Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Company X announces a new logo with a buzzword-filled press release. We’ve been hard at work for months in rethinking how to best represent ourselves to our customers, it reads. We think this new logo reflects our values by signaling simplicity and approachability. Can you picture it? It’s a sans-serif wordmark (bonus points if it’s a geometric typeface like Avenir or Proxima Nova. Maybe even Helvetica) and set in a solid color (maybe primary, but ideally a tertiary. Think a cool greenish blue or warm mauvey-red).
What seemed like a fun joke a few years ago quickly moved from trend to meme to the dominant visual style in branding. In the last few years, it seems every big company, from Warner Brothers to PetCo to Mastercard to Sam’s Club has jumped on the bandwagon, stripping their brand down to basic parts, cohering around a homogenized, minimal aesthetic that can sell anything from dog food to data, credit cards to car rides. (There are, of course, brands that divert from this stylistically, but the component parts are the same: flat colors, clean type, and lots of whitespace—using a serif typeface is hardly a differentiator.) In an article for Vox in 2017, the writer Eliza Brooke called this aesthetic “startup minimalism,” following a string of Silicon Valley rebrands including Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Pandora, Spotify, and Uber who all employed new geometric sans-serif wordmarks, effectively removing the personality of the previous identities. Brooke wrote that these new, minimalist logos reflect the products they’re selling, a visual indication of “how that product will be purchased and delivered to the shopper: digitally, easily, inexpensively, and with a smile.”
Minimalism in graphic design can mean all sorts of things in all sorts of contexts but no matter what, it is clearly popular. A search for “minimalist graphic design” on any visual search engine will return an endless stream of movie posters simplified to icons, band posters reimagined as if they were designed by a Swiss Modernist, brutalist websites with default black and white styling, interface mockups stripped of context or detail, and logos upon logos boiled down to basic elements. Medium, which got its own version of a minimalist rebrand, is filled with think pieces about creating minimal designs and simple user interactions. Interface design, too — whether a shopping experience, a mobile app, or social media interaction — is focused on erasing all moments of friction by simplifying the number of clicks, the range of interactions, the paths the user can take through a predetermined flow. One of industrial designer Dieter Rams’s famous maxims, printed on posters in design studios around the world, is “good design is as little design as possible,” and Apple’s Jony Ive echoed this when, referring to a new iPhone, said, “You should almost get the sense that it wasn’t designed at all.” In the early 2010s, Microsoft, Google, and Apple quickly abandoned the 3D, skeuomorphic interfaces (drop shadows, faux leather, and paper textures) in favor of flat design, signaling a return to the Bauhausian principles that materials should reflect their use, and decorative flourishes impeded function.
The history of design is a pendulum, and each new aesthetic and approach is a reaction to what came before it. The “New Wave” postmodernists of the ’80s and ’90s were responding to the strict design systems of the Modernists; the bubbly aesthetics of web 2.0 brands and skeuomorphic interfaces were a visual explosion after years of websites designed by engineers. Yet these movements are largely seen today as outliers: as experimental, diversions, moments of unnecessary indulgence on the designer’s ultimate quest for a simplified world. For much of the Western world, the design history pendulum always, inevitably, swings back to minimalism. What if this recent spate of rebrands, then, is less a passing fad — a lack of creativity among contemporary graphic design — and more a natural endpoint in a profession forever obsessed with simplifying?
What if this recent spate of rebrands is less a passing fad—a lack of creativity among contemporary graphic design—and more a natural endpoint in a profession forever obsessed with simplifying?
The idea that everything could — and should — be made simpler is core to the history of graphic design. The field grew alongside the industrial revolution. At the beginning of the 20th century, as mass production simplified manufacturing processes, moving from the hand to the machine, so too did the work of the designer, moving away from ornate decoration to streamlined “modern” images meant to usher in the technological future. In 1910, the architect and essayist Adolf Loos wrote his famous treatise “Ornament and Crime,” which decried the excessive ornamentation he saw in Art Nouveau and foreshadowed the upcoming Modernist movement. He called ornamentation primitive and wrote that decoration was for “degenerates.” His entire essay, based on a racist cultural superiority, repeatedly uses words like “criminal,” “amoral,” and “barbarian” to describe ornament, comparing the arts and crafts from indigenous populations to that of children. He called for society to move beyond these old ways into modernity: “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament.” The Bauhaus, founded in Germany a decade later and often cited as modernism’s first chapter, saw the political implications of mass production and sought to unify the streamlined manufacturing processes with a matching visual aesthetic. It was at the Bauhaus where Mies van der Rohe, the school’s last director, popularized the phrase “less is more,” becoming the mantra of designers everywhere. Rejecting ornamentation as “pretentious,” many early Bauhaus teachings focused on the abstract reduction of form and the belief that the materials should reflect their use. (Later, the architect Louis Sullivan’s maxim “form follows function” would act as shorthand for Bauhaus orthodoxy.)
