Minimalism in The Design of Common Objects

Since I talk about minimalism so much and even have the word included in my site name, I think it’s about time that I write a few articles about the subject. So this is one of them.

I appreciate minimalism because, in a world filled with images and designs all vying for your attention, a minimalist design cuts out the clutter, strips away the unnecessary, and provides a no-frills approach do giving you exactly what you need and letting you do exactly what you want to do. It reduces the choices we have to make while at the same time making it easier for our brains to process information. In a world hyper-saturated with media and graphics and noise and flashing lights, minimalism offers a silent, collected, and hopeful alternative.

Minimalism, at least in relation to design, comes in three different forms. These forms can and often do overlap, but they can be separated into their distinct individual elements. These elements are aesthetic minimalism, functional or utilitarian minimalism, and spatial minimalism.

Aesthetic minimalism is a celebration of the simple design. Iconic logos such of the Mobil pegasus, the Shell shell, the Nike swoosh, the Adidas three stripes, the Target bulls-eye, and the McDonalds arches are simple images that are recognizable the world over without the addition of any text at all. Clean lines, simple shapes, solid colors, cohesive textures, and stark contrasts are the norm here. Consumer goods also benefit from a minimalist design approach. An iPod can be recognized as an iPod from across any room, as can a pack of Newports as the iconic menthol cigarettes that they are.

Functional or utilitarian minimalism applies more to products, and can used when a consumer good has been designed for one or two specific purposes and does those very well. Examples are when a radio is just a radio, an analog watch just has hands, or a coffee pot just brews coffee. This is a rebellion against the scanner-copier-fax-printer, the alarm clock-radio-CD player-tape deck, and the MP3 player-calendar-internet communication device-cell phone. This is when you want something do to exactly one thing, and do it well without the extras because, let’s face it, most times you don’t need them. The last twenty years has seen our companies design product after product and software package after software package packed with features that we will never even read about in the manual, let alone use.

The opposite of the functional or utilitarian design is spatial minimalism. This again applies to products and is used to describe a product that does as much as can be done in the footprint that it occupies. The more it can do in as little physical space as possible, the better. A dominant product of this school of thought is the personal computer that can function as nearly anything to anyone. Accounting tool, music studio, radio, dictionary, home entertainment system, newspaper, telephone, artistic canvas, and so much more - if you can name it, it can probably do it. Spatially minimal products are great when you want to reduce clutter in your living space or multitask without having to physically move. Some of them utilize a minimalist exterior, preferring to have all of the options appear on a screen rather than through knobs, sliders, and buttons. A really good example of this can be seen in the transition from film cameras to digital ones. Settings and options that were once assigned to a few buttons and winders are now available to be scrolled though in a screen. This makes the camera more powerful, but also more complicated to use.

Like I said earlier, these styles of minimalism can overlap. My MacBook is a good example of aesthetic spatial minimalism, while a product like Samsung’s ML1630 laser printer is an example of aesthetic functional minimalism. I’m sure you can find plenty of your own examples as well.

The keys to fully subscribing to minimalism are factoring in price to your purchasing decisions, and disregarding the corporate mandate that New is always Better. While aesthetic minimalism transcends time, functional minimalism is sometimes most evident in older products. Spatial minimalism spans a wide expanse of products and a variety of industries and is fast becoming the norm for consumer electronics.

Important for the aspiring minimalist to realize is that sometimes sacrifice is in order to preserve a uniformly minimal style. Often this means leaving features out of things that you buy. Opting for less powerful but more streamlined and aesthetically beautiful objects bring you back to thinking about why you really needed extra features in the first place. Whether it is a lamp with no ornamentation, a toaster that is brushed metal instead of white plastic, or a car with beautiful lines, these functional items may cost more, but have the added benefit of being something that you enjoy looking at.

And that in itself is beautiful.


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Making The Most of Experiences Both On & Off-Line

On 2/28/09, the Baby Blues syndicated newspaper comic depicted a scene of a man and his young daughter in an ice cream shop.

“I want two scoops with gummy worms, Oreo pieces, M&Ms, chocolate sauce, and sprinkles,” the girl requested.

“But what flavor of ice cream do you want?” asked her dad.

“Does it matter?” replied his daughter.

Does it matter, indeed.

The practice of adding more and more extras until the original item, the fundamental part of the experience, is irrelevant. Does it matter, indeed!

