Less is more may sound like a cliché, but with the minimalist design trend, that’s the essence of this school of design. As a design movement, minimalism is still relatively new, having only come into its own in the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly with American visual art.
In its most stripped-down definition, minimalism is about designers expressing only the most essential and necessary elements of a product or subject by getting rid of any excessive and, therefore, unnecessary components and features. As with many other movements, the minimalist design trend is a reaction to and rejection of an earlier design philosophy that fell out of favor.
Minimalism is all around us. You can see it anywhere from the user interface of your favorite website or app to the package design of your latest gift and the design on the cup of your favorite cup of coffee.
Here’s a look at minimalism, its history, and some stunning examples of this design movement.
Where Did the Minimalist Design Trend Come From?
Minimalism was a rejection of the extremely subjective designs and works of abstract expressionism. By distilling a product, painting or subject down to its bare essentials, minimalists wanted to showcase its true form. Abstract expressionism is an approach to design that combines self-denial and emotional intensity, which produces designs that some see as chaotic, rebellious, and even nihilistic. Unsurprisingly, spontaneity (or at least the impression thereof) is the main feature of abstract expressionism.
Minimalism, in stark contrast, takes form, color, and space and reduces them to such simplicity to attain their essential nature. At this point, the philosophy goes, one can’t remove anything else from the design to improve it further in any way, shape or form. That’s when you know that true minimalism has been reached. Call it a form of design nirvana, where bliss in design is attained by removing all of the excesses!
A group of artists in New York in the 1960s began to put this school of design on the map when they experimented with what’s known as geometric abstraction. Their minimalist art focused on geometric shapes and forms—and you can see why this naturally gave way to minimalism. Geometric shapes and forms are as basic to human comprehension as it gets.
Interestingly, this geometric abstraction was already present in the heyday of Islamic art, many centuries before geometric abstraction and the ensuing minimalist design trend ever hit European or American shores. Since the depiction of religious figures was not allowed in Islamic art, Muslim painters had to rely on geometric shapes as a method to associate religion with both art and science—which was a big theme in Islamic art.
When New York artists began dabbling in geometric abstraction, they unknowingly laid the groundwork for minimalism. Some prominent American artists of this time include:
- Donald Judd
- Dan Flavin
- Carl Andre
- Frank Stella
- Al Held
- Robert Ryman
- Kenneth Noland
Judd’s and Flavin’s contributions to minimalism can be seen in their works from this early era, especially Judd’s showings at the Green Gallery in New York, where three of his sculptures were on display, and Flavin’s green fluorescent light, which is a stark embodiment of minimalism, almost aggressively pushing out at the viewers.
Minimalism’s Connections to Other Influential Design Movements
When you study the roots of minimalism, you begin to notice overlaps and associations with other noteworthy design movements in human history. This is natural because trends usually borrow from and are inspired by one another.
In the case of minimalism, its European origins are found in the geometric-abstraction creations of painters who were associated with the Bauhaus movement. One of the mottos of Bauhaus was the famous line, form follows function, which stresses that any design should put a priority on usability and any aesthetic considerations should come in second. Painters such as Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich are standout examples, as well as artists who were associated with the De Stijl movement (which translates to “The Style”), a design trend whose roots date back to 1917 Leiden, in the Netherlands.
De Stijl was also connected to Swiss Design, which in and of itself has made a tremendous impact on design in the 20th century and beyond. Swiss is noted for its dedication to order and cleanliness (the grid system or organizing content), readable and legible typefaces, and copious use of white or negative space to focus attention on the actual content.
Another related design movement is Scandinavian design, which you can’t ignore when discussing minimalism. This aesthetic emphasizes minimalist mainstays like:
- Simplicity in design to serve overall function
- Clean lines and compositions
- Bright and natural lighting
- Lighter and more neutral colors
- Natural flooring (as well as nature themes like leaves, trees, etc.)
No discussion on minimalism would ever be complete without a reference to Japan’s traditional culture of Zen philosophy. When we say “Zen” in today’s terms, we often think meditation and calm; however, in design terms, Zen is the epitome of minimalism, especially the way Japanese designers use it.
Characteristics of Minimalism
The minimalist design trend is interesting because, depending on what industry and in which discipline it appears, it has specific qualities relating to that application.
Let's look at how minimalism manifests in different uses.
The Internet has been an amazing breeding ground for the expansion of minimalism, as so many styles of web design borrow from or a subset of minimalism. Let’s go through them one by one.
There’s flat design, which favors a very 2D aesthetic in the user interfaces of sites and apps. In complete contrast to skeuomorphism, where icons and buttons had raised surfaces and looked like their real-life counterparts (think envelopes looking as much as real envelopes as possible, on interfaces), flat means no depth at all.
This complete removal of depth had a revolutionary impact on interfaces because icons and buttons, and their affordances, had to communicate to users only with colors and shapes. For example, buttons that users could click on or tap didn’t have any shading or gradients anymore to communicate what they could do. Instead, stark color contrast and well-defined lines and edges told users that icons or buttons could be clicked or tapped.