We see this echoed in Beatrice Ward’s now-seminal 1927 essay, “The Crystal Goblet.” In an elaborate metaphor comparing typography and printing techniques to wine glasses, Ward, a writer and marketing manager for Monotype, explains that typography is a container for thought, and the design of this thought should not interfere with the message. She writes: “There is nothing simple or dull in achieving the transparent page.” Her essay — still taught to first year design students in many design programs around the country — helped shape the myth that design should be neutral, a clear container for holding content. The International Typographic Style, or Swiss Modernism, ran with this and attempted to create a universal (i.e. neutral) design system that could be applied to any project, anywhere. Massimo Vignelli, perhaps the most famous designer of the era, infamously only used five typefaces his entire career, applying a similar approach across a range of design projects. Many designers still hold up this era as the epitome of good design, and students are taught — both consciously and unconsciously — to strive for the aesthetics of the Swiss Modernists: embrace whitespace, use fewer typefaces, align everything to the grid, In short: simplify, simplify, simplify.
Never mind that none of these designers referred to their work as “minimalist.” Never mind that the writings of many of those theorists, who were responding to particular demands of a particular era, have become the gospel texts of the graphic designer, and their aesthetic a style to be replicated. “Minimalism” and “modernism” have become largely interchangeable, unable to be pulled apart. I’m guilty of it too, frequently asking my own students how they could simplify their projects or to leave more whitespace. Sometimes it’s easier to teach a set of aesthetics rules. Yet for the Bauhaus, less is more was not merely an aesthetic position, but also a political one. The promise of the Bauhausian modernism or the Swiss Modernists was the belief that mass production, intentional use of materials, and functional and modular design were inherently socialist ideals: giving the widest range of people access to the highest quality products. “I think what Massimo saw as the strength of Swiss Modernism was that it was replicable. It wasn’t predicated on inspiration or individual genius or talent,” Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, who worked with Vignelli for ten years, told me. “You could systematize it. I think that’s why it caught on in corporate America.”
Students are taught, both consciously and unconsciously, to embrace whitespace, use fewer typefaces, align everything to the grid. In short: simplify, simplify, simplify.
As Swiss Modernism made its way to the United States, it entangled itself with capitalism evolving into what we now know as “corporate modernism.” In the 1950s and ’60s, as America emerged from the second World War, the country’s biggest corporations hired designers like Paul Rand, Saul Bass, and Lester Beall to update their visual identities. Borrowing from the International Typographic Style of the preceding decades, the logos they created sought to eliminate ornamentation in favor of tightly branded identity systems revolving around carefully drawn, simply constructed marks — a style we might today refer to as “minimalist.” This is essentially how brands are still developed today, especially as the world these brands live in becomes increasingly complex, spread across physical spaces and social media profiles, app icons and YouTube videos. This complexity makes creating a coherent identity all the more important — how does a brand represent itself across a range of media? We can think of startup minimalism not as a new trend but rather a twenty-first century, digital-first update to corporate modernism.
Today, minimalism has been reduced to a buzzword that describes a lifestyle, a type of decorating, an Instagram aesthetic, or a decluttering movement, but its roots are in art history as a term first used to describe the simple, geometric sculptures of Donald Judd or the paintings of Sol Lewitt in the 1960s, right around the same time corporate modernism was taking over American businesses. In 1980, Buzz Spector, a designer, artist, and professor, curated “Objects and Logotypes: Relationships Between Minimalist Art and Corporate Design” at Chicago’s Renaissance Society that put many of the mid-century corporate identities of companies like CBS, IBM, and Chase Manhattan Bank alongside the work of minimalist artists like Judd, LeWitt, and Dan Flavin. Spector drew formal comparisons between the seemingly unrelated work by presenting a consistent philosophical underpinning around the control of space and presentation.
Noting the similarities between how Donald Judd wrote about his sculptures and how George Nelson wrote about developing the Herman Miller brand system, Spector argued that both the minimalist sculptures and corporate logos were “strong reflections of social values.” In an eerily similar context as startup minimalism, Spector writes that the decreased government oversight over corporate mergers following the war allowed for the formation of the first truly big American companies like CBS, IBM, International Paper Company and Merrill Lynch ( that era’s Facebook, Google, and Apple). Both the artist and the graphic designer, Spector writes, share a “common faith in the efficacy of form as a means of restructuring society through public exposure to works executed within particular systems of use.” These “systems of use,” Spector notes, can be seen in both the detailed instructions artists supplied galleries in displaying their work and the brand guidelines produced by designers outlining how a logo could and could not be used. For the graphic designer, the single iconographic logo was the visual analogue for the corporate mergers. They helped the companies grow while presenting themselves in a simple, clean manner. In other words, their logos made them approachable.
We can think of startup minimalism not as a new trend but rather a twenty-first century, digital-first update to corporate modernism.
