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Work / Opinion

The minimalism myth – why simplified graphic design isn’t “easy”

For the past two years Stuart Tolley, founder of Transmission graphic design studio, has immersed himself in minimal, simplified, geometric and reduced graphic design, all in aid of writing a new book, MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design which is published by Thames & Hudson. Here he discusses the misconceptions that surround minimalism in graphic design.

I’ve spent a lot of time compiling research, a process in bookmaking that I really enjoy, but was struck by how divisive minimalism can be. People tend to love it, or hate it, and I’ve seen work criticised for appearing too effortless, which really surprised me. Even when explaining my design ideas to friends, I was greeted with the same wise crack: “That sounds easy. Put nothing in the book, that’s what minimal is." Although amusing, it got me thinking why does a simplified approach to graphic design attract these remarks?

One example of this misconception was when the then Tate Gallery was ridiculed for buying Equivalent VIII, a sculptural artwork created by the American minimalist artist Carl Andre. Originally created in 1966, and made from 120 standard household bricks that were arranged on the floor in two layers in a six-by-ten rectangle formation, the artwork was dubbed “the pile of bricks” by the mainstream press. The Daily Mirror newspaper ran a front page at the time, which proclaimed “What a Load of Rubbish” with inference that anyone who had a pile of bricks could have made the work. Obviously not everyone with a pile of bricks would have made Equivalent VIII, which is the point, but the perception stuck that it’s easy to create minimal artwork.

When at its most accomplished, simplified graphic design is so well considered and so well balanced, that it gives the impression that it was created with little effort. It just works. There’s no maxing out textures, filters, layers and ornamentation, so where’s the effort? Take a look at the Ishoku Orange book cover (pictured above), designed by Edited, which is a prime example. The type composition, arranged around the orange hairline circle, which is accentuated with a spot UV varnish inner circle, are all really well balanced. I can only imagine the amount of variations it took to get the final design looking just right.

Simplified graphic design also allows the emphasis to shift towards print production, instead of design ornamentation. One of my favorite examples is the FORMAT box set created by Trevor Jackson, and produced by The Vinyl Factory. It features individual tracks that are each recorded onto a different music format – these include vinyl, cassette, mini disk and reel to reel. The design is a celebration of print production and (some forgotten) analogue music formats, which are adorned by only minimal type design information. Fantastic.

In my new book I’ve aimed to document some of the best examples of contemporary simplified graphic design, which have come to the fore as ornamental graphic design has saturated the market over the last decade. But if you’re still unsure about the creative possibilities of minimal graphic design, please take a look at my book. And incase you’re wondering, no, the inside pages are not blank.

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Stuart Tolley: MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design

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Stuart Tolley: MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design

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Stuart Tolley: MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design

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Stuart Tolley: MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design