The Case Against Minimalism

Being a graphic designer, carving out a livelihood in a field so mired in visual subjectivity and aesthetic dogma, I find it impossible to navigate the professional landscape without comparing myself to other designers, and framing my own style in relation to other styles; other design paradigms.

Something I have struggled with for a very long time is the predominant preference amongst designers towards minimalism – the stern and unforgiving principle of less-is-more. It does not agree with me, or perhaps it is I who do not agree with it. And this despite my being Swedish, growing up in the Land of Minimalism, where white and off-white are sometimes your only available color choices.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of simplicity very well, and know its ins and outs well enough to pretend-design the odd minimalist pastiche here and there. But it never feels quite right to me, and it is as much an intellectual disagreement as an emotional one.

I am a humanist at heart and I believe design is in essence a way of connecting people through aesthetics; of communicating with images and telling stories through visual metaphors. In that perspective, I simply cannot accept that human nature and minimalism are compatible.  We are not simple organisms and our psyches are not simplistic. I think that we, as human beings, live our lives to a large extent through the details, in the many nooks and crannies of human existence. I believe we are fundamentally closer to being sensual, self-indulgent hoarders than ascetic monks living in austere sensory deprivation.

This is not to say simplicity in visual expression has no value. For us as humans to be able to learn and evolve, we sometimes need clarity, reduction, precision. But it is a very restricted need that does not merit exposure in many circumstances beyond education and instruction. A large part of the human need for communication is founded in emotions, in our hardwired emotional resonance with themes and stories that connect us to the universe – the big, beautiful, complex universe. If our ancestors were truly visual minimalists, they would have left those cave walls alone. The urge to scribble, to doodle, is a profoundly human one.

To be perfectly frank, I find minimalism to be somewhat fascist in nature. It dictates the eradication of visual impulses that the designer’s super-ego conformistically rules to be superfluous to an imagined singular, simplistic purpose, even though any form of communication is a two-way street and really ought to strive to open up as many touchpoints as possible between sender and recipient, to allow for more ways for us as individuals to relate and connect.

So, before you start singing the praises of the shiny designed new world order of minimalism, recognize in yourself and in others that we aren’t necessarily ruled by a need for straight 90-degree angles, flat surfaces and squeaky clean logic. We are beings with hardwired emotional, sometimes irrational responses, born out of chaos, and we live in a world of endless details, of complex correlations between multitudes of interwoven systems and principles. Simplifying is not necessarily making something more elegant, it can also mean the dumbing-down of something quite sophisticated in its complexity.

Sure, there may be a certain easy, accessible beauty to be found in simplicity but, ultimately, I submit that this is a homogenous beauty quite alien to human nature. There is a greater, more human beauty to be found in chaos, in the details, in the pluralism of a multifaceted world where we suspend judgment and try to assimilate new, more complex, layered impressions.

When we minimize, we exercise a form of intolerance.

(Republished from 2012)

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