Minimalist design: simplification, the death of details, or a lack of character?

white fluorescent in minimalist background

I have been a fan of minimalism for a long time. Decluttering and progressively owning and consuming less has brought me inner peace and happiness in turbulent times. On the other hand, recent design has evolved to a point where it may be called minimalist by its blandness and careless lack of features. Almost as if designers sometimes lack the character to expose themselves with unique details and various degrees of extravagance.

Regarding this last point, I found a fantastic thread from The Cultural Tutor, which is way too good to be forgotten in twitter history. His thoughts are summarized below, with some editorial changes and additional comments.

He notes that it is not an attack on Minimalism which was a conscious design movement from a few decades ago. It’s about “an unconscious, small m minimalism” which seems to have become the social default for every design choice, whether architectural, corporate, or anything else.

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

It is troubling because of what minimalism may represent to many: a lack of detail.

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

Design matters as identity. What gives the phone box on the left its distinctive character? Details include the color, the moldings around the door, and the ornamentation at the top. The phone box on the right has no real detail, no character. It could be from anywhere in the world. The one on the left needs no explanation as to its origin.

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

Even railings and benches have been stripped of all detail. Is it cost-cutting and automatization? Is it simply a lack of will to stand out of the crowd, or the fear of not appealing to the majority?

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

Doorbells too have become victims. The one on the left adds charm and character to its location. The one on the right… you wouldn’t even notice it.

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

How many large corporations have rebranded towards far more simplified logos? This is a notorious recent example.

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

The thing with detail (and, therefore, identity) is that we all have different tastes. So, to some extent, it imposes something while default minimalist designs strip all identity. It presents a neutral, clean slate that imposes nothing at all.

So when minimalism has become the social default for everything, from benches and posts to skyscrapers and kitchens…. we have a reduction ad absurdum of cultural aesthetics; somebody might not like a detail so there can be no details.

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

We are becoming an IKEA bookcase world, where every possible detail is stripped.

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

The drift towards absolute global design simplification as a standard.

There is a similar problem with how minimalist design has stripped all color away from “everything”.

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

Minimalist design is so prevalent perhaps because we no longer have anything to say. You don’t need us to explain what the Gothic cathedral says, for example. But the skyscraper? It doesn’t say anything. It’s just…there.

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

And suddenly everything everywhere starts to look the same. Absolute neutrality. No detail. No identity. What does that say about us?

Credits: Twitter/culturaltutor

Maybe earlier architecture was a landmark that “someone in charge” wanted at all costs, likely with a specific artistic signature in mind. Probably fewer business cases and budgets were needed and rather replaced by a strong desire to make a statement that will last for generations.

In my opinion, there is a place for everything. Maybe we don’t need to go back to the earlier extravagant days, but being more open to accepting more ambitious designs wouldn’t hurt.

There may be hope on the horizon, which I will cover in an upcoming article. Stay tuned!

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