Comics are meant to mirror real life, aren’t they? They’re a great way of bringing out the idiosyncrasies of society; an effective medium for revealing the underlying behaviors that we all practice. So in what other areas besides ice cream selection do we do this? What other experiences do we dilute with extras until the original activity loses its significance?

The first one that came to mind is relationships. In a youth culture in which individuals like to relate to one another through bits of trivia and meaningless connectivity, it becomes easier and easier to objectify people and sort them by their characteristics, their likes and dislikes, and their perceived personality. Someone’s actual character, a thing distinctly separate from personality, becomes pushed further and further into the background. When this happens, finding a potential spouse becomes as easy as making a checklist of attributes, and once you meet someone who fulfills all of them, marriage is not far behind. You don’t want a real relationship with someone who shares your values, beliefs and personal convictions; rather you desire someone who “you can laugh with, someone who appreciates music, the arts, and who is just as at comfortable with a slow night at home as going out and hitting the city night scene.” You’re looking for the extras, the add-ons, to make the experience worthwhile.

Other times, it’s the extras that make the activity even tolerable at all. Would you buy a car with no CD player or cruise control? What about power, heated, leather seats, an iPod hookup, or a video entertainment system?

Because a car doesn’t need any of those things.

But, unless you’re going really really fast, driving is an inherently boring activity. It’s monotonous, not particularly mentally or physically stimulating, and sometimes very nerve-wracking. For many people, driving without being entertained would be interminable. Hence we now have all of these options available on our cars that help us relax and be more comfortable and entertained. This is also, I think, a big part of why we like to talk on the phone and drive.

I’m sure there are more examples of this, but for now we’ll just leave it at driving. The point is that inherently boring activities lightened by extras make them bearable.

Obvious questions arise here. Firstly, we know that this happens - so is it a good thing or a bad thing? If driving is seen as a necessary evil, are things that make it more tolerable acceptable even if they detract from the experience? Most would say yes. Some would even argue that in the case of driving, the add-ons make the experience what it is - i.e. driving IS listening to music. What about in relationships? Is it too much of a stretch to say that the US divorce rate is at 50% because we rush into relationships based on how well our checklist matches the people we meet? This is slightly problematic at best and pathological at worst. And what could this trend hold for he future of society as more and more of it moves online?

The practice of adding extras to enhance boring activities is almost a given in the current state of online universes such as World of Warcraft and Second Life, where something as basic as existing is already boring. Online life, i.e. being a digital avatar in an online world, is without the element of outside forces and randomness that is a innate part of our earthly universe. Things don’t “just happen” to you when you’re in an online world. (And when they do, as in the case of "random battles," they quickly get annoying and we wish them gone.)

Consequently, any enjoyment that you derive from being in an online world is a direct result of the experiences that you initiate. What you get out of acting in an online world is a direct result of what actions you undertake and, accordingly, you almost always get an expected result. You reap exactly what you sow. This set up allows for very little experience to have value, if value is defined as getting more out of something than what you put into it. (For example, if you buy a computer from a liquidating electronics giant for half of its original price, that is a good value - you received a computer that is worth more than you paid for it.)

If you ask people what they most value about life, I think you will find that most people will talk about the little things in life. Things like watching a sunset, staring at the stars, feeling a warm breeze, walking through crunching leaves, getting a hug, or eating a juicy bunch of grapes. A lot of these things are not affected whatsoever by human actions. Some of them are, yes, but a lot of the great things about nature are things that we cannot control. Since we reap the benefits but invest nothing, these are valuable experiences. And maybe more importantly, these actions are unquantifiable.

There are very, very few of these experiences in a controlled online universe as it exists now. Random nice things seldom happen to you, and you must search long and hard to find anything of true value. As more and more interactions take to the online world, and if the digital frontier is the future of human society (and it is) then this problem of lack of intrinsic value will have to be fixed. We will have to find ways to make simply existing in the online realm a valuable experience.

So now not only do we have to scrutinize our off-line lives to see how we can put meaning back into experiences but we have to figure out how to do so in the online world as well. What seems to be a learned behavior off-line is a fundamental part of the online experience. Either we as a society find a way to fix it in both realms or we learn to live with it and thrive off of it - an option that I think is less than ideal. Either way a lot of change is in order, and the sooner we get to work on it the better.


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