Tim Rich : Playing safe and simple

Is minimalism a safety net for mediocre graphic designers? As blank space dominates graphic design, Tim Rich yearns for a little more flamboyant expression.

A few years ago, the Swiss designer Josef Müller-Brockmann visited London to address the Society of Typographic Designers (sometimes known by the catchy initials STD). In the 1950s he was a central figure in Neue Grafik, a magazine and movement of designers exploring a new and “objective” approach to design. They dismissed freehand drawing and other forms of personal expression as subjective whimsy, and preferred a tightly organised approach to graphic design founded on grids, an addiction to the Akzidenz typeface, geometric drawing and – later – black and white photography. Only the essential elements were retained in a work of communication. Consistency, structure, compression and clarity informed every piece. To simplify, it was Teutonic graphic minimalism.

Over a long career, Müller-Brockmann’s approach wandered in and out of popularity. He certainly had many admirers in the British design industry. But the large turnout of eager-eared young practitioners at the STD event surprised him. At first it seemed odd that his unfashionably disciplined methods should attract such a crowd, but these designers were living in a world dense with graphic pollution and working in an industry which lacked creative direction and inspiring mentors. Pursuing order, space and economy in communications felt like a righteous activity.

But these were postmodern times, and the mainstream of British graphic design had long been spouting its own bastard versions of minimalism. The mission statement of commercial literature and poster design rang out: “In a crowded marketplace, space and simplicity help the client’s messages stand out from the competition”. There was none of Müller-Brockmann’s formalist rigour; it was just graphic design’s response to business Darwinism.

Today, far from being a differentiator, pared down, tastefully spacious, elegant and restrained graphic design is the dominant aesthetic in many design studios. In thousands of brochures, reports, magazines and posters, imagery and typography are balanced harmoniously. Sparse, type-only “solutions” are commonplace. Painfully small text is considered chic. White space is (still) considered daring and purist. Black space even more so.

But, unless pushed to an extreme, simplicity is now graphic normality. Where once product designer Dieter Rams’ modernist creed was exciting (“To me good design means as little design as possible”), now “less is more” is a predictable mantra, rolled out by complacent designers to inexperienced clients. If you stop and listen you can hear the simpleton’s chorus emanating from design presentations up and down the country.

Mediocre minimalism is contagious in the design community, partly because it creates a safe ground between client and designer (in a complex world, simplicity is always attractive), but also because it encourages the average designer’s powerful urge to contain and control rather than open, express and liberate. Simplicity now goes unquestioned as a “good” design value. Sometimes it is, but design values should shift according to context, and more often minimalism is the last refuge of designers who are not talented enough to offer a more personal and expressive response to their client’s needs.

A natural reaction to this is to hope that a wave of dandyish maximalists dance across the industry, sprinkling personality and graphic derring-do where they tread, and inspiring the complacent among us to take some risks. In fact, many of our best designers do this already, it’s just that the mediocre lot are too busy staring at their screens to see.

I am not suggesting that designers should work unbridled from effectiveness (designers are not artists, after all), I am just describing an approach where the client and the design team allow imagination, intuition and emotion into what they do. This approach has risks, but the end result is more likely to sing to its audience.

I love looking at Josef Müller-Brockmann’s work. I love some of the great commercial graphic minimalism from the 1990s. In the hands of a really good designer, a minimal approach can still be extraordinarily unsettling, thrilling or enticing. But mediocre minimalism just makes me thirst for something shining with imagination and delight. Intelligent visual editing is essential, but it is only half the job. The other half is certainly more difficult, but then being a good designer is not about taking the easy option.

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