Minimalism vs. Ornament: Is Either More "Relevant?"
It’s an age-old conflict, and a recurring one throughout history. For the better part of a millennium, Japanese practitioners of ikebana, or flower arranging, have used only a few flowers and twigs to evoke much more complex concepts. Meanwhile, since time immemorial, royalty and wealthy families have paid fortunes for elaborate palace gardens filled with rare flora and maintained by professionals.
A century ago, in architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright fought for organic, minimalistic structures while, at the same time on the other side of the world, Antoni Gaudi was crafting elaborate and often improvised designs that were widely celebrated for opposite reasons.
More recently, in fashion, Diane von Furstenburg created the wrap dress, which has become ubiquitous worldwide for its simple functionality. But at the same time, Vivienne Westwood was crafting punk-inspired outfits resembling explosions of different colors and textures, topped off with stage makeup and extreme platform heels (the bane of models who had to walk in them).
But what does all that mean for us graphic designers, web designers, and 21st century creatives?
Well, everything. For print designers, it can mean a difference of thousands in your budget, and go a long way toward determining the look of your piece. The same goes for web design, with the added layer of complexity that comes from people having to interact with it. And in interface design, it can mean the difference between an intuitive program and one that takes much more time to figure out.
So it’s a huge topic, but let’s give as good an overview as we can.
Minimalism’s greatest asset is its utilitarianism. Since its focus is often on using simple shapes, patterns, and negative space to the greatest possible effect, it essentially gets out of the way and lets the content shine.
For example, Like Wright’s designs were famous not just for their simplicity, but for their integration with their environment. Flat websites (especially ones with solid white or black backgrounds) make excellent showcases for large, colorful photos, as they don’t draw the viewer’s attention away from the picture.
Image from Nicolas Tarier Photography
But that doesn’t mean the design itself can’t be beautiful, or contain much more complexity within how it’s put together. In ikebana, using only a few twigs and flowers, artists not only balance positive and negative space, but also evoke lines, shapes and forms. And in minimalist design, especially in the more experimental frontier of web design, plenty of artists have managed to create stunning results using the same principles, except with geometric fonts and flat icons in place of plants. See our article on the universal basics of design to see why it works in both media.
A lot of it is about the statement you want to make. Minimalist designs are particularly well-suited for companies that know what they do and want to convey the fact that they are effective at it. Like traffic signs, simple because they need to convey a message quickly, straight-to-the-point design works for straight-to-the-point uses.
Image from 450GSM via Flat UI Design
Minimalism has its share of pitfalls too, though. When it goes through a period of popularity, it makes it much harder for a designer who uses it to stand out. While Furstenburg’s wrap dress was a game-changer when it was created, it’s now been copied thousands of times by countless designers, and no variation of it is likely to stun anyone anymire. And ikebana? It’s an extremely rigid artform that doesn’t allow for much innovation.
So what does this mean in modern terms? It’s very easy for your work to end up looking like a million other peoples’ work, because of the restrictions involved. Flat design, let’s be honest, is rapidly starting to get boring. And it’s not just because of its ubiquity, it’s because it inherently doesn’t allow for very much variation. Everyone’s using the same stripped-down icons, the same handful of font styles, and many of the same single-page layouts. And while having those standards makes it easier for some, it’s not exciting to most.
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Finally, there’s one thing that sits between the pros and the cons: Minimalism is often a challenge to the artist or designer.
Ornament can cover up for a lot of flaws, but minimalism isn’t forgiving. Having tons of features and pretty design elements can cover for a solid foundation. However, if your site is fundamentally badly-designed, then cutting away the fluff will only reveal that more. You can be a jack of all trades, but can you master one?
Gaudi’s work is breathtaking. His often-improvised designs were widely celebrated for their curves, sculptures, and elaborate flourishes with plenty of nature and religious motifs. The immense effort he put into his work made him widely celebrated and a candidate for sainthood, which might be a good argument for ornamentalism in and of itself.
And although the wrap dress has lost its impact, Westwood’s designs are still striking even decades after they were first created. And look at decorative landscaping, hedge mazes, and topiaries. No real use for these things, but they still blow viewers away with the creativity and skill they take to make. .
Same goes for most cases of ornament in design. Elaborate hand-lettering, websites full of flash elements, and decorative interfaces might not move more products immediately, but they’ll certainly give your brand a reputation as one that cares about craftsmanship, which can definitely help you sell more in the long run.
Design studio 2Advanced’s website, a hurricane of animations and flash elements, certainly demonstrates the kind of work they’re capable of.
As an aside, a particular topic of debate in web design has been skeuomorphism, or design that’s intended to look like equivalent things in the real world. (E.g.: clock apps that look like analog clocks.) This school of thought, when applied correctly, can create designs and icons that are much more memorable, appeal to familiarity or nostalgia, create a visual message that will ‘stick’ with a user much longer than a flat, icon-based design.
The virtual band Gorillaz’ old website was an elaborate virtual environment that took you through 200 simulated rooms of the band’s headquarters across multiple timelines and included hundreds of sound bites, video clips, and even flash games. Not strictly necessary, but very popular with the fans.
Gaudi’s magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia, isn’t expected to be completed until 2026, a full hundred years after his death. That’s the main problem with ornament: it takes forever both to design and implement, and projects that keep having details added to them can easily blow past deadlines and through budgets.
And if you focus too much on form over function, form can get completely neglected, and you’ll end up with something that has little practical use. The safety-pin-intensive style that Vivienne Westwood introduced to a larger audience isn’t very practical anywhere outside a runway. (Neither are those heels). And decorative landscaping may be stunning, but it’s extraordinarily expensive unless you learn the skills yourself.
So what can we take away from this in the modern era? First, it might not be practical for your audience, especially when it comes to web design. Remember, when creating a website, that it’ll be viewed on multiple platforms. What looks stunning on a computer might be impossible to navigate on a mobile phone. It also can be expensive if you need to hire outside devs to handle the extra coding or outside artists to create the additional graphic or video elements. Ornament can also make things harder to navigate, especially on websites where the readers are short on time. Put simply, all those flourishes don’t come easy.
German website Fontwalk is considered an art masterpiece, but an unintuitive and opaque one. It also took 4,500 lines of CSS code to animate: no small time investment.
In short, these two approaches are, essentially, equally valid in terms of artistic merit. So it’s all down to what you’re going to use it for and which one your project makes it more practical to implement.
Use minimal designs when you’re most concerned with presenting your website’s message, product, or images in as straightforward a manner as possible, without the site itself getting in the way. It’s also a solid choice for when you have to get something up and running on a budget or time limit. And don’t forget that simplicity can often be much more elegant.
But when you have the time and the passion to put into it, ornament can still be its own reward. It can add a ton of immersion and visual interest to a project, and after all, there are worse things to spend your budget on than creating a rich experience for your viewers.
C.S. Jones is a freelance writer, artist, and photographer.\r\n\r\nIn the past, he co-founded an art gallery and worked at a product photography studio. These days, he does photo tutorials (and gigs), online copy, and content marketing for a living. He also writes about webcomics at Webcomicry.com…View More Posts