Minimalism

September 13 2016

Most of my clients start talking about the sort of design work they’re looking for and use the word “minimalism”. Almost every time, they mean simplicity. But they’ve heard a lot of designers talk about minimalism in the past few years and think it’s going to unlock some hidden green valley of successful business heretofore unwitnessed by mankind.

Great designers talk about minimalism all the time. Dieter Rams, of Braun fame, spoke frequently about using minimalism to remove layers of abstraction from his industrial design. Jony Ive speaks eloquently about minimalism whenever he narrates a new iPhone video for Apple. Recent Microsoft hire Andrew Kim used the term in a (now missing) blog post on his website to discuss his affection for the Xbox One S’s new design language.

I think minimalism has a bad end game, though.

Minimalism leads us to the sort of “invisible” hardware and difficult software in films like Minority Report. I’ll be the first to say that Minority Report has some of the cooled computers ever. But every computer in the film looks completely unusable — like trying to open a coconut with a fingernail.

Minimalism is all about the removal of features in an effort to achieve a zen-like product. It’s a philosophy more than a design mandate. And almost every hardware feature removed from a product gets added back into its software, which is why your phone feels increasingly complicated every year.

I get it. I get that it’s the way things are going. But as designers, we should be aiming higher.

Our goal should be to make usable products. If we want to delight people, we should be serving them with design. This applies to client services too. Clients come to us for our expertise, and our rationale — particularly the rationale of UX/digital designers — should lean towards anti-minimalism. Human-centred design is decidedly anti-minimalist.

Most of us aren’t minimalists. We like our creature comforts.

Minimalism is about clarity and simplicity. I believe in clear, purposeful design. But I don’t think minimalism is the only way, or even the most responsible way, to get there.

Design