Simple or minimal?

October 26, 2009

There is a discussion going on amongst some of my colleagues about the merits of minimalism versus simplicity.

My own view is that minimalism has come to represent a style and as such is limited in its usefulness. It represents a reaction to complexity whereas simplicity relies on an understanding of the complex. This is an important difference. One is about the surface, about the stuff. The other is about our experience and requires a deep appreciation of how things work so as to make them just simple enough.

Minimalism is often all too obvious while great simplicity can be practically invisible. John Maeda of course talks far more eloquently than I about simplicity in his book of the same name.

I often look back to design history to find the best examples of simplicity. Sometimes it is the result of great restraint on the part of designers but sometimes it is a result of the limitations of technology. One example of just such an historical example is one that I personally experience every time I drive my nearly fifty year old Porsche 356 in the dark. With any modern car I find night time driving a disembodied experience with a Times Square like display of instrument lighting acting as a barrier between me and the world through which I am driving. My ancient old Porsche has no such isolating display. Instead I can see two crescent shaped slivers of light emanating from the headlights on the front edges of the hood. These perfectly designed beacons help connect me to the world outside in an elegant and efficient way, as well as helping reassure me that both lights are functioning properly, and are a result of the careful positioning of the edge of the headlights. Simplicity at its best.