Posted By Neale Van Fleet on May 23rd, 2018
Despite this post’s title, I’m going to start by talking about minimalism.
I’ve been at least a partial follower of the minimalist Steve Jobs/Jony Ive school of design since I was a teenager. Early on, Jobs famously lived in a mostly-empty home (as seen below), and he eventually minimized his wardrobe to the same bespoke turtleneck, Levi’s jeans, and New Balance sneakers. I looked up to Steve as a pioneer of interface design, and took on some of his minimalist ideals.
Steve probably wasn’t the best host for a movie night with friends.
Photo credit: Diana Walker
Being the son of an auto mechanic, however, I likely have a less high-minded approach to design than Steve had. I see minimalism as more of a tool than a religion. I also like to have furniture in my house.
From 1x to 2x
Minimalism in UI design most recently came into vogue shortly after the adoption of ultra-high resolution (“Retina”) displays. Decorative elements had less appeal when everything on screen looked so nice and crisp. Like many designers, I followed Apple’s lead on iOS 7, and purged my work of textures, drop shadows, and glossy finishes.
Flatter app icons in the style of iOS 7
Photo by William Hook on Unsplash
I’ve mostly maintained these minimalist ideals in my designs, but outside of work, I’ve increasingly found myself drawn to things that are complicated, chaotic, and full of surprises.
So I’d like to take a couple minutes to celebrate some great things that shun the idea that less is more.
The Sagrada Família
Seeing Antonio Gaudí’s sublime church, the Sagrada Família, in Barcelona is what first made the idea of maximalism pop into my head. I thought “I’m always trying to pare things down, but this place does the exact opposite, and it’s wonderful”.
Partial tours are available of the cathedral, which has been under construction since 1882, and at best will be completed in 2026.
One small corner of the massive church
Photo by Rutger Lanser on Unsplash
The Sagrada Família is decidedly not an exercise in removing every unnecessary thing until the platonic ideal of a cathedral remains. Instead, it is the chaotic addition of more and more, until every space is overloaded with surprises. Every single crevice of this building, inside and out, is filled with carvings, statues, stained glass, engravings, and shafts of coloured light. Exploring the building puts one in a constant state of discovery and delight.
Next is the ridiculously epic tabletop combat game Gloomhaven, which is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Gloomhaven comes in a 20+ pound box, and takes 100+ hours to complete. The total number of figures, cards, and pieces in the game is in the neighbourhood of 2000. It’s not without elegance, but it is definitely not minimal.
Some of what comes in the Gloomhaven box. This isn’t even all of it.
Photo by Darcy Pennell on Board Game Geek
Gloomhaven is the first game I’ve tried that’s worthy of the word “epic”. It will realistically take me years to finish, and even then I’ll probably only ever see a small percentage of the content in that mammoth box. Knowing there’s so much in there I’ll probably never see is actually part of its appeal.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
There is nothing subtle about this show.
I don’t much care for fashion or makeup, and my wardrobe is a muted rainbow of drab colours and earth tones. So I’m as surprised as anyone that a television show about people dressing up in gaudy outfits and garish makeup is one of my very favourites.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” is basically an outright rejection of subtlety, with one judge even outright stating that he “hates minimalism”. It’s unabashedly over-the-top. I’m a sucker for watching skilled people do their thing, whatever it is, and this show is packed with exactly that.
Drag Race miraculously takes what could be flaws and turns them into strengths. Endless corny jokes, over-acting, and garish colours are woven into a uniquely compelling extravaganza.
Maximalism as a Tool
All these maximalist things use their expansiveness for different effects. For the Sagrada Família, maximalism creates a sense of wonder. In Gloomhaven, it gives the world an epic feel. RuPaul’s Drag Race uses maximalism to create a sense of celebration. The idea that minimalism, or any other style, is superior to all other aesthetics is silly—all of these things would be much worse if done in a minimalist style. The style of something should follow its goals.
Where Apple’s Minimalism Has Gone Wrong
While thinking about maximalism, I also got to thinking about Apple’s recent excesses of minimalism. Apple deserves tons of praise for their transformative design work, but recently, it’s seemed as though the company has forgotten why they’re pursuing things. There has been a great deal of pushback on recent designs, most notably with the finicky keyboards and lack of ports on their recent laptops, as well as a lack of progress on their pro-level Macs. There are undoubtedly many reasons for these issues, but it seems to me that part of the problem is that Apple is more concerned with making their products minimal than making them useful.
Apple is a company with strong design in their DNA. Since the days of Steve Jobs, they’ve sought to make tools that are as simple as possible, while still enabling the user to accomplish their goals. Recently, however, it seems like they’re making things simpler at the expense of being able to get the job done. It increasingly feels like Apple is following the path of minimalism because it’s something they’ve done in the past, and not because of a clear understanding of how that minimalism actually helped people work.
Similarly, Apple’s obsession with getting manufacturing tolerances ever more exact seems to have moved beyond the point of it actually bringing any benefits. A few years ago, making parts out of precision glass and aluminum led to rugged and well-wearing products. Adding an additional decimal point to their manufacturing precision seems only to have resulted in keyboards that can be rendered unusable by the tiniest speck of dust.
Apple’s recent MacBooks Pro famously cut ports and computing power in exchange for being smaller and simpler.
Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash
I applaud their pursuit of progress in design and manufacturing, but minimalism in itself is an empty pursuit—helping people work or play should be the goal. Relentlessly cutting features, size, and especially ports for its own sake eventually leads to negative returns. People, especially professionals, have the capacity to handle complexity. We need look no farther than the wonderful maximalist examples previously mentioned to prove that.
Apple’s relentless pursuit of minimalism for its own sake was perhaps best lampooned in The Onion’s video: “Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard“. It was posted in 2009, but it has never felt more relevant than now.
As far as my own design inspirations go, I still love simple things like a beautiful Dieter Rams-designed radio, or a wabi-sabi inspired garden. I live in a small apartment and try to minimize the quantity of stuff I own, while striving to keep things of high quality. Still, it’s good to recognize that not everything needs to be simple, minimal, or elegant. There is also a place for the big, the bold, and the over-the-top.