It Isn’t Minimalism

What is minimalism? The New Oxford American Dictionary on my Mac provides the following definition:

minimalism |ˈminəməˌlizəm noun

  1. a trend in sculpture and painting that arose in the 1950s and used simple, typically massive,forms.
  2. an avant-garde movement in music characterized by the repetition of very short phrases that change gradually, producing a hypnotic effect.

Seems like a style of art and music. These days people tend to throw the phrase “minimalist design” around a lot, but does minimalism really apply to design, and if so, what does such design mean? Wikipedia tells us a little more about minimalist design:

The term minimalism is also used to describe a trend in design and architecture where in the subject is reduced to its necessary elements. Minimalist design has been highly influenced by Japanese traditional design and architecture. In addition, the work of De Stijl artists is a major source of reference for this kind of work. De Stijl expanded the ideas that could be expressed by using basic elements such as lines and planes organized in very particular manners.

But wait…a trend in design where the subject is “reduced to its necessary elements”? As opposed to a design where unnecessary elements are added or kept? Isn’t the removal of the unnecessary a definition of what “good” design is? Design is communication. Design is what allows us to interact with our products and make them work. Good design makes this interaction easy. Naturally, good design also tends to simplify, unclutter and organize.

I can see how minimalism can have a clear meaning in art, where the artist is free to create their own rules and ideas. Minimalism is a style that can be characterized by that use of simple, basic forms and white space. But when we apply this term to everyday design, the term begins to lose meaning. Clear, clean and simple design isn’t minimalist. It’s just good, clear design.

Simplicity isn’t a design trend, it’s an attribute of good design.