How Minimalism Becomes Homogeneous and Unfriendly

Flat design has been the hot current design trend. It may have been ushered into prominence by Apple’s iOS 7 and Google’s Material Design1, but its philosophies resonate under the broader umbrella of minimalism. Minimalist design has been around for some time, and has been applicable – as a design philosophy – to much more than software interfaces alone.

Is minimalism over-copied and overused?

There’s a great quote I came across in an article about typography. The crux of the piece is about controlling the presentation of one’s writings by retaining full control of the type, and resist posting to blog networks like Medium.

What piqued my interest was his comment on homogeneity:

If that’s the case, we can’t say that Medium et al. are of­fer­ing min­i­mal­ist de­sign. Only the ve­neer is min­i­mal­ist. What they’re re­ally of­fer­ing is a shift from de­sign as a choice to de­sign as a con­stant. In­stead of min­i­mal­ist de­sign, a bet­ter term might be ho­mo­ge­neous design.

Type control aside, I found this notion of “everything is minimalist, so there’s no differentiation” a rational take on the design philosophy often granted as the golden default2. Simplification is a noble goal, but it should be more than just branding; it should come as a series of thoughtful and meaningful tradeoffs between form and function. Minimalism embodies an aesthetic that’s not plain because it is beautiful, but beautiful because it is plain.

Sometimes I wonder whether its latest adoptees uphold those core principles. Off the top of my head, a number of product categories claim to adhere to minimalism, but make unwelcome tradeoffs:

  • Minimalist wallets are practically a genre on Kickstarter and man’s fashion boutiques. Sadly, most of them care more about how thin they can make a few pieces of leather, instead of their functionality as holders of cash and cards.
  • Similarly, minimalist text editors – unsurprisingly, concentrated on the Mac – are an overrepresented genre of productivity application. Word processing can be difficult to get right, but most of these editors are content with a feature set that amounts to slapping a pretty font on a blank page and expanding the application window to fill the screen3.
  • Web pages and apps have jumped into the thick of minimalist flat design for a couple of years now. While the flat aesthetic is still everywhere, the look has probably worn out its novelty.
  • Modern minimalist furniture is a movement that has produced some pretty cool-looking pieces that function as ergonomic nightmares. Price premiums aside, I don’t see it usable other than perhaps as filler for those interior design galleries that in no way resemble actual living spaces occupied by living beings.

Not only do some of these designs start resembling and echoing each other, in many cases they end up being less usable than their less-minimalist counterparts. Those uglier products may have knobs and dials and extra pockets and unsightly globs of information splashed across the interface, but they succeed in giving the user the right amount of data and method of control.

Simplicity is hard; differentiation is in some ways even harder. Good design strives to embody both values, but in its worse incarnations, homogenous and unfriendly minimalist design ends up accomplishing the polar opposite.

  1. That said, all the credit in the world should go to Microsoft in pushing to a broader audience via its not-really-Metro interface. Unfortunately, smartphone interfaces have an undue amount of design influence, and they don’t have the market or mind share.

  2. Reminds me of Agile as the de facto project development standard, assuming one can nail down what agile development actually means.

  3. I do recognize and appreciate the idea that a blank canvas can inspire creativity. It’s just damned cliche.

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