Less Is More, or How Minimalism
Changed Graphic Design.

From fine arts, architecture, and graphic design, down to the way of life, there’s almost no form of human expression that has escaped the influence of minimalism. Although its roots can be traced as far back as to the 18th-century Zen philosophy values and principles, a global reputation and large-scale impact of minimalism are still notable today.

Graphic designers around the world have fully embraced this trend in the last decade, and the results have been more than encouraging. From start-ups to renowned brands on one side to customers and users on another, the profound interest in clean, elegant websites, classy Instagram feeds, and simple and effective UI/UX interfaces confirms the minimalist trend is truly evergreen.

Hype for minimal forms in graphic design

The origins of the minimalism movement in art and architecture of the Western societies date back to the mid-20th century in the USA, when minimalism was established in revolt against the dominance of abstract expressionism, alarming mass media expansion, and propagation of consumer mentality. “Form follows function, one of the most popular mottos of the design world, was coined at this time, expressing the belief that design must always prioritize usability to aesthetics. Reducing colors, shapes, and forms to elemental simplicity was done with a goal of preserving their fundamental nature.

What this means is that, in its essence, minimalist design was intended to be purely functional. The goal was to empty the work of expression, emotion, and any unnecessary decorations. It was believed that a design product has reached its finest form when no element can be removed (or added) to make the result more complete and functional than it already is.

Fundamental principles of minimalism in graphic design

The first decade of the 21st century will undoubtedly go down in history as the time when the content of all shapes and sizes flooded our world to the point of distressing oversaturation. In a time when bombastic visuals compete to snatch our attention, the comeback of the graphic trend based on the “less is more” principle represents a long-awaited breath of fresh air.

Contrary to the widespread belief, however, there’s more to effective minimal design than meets the eye. The rules behind it may seem straightforward, but polishing the skill of telling a lot by saying a little is a process that takes years of exploration and practice.

It was nobody else but Sullivan’s own protégé, architect and author Frank Lloyd Wright, who gave new life to the “form follows function” maxim. “‘Form follows function’ is mere dogma until you realize the higher truth that form and function are one.”, wrote Wright: “Less is only more where more is no good”. For Wright, function and form were equally important and essentially coherent.

Function embodies purpose. Form embodies appeal.

“Form follows function”, admittedly, makes perfect sense. The logic behind it is impeccable: The way something looks must be influenced by its purpose. A chair can’t stand on two slender legs, a spoon shouldn’t have a large hole in the middle, and designing a beautiful website that doesn’t load properly is far from a job well done.

However, in this time and day, making a solid chair, a decent spoon, or a responsive website isn’t the end of the route. Quite the contrary — it’s only the beginning. We can confidently expect an item designed to serve its purpose well to work more efficiently and last longer than a better-looking competitive product. However, it’s the visual appeal that decides if the human eye will even notice it among other available products with the same function.

Photo by Jan Genge on Unsplash

This attractiveness bias humans have can be easily noticed in our everyday lives. We love things that look good – so much so, that we are often capable of craving something attractive that we don’t even need. Designing to satisfy the functional demands without giving proper thought to the formal appeal of an object or a visual solution doesn’t get designers far in this time and day. Consumers have raised the bar, contributing to the development of contemporary design we know today.

Form and function in the service of human experience

Designing to meet both functional and aesthetic criteria was always a challenge, but with the arrival of the 21st century, the situation became even more demanding. Designers around the world began to actively explore form as a way of communication able to convey emotion through appeal.

“The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have,” said Steve Jobs in an interview for the Wired Magazine in 1996, and this statement still rings true today. Graphic design, for example, especially after the introduction of UI/UX concepts, now focuses on human experience more than ever before. This isn’t just a passing trend — human experience has become a powerful, inherent function all design products must serve.

“Form follows function” is still on everyone’s lips, but in a new, broader meaning. The main question that drives designers toward finding appropriate forms is no longer “What does it do?” It has now become: “What does it communicate?”

Tomcat’s Wine Cellar, limited edition Chardonnay and Merlot packaging concept, April Studio

It’s time for a new credo: Form follows engagement

In the era when user experience prescribes forms and gives a new dimension to every concrete function a design product can serve, conveying messages, evoking emotions, and inspiring engagement become the imperative goals of purposeful graphic design.

Although collectively pursued, driving user engagement is a goal graphic designers often find elusive. Creating forms that convey stories and provoke desired reactions is a process that requires skill, patience, experience, and flexibility.

This is why good design “just works”. It’s always about communication as much as it is about the appeal. Function influences form, and form follows what makes humans feel, react, and engage.

Written by Dunja Sretović, Content Strategist at April Studio

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