Minimalist vs. Superfluous

apple

Many people have made a case for minimalist design and their points are certainly not lost on me. There are several great examples of highly successful campaigns, identity systems, fashion and artwork based on a minimal approach. Apple Computer is the most obvious and arguably one of the most successful examples of minimalism from a corporation of all-time. From their product design to their packaging they employ the less-is-more strategy. It works. Their devices are sleek and get out of the users’ way. Their packaging is simple and sophisticated. Beautiful simplicity.

…Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. -William Strunk Jr. in Elements of Style

Simplicity, however, is not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to present a case for superfluous design. This probably sounds a little crazy. It sound’s crazy because since we began working as professionals in the design industry we’ve fought against the idea that the purpose of our work is to “make it look pretty.” In my experience these comments usually aren’t meant to be condescending, but when delivered by a suited executive of relative power, it carries the implication that design can and will only affect the surface.

Good design can and should affect the functionality and purpose of a document. Effective design brings order, hierarchy and clarity. I believe this to be irrefutable fact and yet, I believe you can achieve these goals while stepping out of the minimalist aesthetic. In the design industry, we refer to superfluous design as “design for design’s sake,” shaking our fingers at ourselves.

But let me ask the question outright-what is wrong with design for the sake of beauty? What is wrong with superfluous design in an effort to stand out. If everyone is doing simple and streamlined, why not break the mold and do something extravagant? One who walks in another’s tracks leaves no footprints.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove. -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Is it? I love this quote and keep it present in my mind when making video editing decisions. But removing all ornamentation is not always the path to perfection. What should we remove from the Sistine Chapel? How would you simplify Takashi Murakami’s work while preserving it’s essence? If simple is perfect why do celebrities and royalty pay a premium price for couture gowns? The true minimalist might say because they are filthy rich, unnecessary and ridiculous. I am not a true minimalist. There is beauty and perfection in detail, too.

murakami

Let us make one last distinction before I finish. There is a difference between superfluous design – or something that contains unessential parts – and an overworked piece of design. One’s definition of necessary is also important in sorting minimal from superfluous. I appreciate you reading my rant, and if nothing else, superfluous is a fun word to say.

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