Think Small: The Origin of the Minimalist Movement

In recent years, “minimalism” has been a buzzword amongst millennials to describe a simple way of living with only the necessary material items. The definition of “necessary material items” is up to the practitioner but the philosophy is that living in a clutter-free environment provides a sense of mental clarity – a mind free from the distraction of unnecessary or excessive material items. The minimalist lifestyle, as we know it today, adopted the term from the Minimalist Art movement (also known as the ABC Art, Object Art, Primary Structures, & Cool Art) that began in New York during the 1960s. Minimalist Art has also played an active role in the design world, leading in design movements such as Modernism, Futurism, Bauhaus, Pop Art, and the present Modern movement we are in today.

Minimalist Art

Artists like Frank Stella, Agnes Martin, and Carl Andre were most influential during this time, however, never called themselves “minimalist artists.” Minimalism was a direct critique of abstract expressionism and cubism artists of the 1950s. Artists in the minimalism movement believed that art had become too academic and complex – asking too much of the viewer to unpack and also extremely demanding for the artist conceptually.

© Pollock – Krasner Foundation, Inc.;

Minimalist artists wanted to return to pure beauty in its objectivity – remove emotion, symbolism, and metaphor. Oftentimes, these art pieces were sculptures or machine-made pieces described as “impersonal.” This style of art was very unusual at the time. For generations prior, art had always pushed viewers to analyze, dissect, and find meaning. Minimalist art does the opposite.

Minimalist art calls the viewer to become aware of their space and body in relation to the art piece. The viewer is not lost in the ambiguity of an art piece – they are present and see the piece for what it is. Frank Stella famously said:

“What you see is what you see.”

Carmen Herrera, “Estructura Amarilla,” 1966/2016; Courtesy Lisson Gallery;

Characteristics of minimalist design included geometric shapes, squares, rectangles, precise, hard-edges, and few and limited color choices. Less is more from the design perspective. Robert Morris said minimalist design asserts,

“No to transcendence and spiritual values, heroic scale, anguished decisions, historicizing narrative, valuable artifact, intelligent structure, interesting visual experience.” 

Frank Stella, Empress of India II, from Notched-V series, 1968, lithograph on paper. Gift of Marsha L. Vinson and Marvin Rotman, 2014/2.19

Minimalism in Design

In the design world, minimalism has played a considerable role, influencing design movements ever since it began. Although design concepts shift throughout history, one can see the influence of minimalism and the way its values are important in clean logo design, print advertisements, and especially website and app design.

Minimalism remains a strong part of design in today’s world. Following Art Nouveau, a very complex style of design, came Modernism, a design movement that is the complete opposite of intricate design. Strong sans serif typefaces and large areas of color blocking became widely popular. Designers want a brand to be recognizable, memorable, and be able to get the point across in one glance. Not only is this relevant in logo design but also in website design, app design, and everything that has shifted into the digital sphere. Designers want the user to have a lasting impression and experience when they interact with your designs.

User-experience is the most important factor of design. This isn’t simply the way in which a person scrolls through a website, but it is the interaction between what the user is seeing and the action(s) they are taking following that interaction. If users see something compelling, they feel inclined to further investigate and that is what designers aim to do in today’s design era. There are ways to be influenced by all different types of design eras, but ultimately, you want users to understand the message without having to do too much work.

Legendary designers such as Saul Bass and Paul Rand explore space and minimalism differently but still use minimalist influence when designing. Designers can say so much with so little and is a value that guides designers today. The “less is more” concept combined with a strong idea can oftentimes resonate more with your audience for its simplicity and accessibility. The 1959 Volkswagen campaign, “Think Small” is a perfect example of utilizing minimalist design to focus on a message. The ad allows the viewer to have an immediate response. In an era that was focused on ads with 90% copy, “Think Small” broke the barrier, by finding another way to communicate with their audience.

Ultimately, design trends and movements change but minimalism always finds a way to come back. For this generation of users and viewers, with short attention spans on the rise and users expecting instant gratification,  minimalist design seems to fit perfectly. Users want to be able to see a user interface and know exactly what they need to do without looking too much into it. As minimalist artists intended, this type of design leaves less work for the viewer but leaves a difficult job for the designer to be uniquely individual also fit into intended markets.

Here at Kingdom Branding, we ensure that our UI/UX website designs are user-friendly, optimized for mobile, and easy to navigate. We stay up to date with design trends that engage users and ui/ux strategies that provide an excellent user experience.

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