as well, but this would forego its rich potential. The true value of minimalism in design becomes apparent when it is applied as a holistic practice. Steve Jobs once said that design is not how it looks, but how it works. What did he mean by that? Consider the example of the mythical ‘world’s shortest story’.

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Despite only being six words, it extremely rich in content. Why is it so powerful? By themselves the words have limited meaning, but put together in this specific order they act as a catalyst for the mind. They serve as a framework of a story, defining the cast members, an order of events, and a timeframe. The reader automatically fills in the gaps and creates meaning. Furthermore, this story is a great example of ‘less is more’. While seemingly dichotomic, the term actually spans (and connects) two different realms. In the case of this story, the text (form) and the emotional response (function). It is not saying that less text is more text (this would have been the dichotomic outcome), but how less text (can) have more meaning. Minimalism operates by efficiency. This is key.

The principle is equally applicable to design. It is not saying that less visuals is more visuals, but how less visuals can contain more content (be it solving a separate function, evoke emotions, etc.).


ipod-classic
www.apple.com

The original iPod is a great example of Minimalism. The click wheel elegantly consolidated all the buttons and ornamentations found on pre-iPod mp3 players into one intuitive functional surface. It even forwent the power button (likely influenced by Jobs’s philosophy).



nest800px
www.nest.com
The Nest thermostat is another great example and it takes minimalism a step further by replacing operation with intelligence. Not only does it consolidate the physical design, but it shifts it into a intelligent digital paradigm. Instead of redesigning the buttons for scheduling, Nest does this automatically. Less is more.




Minimalism is focus.

Making something simple out of a complexity is a very powerful and attractive thing. Simplicity leads to a sense of empowerment for the user. They are able to understand and operate something complex in an approachable way. I am sure most of you have experienced the epiphany when someone explains to you a very complex matter in an elegant and simple way, providing you with a burst of fundamental insight. All of a sudden the situation is turned on its head. We go from feeling inferior to the problem – as if we are not intelligent enough to understand it – to feeling superior. This contrast makes our huge leap of understanding very tangible. It empowers us.

This is why the Macintosh was so profound. It took ‘computers’ – large mystical boxes – and made them into a measurable value for the user. They became approachable and made everyday people feel like they were engineers. They empowered users.



apple-macintoshwww.apple.com

So what can we derive from this? Simplicity is the result of understood complexity. To educate does not simply require knowledge, but profound understanding. The best educators – the ones who are able to provide us with such clarity of explanation – can do so only because they possess a fundamental understanding of the matter at hand.

Product design operates by the exact same principles. Good design requires the same fundamental understanding of the problem at hand. Then, and only then, are you capable of resolving the challenge and produce great design. Minimalism is the manifestation of this process.

So how can you make this happen?

Distilling complexity down to its essence requires focus. It requires a constant process of self-moderation, always keeping your eyes on the target. Steve Jobs described it this way:

“Focus […] means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

Apple could have touted all the innovations of the iPhone, yet they chose to describe it as ‘a revolutionary mobile phone’, a ‘breakthrough internet communicator’ and a ‘widescreen iPod with touch controls’. Similarly, the iPod was simply referred to as ‘a thousand songs in your pocket’. But to arrive to these obvious truths, Apple did an enormous amount of heavy lifting, dealing with the incredible complexity associated with engineering a pocket friendly touch capacitive screen and the development of a completely new user interface. And as they opened up this vast new landscape of opportunities, they were able to constantly reduce and refine, always guided by a clear and simple vision. And when you succeed in doing this, the intent of the creator shines through in the experience of the product. It connotes a high density of value. It connotes intelligence, and it connotes care.