The logic of the minimum

left_alignedimgIn the last decade or so, minimalism has risen to the fore of design. More so than any single company or entity, arguably, Apple led that charge. While the roots go back to the very beginnings of that company (the famed elegance of the Apple I), minimalism started to appear front and centre with the launch of the first ipod. The move towards unibody Macbooks cemented this direction, seen also in Apple’s updated web presence from around the same time. Meanwhile, the launch of the ipad and later the iphone pushed Apple graphically away from skeuomorphism towards what would become known as “flat” design. Google’s “Material Design” represents a middle ground, of sorts, but also a quantum leap forward in the philosophy of graphical design.

Across all these directions, one can say that what has emerged is the essence. We are witness to a radical move towards simplification, driven, in part, by the lower bandwidth of cellular networks and the lower computing capacity of mobile processors. Simultaneously, the innovation of high resolution screens (e.g., Retina displays) has also driven design away from bitmap imagery towards vector outputs. This has been illustrated in the emergence of new and improved vector graphics editors, including Affinity Designer and Sketch, and the emergence of icon fonts. As mobile access to the web now very far outstrips desktop access in terms of overall numbers, driven by the explosion of “smartphones” that Apple helped to push with the iphone, the emphasis on simple and clean has been underlined as responsive design has overtaken mobile template development (the explosion in app development notwithstanding), allowing a single web application to serve a number of viewports simultaneously. This has also underlined simplicity as a goal and starting point.

“It is arguable that we are seeing now the “second wave” of web design and development after the first wave that washed through the 1990s as the world first got online.”

left_alignedimgOverall, the web is becoming cleaner. Google, in tying its search ranking to web standards, has done much to help this along. Slowly, but surely, the web is being recreated. In fact, while updates and new designs have always been emerging, it is arguable that we are seeing now the “second wave” of web design and development after the first wave that washed through the 1990s as the world first got online. This second wave has an aesthetic. And it also has a logic, which in turn informs the aesthetic. Not least one of the places in which this wave is hitting shore is in logo development and branding more generally. Apple is an example. Gone now, forever, is the rainbow Apple icon. Gone, even, is the name Apple from the menu header of its webpage. Similarly, gone is “Macbook Pro” from bottom margin of the screen of that device. All that remains is the Apple symbol, in white. Everything extraneous is being deleted.

We can take from this wave in design a few principles that are both the new norm, but also valid and important in their own right, relative to design philosophy and outlook.

First, do one thing. The rest is silence. For example, a logo mark should have only one idea. Two is already too busy. While this rule does not always apply, it rises in importance where branding is concerned. Simplicity should also mean immediacy, which still gives room for beauty, or elegance, in execution. One wants the observer to pause, but for a fraction, and then move on, to the product. Clarity, in this sense, is the absence of interference: a clean signal, or frequency, contained in an image.

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Second, standards themselves drive simplicity. A logo should always work as both positive and negative (black against white, and white against black). It should also work at all resolutions, from the very large to the very small. Effective logo and brand design has to keep in mind the varied platforms the logo or brand will be deployed into. Typography, or font choice, is critical, but so too proportion. It is much harder to satisfy the very small than the very large, so emphasis should be placed there.

Third, differentiation should be subtle and discernible, but not total. Brands exist in a field, which itself has a character. For brands to work, they need to be at home in that field. In practice, this means that a logo mark should share something in common with other logo marks in the branding field. The emergence of word marks to prominence (Facebook, Twitter, and the recent rebranding of Google) is one direction, while symbol marks (like Uber, for example) are another. In effect, there are subdivisions within the genus of brands, but within subdivisions there are characteristics in common. Which direction is taken will depend on the business or product, but will also have great impact on the brand or product, and this choice alone is part of the function of effective branding.

The field of brands itself is transforming, driven by technology and end user use. As the volume of human activity online continues to grow, standing out — more so now than at any time previously — is about paring things down to their elemental, skeletal frame. We might understand this as the logic of the minimum, but this is not to say it is simple to reach or easy to create. Often this work takes several passes, like the athlete in training, design is akin to “cutting,” sharing more in common with sculpture than painting. It is in lightness (not color but weight) that true identity can emerge. In this context it is always fascinating when things are rebranded. As if to say that within an already existing form is a more elegant form still, that contains all the former but with less volume — a cleaner note, honed down to one single tone. Combined tones in music are where beauty, nuance and subtleties of emotion lie. But in the world of data interference, it is the single tone that penetrates the deepest, and the furthest. In this sense, the logic of the minimum is not only an aesthetic idea, but a strategic necessity in the evolutionary field of brand identity and generation.

9 November 2013
Ian Douglas

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