Minimalism vs. Maximalism

There’s a careful balance to both

Brooke might blog
8 min readJul 8, 2024
A side by side image comparing a minimally designed for a Nike shoe, and a maximalist ad for a Hoka shoe. The Nike ad features a classic black and white shoe surrounded by ample white space. The Hoka shoe is displayed over bold colorful patterns in the background with lots of movement.
Image sources: Nike and Hoka.

The year is 2024, and maximalism is trending…

Personally, as a millennial and a graphic designer who adores mid-century modern furniture as well as Swiss style design (more on that later), this has been difficult to accept. It’s not easy for me to let go of my generous white space and sans serif typefaces.

At the same time, maximalist trends can be really energizing and they encourage creativity and experimentation in a way that minimalism can’t. Creating textures and patterns to incorporate into designs is fun. There’s a whole new world of expression being embraced right now, which is worth getting excited about.

As some audiences and designers are adapting to these changes in trends (myself included), I’ve conversationally noticed a lot of opinions cropping up about both minimalism and maximalism in design. This inspired me to dig a little deeper and examine the criticisms and successes of both styles.

Minimalism vs. Maximalism — Here are some common negative opinions about each:

  • “Minimalism is ‘boring,’ ‘sterile,’ or ‘has no personality.’”
  • “Maximalism is ‘cluttered,’ ‘messy,’ or ‘the message gets lost in the noise.’”

Of course, these are blanket statements based heavily in personal preferences, and they’re not always true. When it comes to design work, both minimalism and maximalism can sometimes be applied poorly (thereby earning the judgements above). Fundamental design principles such as hierarchy, contrast, and color theory (to name a few) are agnostic to either of these aesthetics.

When it comes to design work, both minimalism and maximalism can sometimes be applied poorly.

Design principles are agnostic to either aesthetic.

So let’s explore what “maximalism” and “minimalism” really mean and how they are both applied successfully in design. But first, we need to step back and look at how design trends have evolved.

Design trends over the past few decades

What ads for iPods looked like in the mid 2000s.

Mid-2000’s “flat design” — A reaction to 90’s skeuomorphism

When I was a design student in the 2010’s, “flat design” was all the rage. As the name suggests, flat design has little-to-no dimension or texture, and relies solely on the strength of its forms and color to communicate. That’s not to say that flat designs are boring. They can still be beautifully complex, but often they are driven by the principles of minimalism. Without texture or dimension, there is little to distract from the content or ideas within the work.

In many ways, I believe design trends emerge as a reaction to what was previously popular. In the case of flat design, this trend could be viewed as a reaction to skeuomorphism, which was the favorite design aesthetic throughout the 90’s and early aughts. In the 90’s, computer-generated art was still very new, and people were eager to explore what kinds of dimensional graphics their computers could produce. As a result, it was common to see effects like drop shadows, glows, and embossed forms applied to designs in an effort to make them appear more dimensional or “realistic.”

A Pepsi ad from the early aughts. How many “glow” effects can you count here?

As time marched on into the 2010’s, skeuomorphic design began to look more and more dated as the capabilities of computer-generated graphics evolved at a breakneck pace. Computer generated effects would quickly look obsolete almost as soon as they were published. By contrast, flat design appeared more “timeless” and emerged as the prevailing design trend for many years.

That is, until somewhat recently.

2020’s “neo-brutalism” and more

Minimalistic flat design has now given up ground to trends that could be considered “more maximalist,” like neo-brutalism and the use of 3D art in design. We’re seeing sharper contrast, bolder color, and more dimension.

Gumroad’s brand embraces “neo-brutalism” with sharp contrasts and bold colors.
This promotional image for the “Actual” font uses gradients and 3D art.

Now, back to the subject matter at hand: Minimalism and Maximalism.

What is minimalism in design? — And what it isn’t

Most professional designers have a strong understanding of “Swiss style,” or what is sometimes called “International style.” This style emerged in the early 20th century, and is known for emphasizing readability, simplicity, and objectivity, and is commonly considered or perceived as a more “minimalist” style. The emphasis in Swiss style design is on order and function. Designs were often structured with grids or based in geometry. The popular sans serif typeface “Helvetica” was born from Swiss style as well. This movement was very influential on the field of design, and its principles are still highly regarded by design professionals and educators today.

Examples of Swiss style design.

It’s worth pointing out that while these designs might be considered “minimalist,” they’re not “plain” or “boring.” Designs in this style can still be dynamic and incorporate movement, interesting forms, and progressive color palettes. Often times, however, the real interest lies in the content, or message, of the design (not in the design itself). The design gets out of the way so the message of the piece can really shine through.

