Have We Reached Peak Minimalism?

Today, this could be anything from a media centre to a faucet.

By Joseph La Delfa.

For the best part of a decade, minimalism has reigned supreme. Straight lines, rounded corners and golden ratios have found their way into every nook and cranny of product design. During this period of stylistic restraint, the default has been conformity over standing out, and subtlety in place of the overt. Impressive materials, highly accurate manufacturing and software interfaces have been achieved through the uncluttered looks of today’s products.  Unfortunately, there have been some losses in the way in which products communicate their purpose to users. This post explores how minimalism has changed the way we interact with products, and asks whether a design counter-reformation of “new-baroque” will sweep iPhones and their ilk from their minimalistic thrones.

Product semantics

Semantics can be defined as ‘derived meaning’. A product’s semantics are the values and emotions conveyed to the user when it is part of their lives, whether the product is in use or not. Attributes like shape, colour, texture, size and weight combine to relay these values and the values of the brand to the user. Earlier this year, designer Ralf Bremenkamp commented on the dwindling connection between user and product resulting from functional or minimalist design languages. His words seem especially pertinent as we see more and more products coming onto the market which use a phone or tablet as their main user interface. Leaving the user with little physical contact with the physical product they have purchased and reducing its effectiveness of conveying brand values – or emotion.

From left to right: Mi Box Mini (Xiaomi), Smarthalo Bicycle Navigation, Antumbra Lighting Interface (Phillips), Canary Home Security, Tado Aircon management.

From left to right: Mi Box Mini (Xiaomi), Smarthalo Bicycle Navigation, Antumbra Lighting Interface (Phillips), Canary Home Security, Tado Aircon management.

Changing of the guard.

Take a look at the complete range of Nokia phones from 1982 to 2006. The number of different shapes and sizes is so immense, it wouldn’t be a stretch to pin every model to a different demographic of the population. Like a lot of product design of this era, these phones were expressive and in turn, so were their consumers. In 2008 the iPhone took out Red Dot’s Best of the Best, also marking the last year a traditional Nokia won an award for the N810. The sparse looking 515 and Lumina are the only Nokias to have ever taken out an award since. This pivotal year marked the rise in in popularity of minimalism. It became the primary objective, causing product design to enter into a self-affirming loop, stripping more and more from a design as it approached the elemental limit of its existence, a square with rounded corners. Peak minimalism.

Today, this could be anything from a media centre to a faucet.

Today, this could be anything from a media centre to a faucet.

When form followed emotion

Browsing through Cobalt’s library for ‘semantics’ yielded a book published in 1999 by Frog Design titled Form Follows Emotion. It’s a detailed catalogue of the esteemed Frog Design’s notable works at the turn of the century – and yet flicking through that book today, the majority of the products will be baulked at. However, if you put aside the current, geometric notions of what ‘looks good’, and recognise that products are of their time, you begin to see movement and feel temperature; your mind grapples with the abstract shapes, trying to identify something it resembles. It is stimulating.

Frog Design, Form Follows Emotion (Watson-Guptill, 1999)

Frog Design, Form Follows Emotion (Watson-Guptill, 1999)

Evolution or Revolution

Minimalism’s popularity over the last decade has made the current generation of technology consumers see value in functionality and usability, and this is a good thing. There’s also no denying the inherent beauty in doing more with less.

However, there comes a minimalist ‘saturation point’ where a product struggles to portray its identity and purpose. When this peak minimalism happens, designers will break away from the rules of geometry and give their products a more expressive form.

History proves that when a style of any creative pursuit has reached saturation, it is violently countered, with the new style opposing almost every value of its predecessor. Art nouveau tessellated into art deco, disco fell to metal and the 1990 Madza 121 is the antithesis of the 1991 Mazda 121. If minimalism reaches saturation we could be holding an ornate iPhone 8 or an organic Samsung S10.

If minimalism continues down its current path, we face the possibility of a reactive breakaway, with minimalism being completely superseded by the next ‘ism’. Revolution however, is not always the case; evolution exists in design also. A gradual breakaway from minimalism as a design mandate will see it share the space with product semantics, which should lead to emotive, responsive, sleek designs. Sony’s DualShock 4 controller is a perfect example of a product with a distinctive style that is adapted rather than abandoned. Players hold both its future and its history in their hands.

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