In search of the new simplicity

Are we witnessing a new wave of minimalism in graphic design? In his book, Min, art director Stuart Tolley sets out to map the apparent desire for simplification and paring back – and explore why this is happening

It’s significant that all the work included in Min: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design was made within the last three years. Each of the projects that Stuart Tolley has assembled in his book certainly point to a no-fuss approach being used across a range of disciplines, from product and packaging design to publishing, identity design and branding.

The question of why minimalist design is appealing (and continues to have appeal) is an interesting one. ‘Minimalism’ itself has rather a divisive history – both minimalist art and music have weathered more than their fair share of tabloid press coverage, for example – but in graphic design, the approach is bedded in with long-established principles of communication and visual clarity.

Used in this way, minimalism in visual communication can be seen as simply doing a job. For example, the road signs that Margaret Calvert designed fifty years ago are minimalist because they needed to display information to drivers as simply and as quickly as possible.

But as function can easily engender a particular look or style, a preference for the minimalist approach can come down to a matter of taste. Take indie magazines. For every reader who enjoys the cool aesthetic of Cereal (below) or Kinfolk, there are others who prefer the raw ornamentation of Buffalo or Polyester.

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One of the theories behind the perceived rise in a minimalist movement is that simple and bold design approaches cut through the messy nature of today’s visual culture.

Shape, colour and type so readily compete for our attention that the resultant clash of voices means we are increasingly being drawn, Tolley suggests, to reduction and white space, off-screen tactility and pure geometric designs.

Min is therefore a showcase of “classic, considered and restrained graphic design that places reduction, not decoration, at the heart of creation.”

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The design of the book is straight-forward as well. Its uniform approach to imagery (Tolley shot over 400 images specifically for publication) is a great way of ensuring harmony between the layout of differing projects.

Each of the three sections (Reduction, Production and Geometry) is introduced via an interview with a leading practitioner – the aforementioned Cereal, agency BVD and the founders of Erased Tape Records – whose philosophy typifies many of the approaches celebrated in the book.

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Min is a great example of an anthology that doesn’t shy away from contextualising the work. Too many collections of this or that visual trend make little attempt to situate the work in a wider context, or to explain how it has come about.

Tolley’s book does this well and with essays on Social Revolution, The Grid, Simplification (all by Tolley) and Excess Meets Less (by Simon Kirkham), subjects as diverse as the art of the First World War and 1950s advertising and consumerism add some interesting background to the story of the work being made today.

The end result is a book that brings together work that is, as Tolley says, much more than “an adopted style – it is a statement of intent”.

Min: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design by Stuart Tolley is published by Thames & Hudson (£24.95). See thamesandhudson.com and transmission.design

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