An important aspect of the job of a designer is not only to hone their skills to create, but perhaps more importantly, edit. When designing in the real world, for the sake of budget, longevity and manufacturability, taking an idea and paring it down to its core essentials is imperative—or is it?
A thoughtful discussion that recently surfaced via the Core77 discussion boards stirred up a debate about the idea of minimalism and form. Designer bcpid writes:
Throughout my career, I've increasingly come to the conclusion that the more I can focus on proportion and the elimination of as many design elements as possible, and the less I can focus on form (except for trying to reduce or simplify and universalize the form as much as possible / kill decorative elements or anything that would constitute fashion) the better off most designs will be. Early on I used to see complex shapes, or crazy, vehicle-inspired or heavily sculptural forms as something to aspire to, but today I find almost anything more than bare minimalism and reduction, reduction, reduction to be inappropriate for most products that need to live in a variety of settings for any length of time. It's almost like how much can you make the product disappear. I feel like products should almost always be visually simplified to an extent that you aren't compounding the clutter problem people already have.
An automative inspired, technically minimal design disaster: The Adidas Kobe Two
So the question is, is it always best to pare down a design to as few details as possible? Or is this question more complicated than it may seem at first glance? Several readers within the forum considered this a statement worth analyzing further.
Minimalism doesn't always address the importance of a user's emotion
"I do not agree with this sentiment. Your version of minimalism does not always address a user's emotional needs/wants. Evocative forms do. That doesn't mean you have to design a bunch of swoopy forms, but it does mean that you need to consider the emotional element when designing most consumer products.
A very good proof of this is the car market. A Honda Civic is a great car by most practical metrics. It's reliable, gets great gas mileage, and accelerates reasonably fast enough for all but the most extreme practical purposes. A BMW 328i is almost twice as expensive, is way less reliable, gets worse gas mileage, more expensive to maintain, etc. etc. But if you asked most people which car they'd rather have if money was no object, they'd say the BMW. The reason for that is because it's emotionally more fulfilling to own one. They're more fun to drive, they look way cooler, they have a bunch of very nice features (that are by and large unnecessary), and they're a status symbol." - John_Mariello
Form follows function: once a rule, always a rule
If minimalism is incorporated in a design on a shallow level, it may have trouble differentiating itself from the crowd that simply stands as a product that is white, bland and unremarkable, as KenoLeon notes:
"I am not entirely in disagreement, but think it'a a bit simplistic to think in this one dimensional form, consider the following:
Form follows function and less is more right? But what happens when part of that function is differentiating itself from other forms? And doesn't quantity have a quality of it's own? I think every design has qualities beyond it's form and function, there's the context in which it was made and used, shouldn't that be included if we are to correctly judge a design?"
An Apple computer's looks are famously minimal and sleek, but arguably would never be as popular as they are if it weren't for their incredibly intuitive software and quality build—this is the sort of "context" the reader seems to be getting at.
Be very considerate about how exactly you minimize a design
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One of the powers of good, minimal design is its ability to take a complicated user interface issue and make it remarkably simple to understand, as enjey_w explains below in more detail:
"I've been recently reading through the "Design of Everyday Things," and [design writer Don Norman's] discussion of signifiers seems pertinent here; sometimes a completely minimalistic form doesn't adequately convey to a user exactly how they're supposed to use a product. Off the top of my head, a USB plug is a pretty good example - its completely rectangular profile basically guarantees that I'm going to try to plug it in the wrong way round (probably twice, inexplicably), where as something like an HDMI cable I never get wrong, thanks to the functionally unnecessary angles on the bottom half of the profile."
It's important when designing to use minimal signifiers to inform the user on how to use a product; as shown with this USB/HDMI comparison, it often can lead to less error, better overall understanding of how to use a product and ultimately higher satisfaction.
Edited design is always best—just not at the expense of function
In the end, this overall discussion acts not as a negation of minimalism but as a testament to its effectiveness when cleverly incorporated. Every designer should strive to edit a design down to it's purest form, it's only when a design's function is compromised for the sake of strictly looking clean and clear that overall purpose of the design can be hindered or diminished.
What are your thoughts on design, editing and minimalism? What are good examples of minimalism? Bad examples? Let us know in the comments or contribute your thoughts on the original discussion board post.