The minimalism trap

minimalism trap design

The minimalism trap

Form follows function

Form follow function, a mantra designers have embraced since the 19th century (director’s note: this concept originated from an architect regarding architecture, but it was borrowed, or rather, loaned).

In design education, we are taught that decoration is undesirable, and we should eliminate everything unnecessary. Throughout my years of experience, I have noticed how design critics and designers celebrate very simple solutions. Consequently, as designers, we strive to achieve that brilliant simplicity that will be praised for our work (take these words as a given, as I understand that this may not apply to everyone).

For me, being a minimalist is not solely about generating an idea and striving to simplify it as much as possible; it is a way of thinking—a mindset.

To truly embrace simplicity, one must think in a simple manner. It’s not a matter of creating something and then removing elements; rather, it’s about not considering additional elements from the start and expressing the idea in the simplest way possible to enhance understanding. In this way, complex concepts can be communicated through basic shapes, functions, and interactions.

It’s a dialectic, but with shapes instead of words.

So, what happens when you work with these simple shapes? You end up with something basic, something that is within everyone’s reach.

For instance, if you design a stool consisting of a single spherical cushion, it is so basic that someone else could have the same idea. They might make it bigger, smaller, cheaper, or any variation, but ultimately, it remains a simple spherical stool. The same principle applies to more complex shapes as well.

Recently, I came across news that some design pieces by Luca Nichetto have “inspired” major furniture brands in the fashion world. Luca did not stir up controversy but simply shared the similarity on his social media platforms, which attracted numerous journalists eager to delve deeper into the topic. The designer himself acknowledged that such things can happen (it’s not taboo), but the difference lies in how you handle it. There are two excellent articles about this on CieloterraDesign (for Italian speakers) and Design Wanted (for English speakers), where you can explore the matter in detail.

On the left Luca Nichetto’s side tables (2018) – on the right Fendi Casa side tables (2022)

Thus, the minimalism trap lurks around the corner. If it can happen with elaborate pieces, it is easy to imagine how readily it occurs with basic shapes that lean towards minimalism.

How can we avoid falling into this trap?

This is not intended as a design lesson, so I won’t delve deeply into the methodology. However, I would like to share a good example from one of the designers I admire the most—Michael Anastassiades. Moreover, Anastassiades and his team produce and distribute most of his ideas, making it even more challenging to ensure that he is not inadvertently replicating someone else’s work. After all, when you have someone, such as a company, with a third opinion on what you do, they can help identify similarities in the market.

Let’s focus on two examples.

The first is his lamp series for Flos called IC. When you break it down, it’s essentially a light sphere and a metal tube, almost like an archetype. However, what makes it captivating is HOW these elements come together. It’s the interplay of tangency between the two parts that creates a magical effect. No gimmicky shapes, just well-thought-out quality.

IC light collection by Flos, design Michael Anastassiades

The same can be said for the speaker born out of collaboration with Bang & Olufsen. It is a large disk that gives the impression it can roll, yet it remains stationary. Is it super simple? Yes. But have you ever seen anything else like it? Furthermore, its dimensions deviate from the standard.

Beosound by Bang & Olufsen, design Michael Anastassiades

Unconventional yet employing conventional shapes.

The significant challenge lies in aligning various factors: a great idea, simple form, originality, and ease of comprehension.

What I have observed is that, in design with simple shapes, the idea alone is insufficient. It is more like a vital secret ingredient that makes something easy to create and immensely appealing.

If you want to see some examples of unintentional copies, check out Fabio Novembre’s blog called IoNoi (I follow it on Instagram), where he amusingly juxtaposes these unintentional replicas in his posts. Highly recommended!

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it with your community. And if you have any examples of exceptional minimal products, please share them in the comments.

In the next article, I will discuss how to identify talented individuals in the design field.

There are much more articles about design process on the Journal page of this website, check it out.