But as ideology became dogma, minimalism was flattened to a style, stripping it of its socialist ideals and turning it into something that can be marketed, a signifier of taste. (The clearest example of this might be the publisher Standards Manual, which has largely built its business in recent years through fetishizing the minimalist logos from history by republishing mid-century brand guidelines as glossy table books.) In 2015, while a graduate student at Maryland Institute College of Art, designer and brand consultant Sally Maier began exploring the various aesthetics of high and low cultures. Her thesis, Design Dissection, uncovered how ideas around minimalism subtly signal different values. She found that the more minimal an advertisement’s design, for example, the more expensive the product it was marketing. On the flip side, more visual complexity and larger text on an advertisement often meant cost and affordability played a bigger role in a potential buyer’s decision. “It’s like the hoarder mentality. You sometimes see rich hoarders, but it’s usually associated — class wise — with poverty,” she continues, “You want to keep everything because you might not be able to afford it. Emptiness, on the other hand, shows that you have the luxury to decide what to fill or not fill your space with.” (As da Vinci supposedly said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”) The same, it turns out, is true in graphic design. Maier diagrammed the whitespace of magazines ranging from high-end fashion magazines to grocery store tabloids. Cross-referencing this research with readership data, she discovered magazines with more whitespace typically had a readership with a higher average income. It’s a surprising correlation, but it shouldn’t be. Whitespace is, quite literally, expensive — more whitespace means more pages and more pages means more money.
“From the beginning of your design education, you are trained to appreciate minimal design,” Maier told me. “It signifies intention. You’re trained to see all the decisions that are being made. This is why you see those logo redesigns where they draw those fake grids on top — it’s saying, ‘look, I thought about this.’” I see this in my own students every year: At the beginning of class they always want to add more, to fill up every corner of the page or the screen. Minimalism, for them, isn’t sophisticated, it’s boring. I don’t blame them for thinking this. They are surrounded by a flood of images all the time — on Instagram and Tiktok, on t-shirts and storefronts — and they see it all as equally interesting. So why do we value whitespace? Why do we ask our students to only use a few typefaces in a composition? Because that’s how we were taught? Because this is what separates the professional from the amateur? Because the theories of designers a half-century ago got lost in translation and reduced to a style? We must not confuse simplicity with clarity, minimalism with readability, approach with aesthetics. “What if you saw the daily evidence piled up around you that the world operated with thousands of visual codes, but somehow you would not be taken seriously if you used any of them other than the desiccated form that modernism had devolved into?” Lorraine Wild wrote in her brilliant essay Castles Made Of Sand. “Could you be forgiven, perhaps, for beginning to suspect that what you were being taught was not actually modernism at all, but habit? Or bizarre fraternity rituals?”
Whitespace is, quite literally, expensive — more whitespace means more pages and more pages means more money.
In his recent book on the cultural history of minimalism, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, Kyle Chayka argues that minimalism always obscures complexity: The minimalist interface you use to order your takeout, for example, sits above a complex network of gig workers that make sure your ramen is still warm when it arrives. The simple presentation hides the complicated system just below the surface, whether that is the infrastructure for data collection or the multi-conglomerate corporation. (The digital design version of this is the hamburger menu: It gives you a clean layout before revealing an anxiety-inducing number of buttons hidden behind it.) The company wants to appear friendly so it can take your data, the magazine with lots of white space is accessible only to a wealthier readership, the invisible interface is filled with dark patterns to get you to buy, share, browse, or search more.
“Design is all about desire, but strangely this desire seems almost subject-less today, or at least lack-less;” wrote the art critic Hal Foster in his essay Design and Crime, a loose-reinterpretation of Loos’ essay. “That is, design seems to advance a new kind of narcissism, one that is all image and no interiority — an apotheosis of the subject that is also its potential disappearance.” This is the limit of the Modernist project and the blindspots of its creators. The very promise of modernism — its modularity and replicability — is what made it a convenient tool for capitalism, turning it into a style that helped usher in our current aesthetic blandness. In trying to be everything it becomes nothing. Call it modernism, flat design, or minimalism, but in the end, the variations on this style have evolved to primarily communicate an aesthetic, or a false idea of taste. Today, the message is the design itself.
This erases the vernacular of local cultures and the plurality of human experience — race, gender, class — reinforcing the myth that design decisions are neutral while creating aesthetic hierarchies of good and bad design. What started as a utopian ideal leading us into an egalitarian future, inevitably would become another system of oppression, pushing the tastes of the few onto the many. It should be no surprise that most of the names mentioned here were white and male. (And what of Adolf Loos? He was tried for pedophilia, so maybe he’s not the guy whose racist tastes we should be perpetuating.) To resist these narratives takes more than new maximalist logos, but that’d be a start. “If graphic design reflects the society we live in, it also plays a role in reflecting, perpetuating, and maintaining the social and cultural structures in which we operate,” wrote Jen Wang in an essay called Helvetica, Modernism and the Status Quo of Design. “We need to challenge the foundation of design practice, to contextualize the history and social role of design as a buttress to imperialism, and to create space in design education for broader explorations of design aesthetic.” In a moment where we are rethinking how we talk about design history, decolonizing the industry, and rethinking design’s relationship to power, perhaps this is also a chance to rethink the cultural signifiers we give to what we call “good design,” or why we value whitespace, or why we still think that less is always more. This could be the beginning of the pendulum swinging back. Until then, to crib the architect Robert Venturi: Less is a bore.