While that design decision may have compromised usability to some degree, it perfectly illustrates how minimalist web designers reduced the user experience to its most basic unit, while still ensuring functionality beyond which no further improvements could be added.
Google’s Material Design
Material design is Google’s most famous contribution to the minimalist design trend. This new design language created by Google is founded on the philosophy of tactile reality, which is inspired by the fundamentals of ink and paper. Again, you notice the distilling down of web design into extremely bare-bones contexts such as ink and paper, which everyone can understand.
Material design debuted only recently, in 2014, but in the following years since has rapidly expanded as the design language of choice for all of Google’s platforms and interfaces, including:
- Google Drive
- Sheets and Slides
- Google Plus
- Google Maps
It has also been rolled out to a lesser extent on Chrome’s OS and the Chrome browser.
The minimalist design trend has also influenced how we decorate our interior spaces for maximum comfort, function and aesthetics.
Clutter is chaotic, so it’s expected that the minimalist approach to interior design stresses order and neatness. Free-of-clutter surfaces dominate minimalist interiors. While it’s difficult in practice to live up to this standard (messy countertops, coffee tables, dining room table, etc.), striving for clutter-free surfaces is a way you can take an active part in minimalism in your indoor spaces.
Do a room check every few weeks or so to ensure that no junk has started to creep up onto your surfaces! To help make sure that surfaces are bare, assign a designated area to items that tend to become clutter.
- Pieces of mail should be in a physical inbox or desk tray
- Magazines and publications should be in a magazine rack or bookshelves
- DVDs and their sleeves should be in DVD cases
Neutral or Light Color Bases
The color in your room greatly affects your mood, according to studies. Colors on the spectrum of blue help you feel calmer while warmer colors such as red and yellow can give you feelings of comfort and warmth—yet also hostility and anger!
That’s why going with neutral or lighter colors is a safe bet. More subdued tones will inspire that feeling of calm while also sticking to that “less is more” philosophy. Anything from white, gray or even greige (a portmanteau of gray and beige) will do, but you can also explore undertones.
If a room has white paint, then yellow undertones work to offer a creamier appearance while blue undertones serve to provide a crisper appearance.
Consistent Textures and Tones
Textures are items like rugs, throw pillows, and cable-knit blankets. They add life and vigor to interiors without sacrificing the minimalist design trend in any room. All the textures introduced to interiors should be of the same tone, however, in keeping with the overall design scheme and colors in your rooms. Otherwise, too many different colors and patterns will throw any minimalist look into disarray.
For example, if a room has a white base, then textures need to stay within that same family of colors, such as beige, off-white or even tan. Minimalist designers rely on nature to decide if color combinations that organically occur in the outdoors work well together, too, in interiors.
This design philosophy goes back to the Scandinavian-minimalist viewpointof taking inspiration from nature and not adding anything else to what’s already naturally occurring.
Many buildings, monuments, and structures that you’ve seen have been inspired by the minimalist design trend, whether you know it or not.
The Bare Essentials
Philosophically, minimalist architectures won’t use more materials than they have to in arriving at the essence of what they’re designing and building. From a blueprint, these architects will reduce a design to exactly what it needs for just the bare minimum of required materials, elements and parameters.
It should be noted that minimalist architects don’t strive for the complete elimination of ornamentation, although it may seem like that. Instead, they reach a point in the planning and designing stages where they’re satisfied that they can’t improve on the project anymore by further subtraction—while still keeping the innate functionality of the structure intact.
A Respect for Space
If you look at minimalist architecture, you’ll note quite quickly that space is a quality of design that’s emphasized. Unsurprisingly, when you reduce structural designs to their simplest forms, you’re naturally allowing more space to remain. In fact, one of the most noticeable aspects of this style is the open-plan layouts and spatial arrangements.
When you analyze the works of prominent minimalist architects, such as Tadao Ando and Kazuyo Sejima, you’ll see immediately how space is respected and even given a prominent role.
Japanese contributions to architecture deserve their own subsection due to their focus on the minimalist design trend, especially when we talk about interiors. If you’ve ever seen or set foot into the average Japanese home, you immediately remark on its simplicity, straightforwardness, lack of wasted space, and form following function.
This is because, philosophically, Japanese design takes its cues from Taoist philosophy, which was brought over to Japan from China in ancient times. One of its core tenets, courtesy of Laozi, the founder of philosophical Taoism, is the value of emptiness insofar as aesthetics are concerned.
From this belief system, we get the average Japanese interior, which showcases natural and minimalist decoration and touches. This includes materials like bamboo, paper screens, rice straw mats, fine wood, and silk. Note the similarity to Scandinavian design and its own celebration of nature and organic ingredients and materials in its décor and design.
Beauty in Simplicity
In our world full of excesses and kitsch, minimalism is a breath of fresh air. This timeless design concept has been used in various eras throughout human history, and by different cultures, but minimalism, as we know it today, is actually a relatively new concept as far as design is concerned.
Minimalism is always a reaction against unnecessary excess that can obscure great design due to its obsession with ornamentation. This has been the case in art, architecture, web design…you name it.