Minimalism: The Wider Impact _
Part Four of Four
“Minimalism is defined not by what is not there, but by the rightness of what is there and by the richness with which this is experienced”- John Pawson, architect.
We’ve spent this month looking in detail at Minimalism and how it can directly inform our own work as retail and brand designers. Whilst we have been immersed in the different ways the movement has been expressed, we have also been thinking about the wider implications and impact of modern minimalism and its connection and reaction to our increasingly demanding and always-on way of life.
Exploring minimalism in our modern lives
Minimalism emerged as a trend in 1960s America as a reaction to the excesses of Abstract Expressionism and the chaos of urban life. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote at the time: “We no longer live in simple terms or places. Life is a more complex struggle now. It is now valiant to be simple: a courageous thing to even want to be simple”.
We are now living in a world that is information-dense and more distracting than Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries could ever have predicted. Our attention span is eroded and challenged by constant accessibility to work email, notifications from multitude apps, tweeting whilst watching TV, and viewing our world through the lens of our smartphones and the echo chambers of polarised social media channels. Being this connected has previously been seen as a good thing for brands- constant connection means more data, more access, and more opportunities for engagement. But, with increasing frequency we’re now seeing a rejection of this brand and business first philosophy. Application of minimalism can be used to create experiences that better serve consumers, by providing them with respite, digital disconnect, and space for reflection. By putting emphasis on what is truly important to the consumer, without distraction or dilution, minimalist spaces and designs can promote tranquillity and calm.
After an extended period of using online spaces and interfaces to search for products products- scanning reviews, attempting to deal with choice fatigue in an endless aisle of options- customers didn’t want to be overwhelmed with products as they return to physical spaces to shop. Several brands looked to the concept of minimalism in the wake of the pandemic as it allows shoppers to focus on one product. The museum-esque fashion store trend allows customer the room to focus on a controlled edit and to remove the decision fatigue that often comes with too much choice and visual noise. But this highly edited, neutral approach leaves no space for differentiation and the trend can be found across all aspects of our modern consumer experience. This kind of minimalism is all around us and is marked by two key features: simplicity and consistency. It can be seen anywhere from the user interface of your favourite website or app to the packaging design of your latest tech device, the relaunch of your favourite clothing store, and the design of the logo of your favourite coffee brand.
But is the new minimalism a completely positive trend? Although it responds to a valid need in consumers for a quieter, more focussed, and mindful personal experience, it has complex negative facets too.
(Image courtesy of MNMA Studio and Andre Klotz)
Minimalism as luxury trope
Minimalist design has continued to grow in popularity as a reaction to instability, constant digital distraction, and growing social and economic pressures. The movement has seen some incredibly successful executions- see our blogs on Minimalism in retail, and minimalism in graphic design for our take on the best examples. But for every minimal-living fan of the genre there is a critic who dismisses it as sterile, lacking in imagination and joy, even elitist.
In 2008, the housing crisis and the banking collapse derailed the juggernaut of easy consumption; for many people, it became necessary and desirable to live with less. New minimalism could easily be interpreted as a kind of cultural aftershock of this disruption. But, with the hashtag #minimalism showing seventeen million photos on Instagram, it appears the modern movement is not always about material mindfulness; instead promoting an increasingly aspirational and deluxe way of life, synonymous with luxury that only the privileged can afford.
Even ardent design fans could associate it with soulless interiors and a joyless and impractical drive for design that prioritises aesthetics over comfort. Think of Kim Kardashian walking Vogue around her multi-million-dollar mansion- a stark, blank, monochrome palace.
Less is more attractive when cost is not an object, and minimalism can easily become a form of unobtainable luxury- an impulse that is not so different from the material consumption that minimalism purports to reject.
(Image courtesy of Vogue)
Minimalism and visual homogenisation
When thinking about the above examples of luxury in minimalism it is also worth exploring the phenomenon of ‘blanding’ of modern design that we touched upon in our Minimalism in Graphic Design blog. This can be seen in multiple sectors- a concerning development for creatives who thrive in the visual world.
