Is graphic design, with its allusions and clutter, fundamentally antithetical to minimalism?
Interiors magazines and the architectural journals bulge with photographs of houses, offices and shops styled in the frill-free rigour of the new urban minimalism. If these publications are to be believed, we have all abandoned excess in favour of a pared-down metropolitan monasticism; we have renounced the superfluous in favour of the essential. Minimalism, or so it seems, is everywhere and not just in the lofts of New York fashion czars. In the manicured room-sets that fill the magazines we search in vain for many of the familiar appurtenances of modern living: piles of dust-attracting books, for instance. In the new minimalist credo, books represent unacceptable clutter; they are as intrusive as chintz-covered sofas, old bicycles or Dralon-bound collections of tv listings guides.
It is a nice irony therefore, that we are currently deluged with books on the subject of minimalism. Even the architect John Pawson, undisputed heavyweight champion of minimalism – the King of Clean, the Emperor of Less, the Nabob of Nothing – has contributed to this trend. In fact, with the publication of his 1996 book Minimum, 1 he might be said to have started the flood-tide of literature devoted to the subject. Profoundly influential, his book led to minimalism becoming one of the dominant terms in the 1990s lifestyle lexicon, as well as instigating a lively discourse about minimalism as “a way of life”.
But the cult of minimalism is not confined to architecture and interior design. Minimalism in art can hold its own (and has done so since the early 1960s) with any of the -isms that populate the contemporary art scene. Notions of minimalism infuse music, film and literature, but what about graphic design? Of course, the notion of restraint has always been a favourite battle cry for graphic designers. As designers, we urge our clients to use restraint, we extol the virtues of “white space” and we remind ourselves that “less is more”. But is this the full extent to which minimalism pervades graphic design? Is minimalism attainable within contemporary graphic design?
Judging by the number of books devoted to the subject, we might be forgiven for assuming that the answer is yes, and that minimalism is flourishing. Yet in Minimalism, 2 an exhaustive survey of minimalist art, the writer and art historian James Meyer defines it thus: “Minimal work does not allude to anything beyond its literal presence, or its existence in the physical world. Materials appear as materials, colour (if used at all) is non-referential.” This takes us to the nub of the matter; graphic design is by its nature almost entirely referential, and therefore – we are forced to conclude – antithetical to genuine minimalism.
In graphic design, especially in its contemporary practice, every mark, every colour, every font, every reflex, is required to mean something. Graphic design is never allowed to be itself. Everything is symbolism, everything serves an ulterior purpose. Read the design press and observe the way designers speak. They “create a feel”, “inject a mood” or “make references to”. They use colour and typography that “suggests the rising sun”, “evokes feelings of nostalgia” or “reflects brand heritage”. This is the depressing lingua franca of contemporary graphic design, cliché ridden, repetitive and reminiscent of what the critic and satirist Victor Lewis-Smith, calls the “Mmmmm lovely” language of tv cookery programmes.
Three recent books deal with the subject of minimalism in graphic design, and while none of them engages in minimalist theorising to the extent found in John Pawson’s writings, each raises important questions concerning the nature of minimalism in the current practice of graphic design. In a wafer-thin introduction to her book Minimal Graphics, The Powerful New Look of Graphic Design, 3 author Catharine Fishel explains the “new look” thus: we are, she claims, in the process of rejecting “a decade of distended, layered, filtered, fragmented, disordered and reassembled graphics” and although she doesn’t name them, she presumably has David Carson and the post-Raygun school of graphic iconoclasts in her cross-hairs. However, the alternatives she offers us in her book are, for the most part, a dull and unremarkable catalogue of professional graphic design that contributes little to the notion of a genuine minimalist aesthetic at work in graphic design.
In fact, many of the items included here would be equally at home in a book entitled “Busy and Really Rather Complex Graphics”. For example, the Microsoft Delivery Bus by cult ny artist Michael Bartalos makes Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster bus (or the psychedelic charabanc from Magical Mystery Tour) look like paradigms of heroic restraint. Bartalos is an important visual artist – he designed the original logo for the record label Ninja Tune – but he is hardly a minimalist. And although some of the items featured in Fishel’s book make a vague genuflection towards minimalism, the majority of work selected is a bewildering collection of stylistically indeterminate commercial graphic design. If this is minimalism, then it’s ersatz minimalism.
The most erudite of the three books is Steven Heller and Anne Fink’s Less is More. 4 Subtitled “The New Simplicity in Graphic Design”, the book is a worthy investigation into the subject of this ethos in contemporary graphics. In a series of essays, Eye contributor Heller brings his customary rigour to bear on the subject and the book emerges as a booster-ish manifesto for simplicity in graphic design. For Heller, one of the reasons for the current taste for uncluttered design is little more than the workings of the Zeitgeist; what he calls “currents
in the wind”. However, he also sees it as a serious rejection of the “more is more” virus that has infected graphic designers over the past decade.
