What defines simple and minimalist design?

In my own designs and those of others I admire, I keep gravitating towards the simple and minimalist. From my own experience I can say that such designs are rarely the result of a simple design process. Taking a straightforward approach usually results in a blunt and uninspired design. A lot of time and effort is required to get the details of a simple design just right in order to achieve a balanced, convincing result. Therefore I am always interested in understanding underlying principles of simplicity in design.

Traditional Japanese design I have been admiring for a long time. During this year, marking the centennial of the founding of the Bauhaus, I learned quite a lot new aspects about Bauhaus design (see my long blog article on characteristics of Bauhaus design). The design philosophies of these two movements are in many ways oppositional, with Japanese design favoring the natural and Bauhaus design favoring the technical and constructed. I asked myself: „How can Japanese design and Bauhaus design, which use oppositional design elements, both appear simple and minimalistic?“.

The infographic below answers this question. The minimalist design movements of Japanese design, Scandinavian design, Brutalist architecture, and Bauhaus designer are characterized by their typical use of forms, colors, and textures. This demonstrates that simplicity and minimalism are not tied to any specific design elements. Rather, a simple design results from the limitation to a small coherent set of elements.

Taking a look at the examples shown on my portfolio page, it becomes clear that I followed the approach of achieving a minimalist effect by using a reduced palette of design elements in most of my designs. Many of my previous blog posts can also be reinterpreted as treating specific simple and minimalist design themes:

There is no denying however that there are specific design elements more often associated with simple (graphic) design. Such simple and minimalis clichés that come to mind are:

  • Use of only black, white and gray colors, possibly with a few highlights in red
  • Use of muted brown colors
  • Black and white photography
  • Flat graphics, possibly contourless
  • Use of geometric sans serif fonts

The photo below shows an example that uses such typical design elements to great effect. The shown page is from the book Den Zweiten Weltkrieg verstehen (English edition: World War II: Infographics) illustrated by Nicolas Guillerat, authored by Jean Lopez, Nicolas Aubin, Vincent Bernard, published by dtv in 2019. The infographics are designed in a flat style reminiscent of Isotype, with a muted color palette. The pages are filled very densely with information, so it can be a matter of debate wether this is a good example of simplicity.

Very interesting results come from using elements not typically associated with simplicity. This results is a simple, yet also unusual and interesting composition. This is an approach I have only used sparsely in my work up to now. Examples are the use of bright orange color in this animation of a critical mass bicycle tour, glowing green in this animation on the same topic, and orange color for this animated chart in dot matrix style.

Below are shown two good examples I recently came across. These posters for the SOS Brutalismus exhibition in Bochum (until 24.11.19, very much worth seeing), are printed in black on bright neon orange, yellow, and green (not shown) paper. The posters were designed by Rahlwes.Pietz.

Another example is the book/comic Shakespeare ohne Worte (shakespeare without words) by Frank Flöthmann, published by DuMont in 2016. The illustrations are made up of circle shapes. The color palette is black, white, green, and reflective shimmering gold.

Besides the use of a reduced palette of design elements, the layout of the elements also plays a role. Simplicity in a layout can be achieved by reducing content and leaving more whitespace, using a simple transparent structure, and including a hierachy with three to five layers based on fractal aesthetics. Simplicity by layout is a topic that warrants a further article.