The physical embodiment of ‘blanding’ is described best by Kyle Chyka in his 2016 Verge essay as ‘airspace’. In the essay- which we cannot recommend enough- Chyka presents the term to describe a side of modern minimal expression that is creating a generic uniformity to the aesthetic of our modern world anathema to the foundations of minimalism which sought to show true purpose.
‘Airspace’ is found in coffee shops, startup offices, and co-living or working spaces that have all independently adopted the same faux-artisanal aesthetic. Eames chairs, Scandinavian timber, faux-industrial lighting, clean, white- very Apple. Digital platforms such as Instagram and Airbnb are producing ‘a harmonization of tastes’ across the world. It’s easy to see how social media shapes our interactions on the internet; yet technology is also shaping our physical world, influencing the places we go and how we behave even offline.
Chyka notes that this visual homogenisation recalls the prophetic essay “The Generic City” by Rem Koolhaas which asks: “Is the contemporary city like the contemporary airport- ‘all the same’? What if this seemingly accidental homogenization were an intentional process, a conscious movement away from difference toward similarity?”. The undemanding blankness that used to be the hallmark of hotels and airports- transitional “non place” according to anthropologist Marc Augé- has seeped into the rest of our life.
(Image courtesy of Flux Branding)
Sustainability and minimalism
Delving deeper, when we think about minimalism and the homogenisation of products, spaces, and experiences; we automatically think of the uniformity of the Apple product line. Apple’s minimalism isn’t just about aesthetics; rather, it’s hugely important to their overall business strategy- producing products that recall each other and prime users to want to next iteration. Because of the financial success of this strategy Apple has become inseparably linked with most people’s definition of what “good design” is. This simplicity is a deception though. Minimalist products may be user-friendly, but the batteries that run them, their short lifespans, constant replacement cycle, and inability to be repaired are not friendly to the planet. There is nothing simple about modern technology’s supply chain.
It’s impossible to discuss minimalism without referencing sustainability as it is an integral aspect of the movement’s appeal. A desire to reduce individual consumption has grown increasingly common as more embrace a back-to-basics mentality. As we’re becoming more informed about what we buy, our choices are becoming more considered. As we enter a period of more uneasy consumption, brands are using this opportunity to experiment with shrinking; represented through minimalist fashion movements like Project 333, which challenges people to keep their wardrobe to just 33 articles of clothing over 3 months.
The continuing trend towards a more mindful and informed modern minimalism can only mean positive things for the environment.
(Image courtesy of Airbnb)
Finally, when thinking about future minimalism it’s vital to remember that it is not just a look, but a way of life. Minimalist ideologies promote living with what you need. It’s not about the total absence of things or removing all imperfections and details, but about using the absence of selected things to add meaning and value to what we chose to retain.
In our digital age, we are more frequently seeing a consumer desire to revel in the imperfections of analogue and to see value in different ways. The ‘What is Luxury?’ exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, explored these shifting aspirations and shone a light on multitude ways that a minimal lifestyle can be luxurious. It proposed that definitions of luxury are personal; to some people, luxury may be the availability of time, it may be in a humble object or basic materials in the hands of expert craftsman and found in utilitarian products that intuitively meet an exact need without extraneous effort.
Luxury today is time, quiet, and space. We aspire to be selective in the stories our environments and products tell, so the narrative of the things we surround ourselves has equal importance as the products themselves. In growing acknowledgment of the state of the environment, we’re collectively turning against mass consumerism. Instead choosing to live with what matters to us, finding our own interpretation of minimalism’s central tenet- purpose.
(Image courtesy of Eco Living)
In July, we will be delving into the world of minimalism including its drivers, how minimalism is translated into the graphics and retail space and concluding by exploring minimalism’s wider impact.
Part Four – Minimalism: The Wider Impact (You are here!)
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