Sometimes the difference between whether a minimal design choice is successful or whether it’s “plain and boring” comes down to context. Let’s consider interior design for example. In your home, your priorities in designing the space are likely self-expression and creating a mood. You might choose several different colors, patterns, texture and lightning to meet those goals. While function may also be important to you, emphasizing function over all else is likely not the move.

Now consider a space like an art gallery. Suddenly the priorities of the interior design might change. In a gallery, the choice to keep the interior neutral is perfect for function and usability, since more expressive interiors would detract from the actual artwork on display. If the interior encroaches upon, distracts from, or otherwise makes it difficult to fully appreciate the artwork, it wouldn’t be considered a very successfully designed space.

One corner of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

These choices, as with all strong design decisions, are very intentional.

Minimalism should never be an excuse for a designer or artist to “be lazy” or “do less,” as some clients might assume when they see a composition that is less stimulating or more reserved. What many clients or others perhaps don’t realize is that distilling work to be simpler and more functional is often not easy, and it takes discipline and discernment on the part of the designer. It also might be the right choice for a piece of work, regardless of what’s trending. It all comes down to the goals for the piece and how it might be used.

Minimalism is not an excuse to create boring or lifeless design. It’s a philosophy that puts usability and functionality at the forefront.

So what is maximalism? (And also what it isn’t)

Maximalism has different goals to minimalism, of course.

It’s time to… turn up the noise.

Not an example of “maximalist design” — Just a great cat gif.

Sometimes the work needs to be more stimulating. Some projects call for bolder choices: stronger type, bolder colors, higher contrast, and even some noise. Let’s see some textures, some patterns, some variety.

Maximalism says we don’t need to sacrifice expression or energy in the name of function. We can have it all.

“WET” magazine cover designed by April Greiman. The design evokes the vibrant cultural scene in southern California at the time its release.

An influential art movement that could be called maximalist is New Wave: a postmodern style that emerged in the 1970’s and 80’s. It’s more “punk.” Anarchy. Skater kids. The Clash. You get the idea.

There’s many artists who have contributed to the movement, but two famous and influential designers I want to highlight here are April Greiman and David Carson. Both embraced a mixture of digital design and mixed media, and both were interested in pushing the boundaries of what was commonly considered “acceptable design practices” at the time.

“RAY GUN” magazine cover by David Carson

David Carson in particular is known for breaking the common “rules” of acceptable design practices, but his designs are not ineffective. They are layered and textured and grab your attention instantly. They emphasize mood more than legibility or usability, and they succeed in those goals. While they are intentionally unstructured, they still make use of solid hierarchy between elements and other design principles. Meanwhile, Greiman’s work often still has a visible structure behind the gradients and texture and mixed media. And in the case of both designers — every design choice is, again, very intentional. I would argue there is still a certain amount of precision to the “mess.”

Successful “maximalist designs” are still practicing strong design fundamentals, even while shrugging off other principles attributed to more “minimalist” movements.

A “maximalist” poster designed by Paula Cher of Pentagram.

Finding the balance between expression and function is not always easy, but Paula Cher did it beautifully in the poster above. Creating effective maximalist design takes great skill on the part of the designer. It’s a high-wire balancing act to keep the composition from crossing that tipping point into becoming a perceived “mess” that doesn’t communicate properly or achieve the goals of the piece.

But, (and I’m speaking to myself here more than anyone) — that’s no reason to fear it. It’s a great reason to buckle up and keep practicing the craft.

To summarize, here’s a few key take-aways

Minimalism as a principle emphasizes function and usability first, and other considerations are secondary.

Maximalism, on the other hand, exists to express, to set a mood, to grab attention, and to stimulate the senses.

Both aesthetic styles have their advantages and disadvantages. Both are capable of being applied successfully or poorly when it comes to design. A strong designer will understand the difference, and know how and when to employ each.

Another “maximalist” shoe showdown — This time, Hoka versus Adidas. Source: CNN

Lastly, a final note trends in the year 2024…

Life is feeling a little (or a lot) more chaotic these days in a post-COVID world. I think it makes sense that minimalist Swiss-inspired design is now beginning to feel more “dated.” Stylistic appetites have changed. Audiences are ready to see more expressive design. For working designers, answering that desire will always have to be counter-balanced by their client’s needs, but maybe it’s time to ask businesses and brands to be a little less “safe” in their designs.

Don’t be afraid to try “turning up the noise.” Thanks for reading.

--

--