It is no part of Heller’s thesis to claim minimalist status for graphic design. Indeed he avoids the “m” word – perhaps sensing that it has little currency in graphic design – and talks instead about “simplicity, economy and reduction”. It is hard to disagree with Heller’s fair-minded and perceptive survey of design trends (he seems equally at home discussing Cranbrook-influenced deconstruction and early twentieth-century American woodblock advertising) but it is possible to take issue with his choice of work, and to ask whether the examples shown can be legitimately described as representative of the “less is more” ethos. As with Fishel’s book, Heller and Fink confine themselves to mainly American work. My guess is that if these books were compiled from European sources, and the same editorial philosophy applied, both books would be vastly different. Within current European practice, very little of the work included in either of these books would attract the epithet “minimal”, or even, for that matter, “simple”.
Is this an American phenomenon? Is the American media ecology so message-laden that the genuine expression of minimalism in graphic design is nigh on impossible? Certainly, visiting New York or la tends to confirm this. The omnipresence of graphic design in these cities is almost suffocating: it envelops us with its ubiquity; it dogs our every move as we flit about the urban landscape; it follows us wherever we go, shouting at us at every turn. Nevertheless, Heller and Fink provide a few instances of work that are undeniably sparse and empty. Two striking examples come from the world of publishing. Designer Michael Ian Kaye’s cover for An Underachiever’s Diary is impressively “underachieving” in its bald starkness. Similarly, Rudy VanderLans’s cover for Emigre no. 39 is severely empty.
But elsewhere, too much of the work included is run-of-the-mill graphic design from the powerhouse studios of America. What possible justification can there be for the inclusion of the Harley-Davidson catalogue (Designed by Josh Schreiber, Ken Fox, Fletcher Martin), or the spreads and covers for Martha Stewart Living magazine (Designed by Eric A. Pike)? These, and other examples, undermine Heller’s argument. When he lauds the “new simplicity”, surely he cannot be referring to these worthy, but undeniably fussy designs?
A more adventurous and aesthetically stimulating attempt to define minimalism in contemporary design is made by Alexander Gelman in Subtraction. 5 Gelman, creative director of New York consultancy Design Machine, nails his colours to the mast from the outset with an authentically minimalist front cover to his book (if either Fishel or Heller and Fink had included Subtraction’s splendid cover in their books, they would have enhanced their arguments greatly). Gelman slightly mars his minimalist credentials by resorting to a subtitle. “Aspects of Essential Design” is suitably concise as subtitles go, and it only appears on the spine, but in the spirit of the book he might have “subtracted” this inessential appendage. However, it should be noted that he refers to “design” only, thus freeing himself from the restriction of seeking “subtraction” in graphic design.
Gelman sets out his views in brief but illuminating commentaries appended to each picture selection, and Mel Byars and Baruch Gorkin echo and amplify these thoughts in two short essays. Subtraction takes as its premise the Pawson-esque notion that it is what is subtracted, and not what is added, that defines “design essentialism”. Gorkin notes that it is a “. . . willingness to give up something known,” that is the hallmark of greatness and Gelman articulates this persuasively through his “picture-thesis”. The book shares more than a philosophical affinity with John Pawson’s Minimum. Both books feature a b-2 Stealth Bomber, and both offer an invigorating selection of unexpected images. But it’s here, in its catholic selection of examples (Japanese wooden slippers, Rachel Whiteread’s Water Tower installation, Rei Kawakubo tailoring) that Subtraction exposes the lack of genuine minimalism in graphic design. Gelman shows a few items of austere typography, logos and graphical material, but to make his point, he is forced to drift beyond the shoreline of graphic design. And by doing so, Gelman comes much closer than the other two to engaging in minimalist theorising on a par with Pawson and the artists featured in James Meyer’s book.
On the basis of these three books, the claim for minimalist status for graphic design appears to fail. Graphic design, it seems, can only fleetingly attain the levels of abstraction and selflessness of a work by Carl André, Donald Judd or Dan Flavin. It is tempting to suggest the reason for this is typography, the basic dna for nearly all graphic design. With their semiotic intrusiveness and constant, unavoidable assertion of “meaning”, do words preclude genuine minimalist expression? This point is made in the September 2000 issue of i.d., devoted to that publication’s annual design awards. The magazine’s graphics jury (Sean Adams, Janet Froelich, J. Abbott Miller and Paul Sahre) picked out Line Form Colour, an Elsworth Kelly monograph, for an award. An editorial notes approvingly that Kelly’s images are not “marred by typography”. It is as though Kelly’s images would somehow be contaminated by typography; their essential minimalism compromised by language.
In his book Minimum, John Pawson makes no mention of graphic design; it doesn’t figure in his survey of grain silos, Japanese garden design and vast concrete dams. But one can guess his opinion. In his ascetic worldview, we are “drowning in objects”. We are surrounded by too much information, too much muddle and too much stuff that we simply don’t need, and into this catalogue of the inessential, we are forced to include graphic design. We are certainly drowning in it.
First published Eye no. 38 vol. 10, 2000