How Trendy Became a Dirty Word in the Fight Against Ugliness

Can minimalism really stand the test of time or do all fashions truly come and go?

on Friday December 9th, 2016

“Lately there seems like there’s been a great refusal of sorts, a massive backlash against fast fashion and trends themselves […] A lot of design today is focused on simplicity, minimalism, and quality.”

— 99% invisible, Episode 229, The Trend Forecast

Trends, the ephemeral changes in collective cultural preferences that has recently brought the bearded man-bun, pumpkin spiced latte’s, and minimalists to a Starbucks near you. The official definition of a trend is anything that increases in popularity within a period of time. The fashion industry is most well known for manufacturing and capitalizing on these temporal changes. Motivated by political movements and technological progress — trends can also be cyclical, endlessly contradicting the previous. Not limited to the fashion industry, Minimalism is an increasingly popular trend. Search interest for the keyword “minimalist”, according to Google Trends, has increased 400% in the last 5 years but still insisting this is not a trend but a new timeless ideal.

Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term.

A movement that is currently having a second wind, minimalism preaches the beauty of owning less. Instagram counts over 4 million posts on the hashtag “minimalism” and 46.2 millions results on a google search for “minimalism”. In the “Minimalism” movie (available on Netflix) self-proclaimed Minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus tour the United States providing help to potential Minimalists to follow in their footsteps. Suggesting that giving up their high-earning careers and expensive things in exchange for experiences brought them happiness. And it could work for you to! It’s not just an aesthetic but a philosophical movement to help followers overcome the throws of capitalism and consumerism. Minimalism’s has increased in popularity but it’s advocates insist that it’s not a trend — that it is timeless.

Minimalism does have a strong historical precedent for timeless style but cultural interest in a variety of design styles comes and goes. Let’s jump back and take a look on how we got to this point. Historically it was an abstract visual arts movement that arose in the 1950’s often attributed to Yves Klein and Frank Stella. The practice was derived from modernism, where artists were inclined to reduce anything to its geometric essentials.

Modernism is a philosophical movement that grew during the 19th century. Shaped by industrialism and growing cities, a goal for modernists was to encourage progress and replace traditional methods with new more efficient technologies. Unsurprisingly it flourished in capitalist societies.

Minimalism was a direct response to abstract expressionism in the 1940’s. “№8.” Jackson Pollock.

The modernist principal “Form follows function” inspired designers and architects that the shape should be based on it’s function. Tossing away unnecessary ornamentation for pure functional forms. This functional design predates modernism and can be accredited to an Austrian architect Adolf Loo’s Ornament and Crime, 1910. His philosophy describes the decorative styles of his time “have the effect of causing objects to go out of style and thus become obsolete” and thought it “was a crime to waste the effort needed to add ornamentation”.

“In the eyes of western culture, the Papuan has not evolved to the moral and civilized circumstances of modern man, who, should he tattoo himself, would either be considered a criminal or a degenerate.”

— Adolf Loo’s Ornament and Crime, lecture in 1910

The fight against trendiness or according to designer Massimo Vignellia fight against the ugliness” (Helvetica) continued through the 90’s. The influential Italian designer Massimo Vignelli, most famous for the NYC subway system, was a staunch modernist. In an interview with Print magazine, he said in regards to some of those pesky young designers throwing type all over the place like “abstract expressionism”.

“On the one side are the information architects, a term devised by Richard Saul Wurman, rooted in history and semiotics. On the other side are graphic designers rooted in advertising, pictorial arts, and trends […] It is cartoonish, with overtones of graffiti, an irresponsible manifestation of our time.”

— Massimo Vignelli in 1996 issue of Print as “NO MORE WAR! Massimo Vignelli vs. The Renegades.”

Minimalism today is synonymous with silicon valley driven optimization and the desire to proliferate disruptive technologies that encourage progress and innovate. If modernism was driven by the industrial revolution, minimalism is driven by the technological one. “Minimalism is now conflated with self-optimization, the trend that also resulted in fitness trackers and Soylent” says Kyle Chayka in the New York Time’s The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism’.

In Silicon Valley, the minimalism fetish can perhaps be traced back to Steve Jobs’s famously austere 1980s apartment (he sat on the floor) and the attendant simplicity of Apple products. Pare down, and you, too, could run a $700 billion company.”

Kyle Chayka, The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism’, The New York Times

The sleek digital interfaces that we use everyday are typically focused on paired down simple design. The 10 Principles of “Good Design” of industrial designer Dieter Rams, famous for Braun products during the 50s and 60s, inspires todays product designers and has been credited for influencing Apple’s products. His ten principles conflate good design and the minimalist style.

“Good Design Is Long-lasting. It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years — even in today’s throwaway society.

Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.”

Dieter Rams 10 Principles of “Good Design”, 1970's

Clearly Minimalism does have a strong historical precedent for timeless style but cultural interest in a variety of design styles comes and goes. The ultimate irony is that minimalism itself despite it’s self-proclaimed timeless-ness cannot escape the inevitable backlash of future trends. Looking at the numbers:

Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term.

Minimalism was on par in keyword search interest with Postmodernism until about 2009–2010 where searches for the keywords “minimalism” and “minimalist” increased incrementally (notably after the 2008 market crash).

Other significant design movements like Art Deco, Pop Art, Surrealism, Modernism, and Postmodernism have been on a steady decline in interest since 2004, still interest in Art Deco and Pop Art has remained equivalent to Minimalism.

There is also a significant increase in interest for trends like “calligraphy” (another search term for hand lettering) and Google’s own “Material Design”.

In Print magazine, 20 years after Massimo Vignelli was interviewed, the fight rages on in The Explosive Hand Lettering Rebellion and asks us to “embrace this historic form of typographic expression.” Scrappy upstart “hand lettering” has actually quadrupled in search interest in just the last year.

“A stealthy resurgence happening in the design world — a rebellion against the cold, sleek, digital environment in which we designers spend most of our time.”

Denise Bosler, The Explosive Hand Lettering Rebellion, 2015

The Minimalist trend has taken new form where constituents will now even brand themselves with tattoos but one thing has remained consistent since we started to remove ornamentation in 1910.

Minimalism writes it’s own history. The story of superiority in purity rejecting self-expression as frivolous selfishness. Dismissing trendiness continues to trivialize any design that isn’t minimalist. But the thinest thread holds together the belief that our cycle of trends can be beat through stripping design of it’s decoration. Even when other design movements are equally popular and important Minimalism tells it’s own story of successful defiance. Committed still to the ideological battle of “a fight against the ugliness” — yet ugly is inherently subjective.

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