On Minimalism and Gracelessness

Piet Mondrian's Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red, 1937-42I’ve been troubled by minimalism for a while now, beginning near the end of my study of Interactive Media Design a number of years ago. I remember sitting in a class which sought to strengthen our portfolio development. The subject was raised as to what a student more versed in development rather than design should do in order to compete with more polished, aesthetically-pleasing, designerly portfolios.

“Keep it simple and call your style ‘minimalist.'”

I have the utmost respect for the instructor (and this “tip” was delivered with the sort of dry wit we had come to expect of him), but it struck me then the problem with minimalism. Unlike nearly all other stylistic descriptors, it’s defining characteristic is the absence of elements.

This statement is surely an oversimplification, but it is authentic. Wikipedia describes minimalism in art and design as work which is “stripped down to its most fundamental features”. Dictionary.com describes minimalism in music as “reductive” and possessing “minimal embellishment or orchestrational complexity”.

Stripped down. Reductive. Minimal. Minimalism.

Minimalism, when executed correctly, is powerful and moving. To make the greatest impact in the most economic way should be the goal of any designer (and certainly a fair share more artists). But any term encompassing the art of reduction is a natural target for the lazy and careless.

As a designer and instructor, I’ve seen peers and students alike justify ham-fisted work under the guise of minimalism. Their work is not minimalist, but graceless. The absence of extranious elements is not the result of careful deduction, but of careless convenience. The former deliberate, the latter unsophisticated.

When I design, I will determine if my compositions are born of purpose or convenience. I will strive to promote minimalism over gracelessness in my work.

An excerpt from the letters of Piet Mondrian (Wikipedia):

I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of thingsā€¦

I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.

Responses

matt says

It’s interesting, while ‘stripped down’ is a good way of communicating the appearance of minimalism, though I’ve always thought of it from the opposite direction: rather then taking something complex and stripping it down to arrive at minimalism, I’ve always thought of it as starting with nothing then adding to it until you have exactly enough to meet the objective. Is there a technical term for ‘knowing when a project is done’? Like, knowing that the piece is finished and you don’t need yet another layer of paint? Minimalism seems particularly instructive for that sort of thing.

Responded

Tyler Sticka says

Your comments are valid when applied to the process of minimalism, but not necessarily the final result.

My lowbrow un-cool comparison: Marvel’s superhero Daredevil was created by taking a boy and adding crazy chemicals to his eyes, giving him super senses. His defining quality is that he can’t see. Minimalism is the Daredevil of art techniques; crazy-talented magic resulting in effective, yet reductive, final products.

Responded

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