I’d argue the trend of minimalism took over the mainstream sometime in the late 90s thanks to Jonathan Ive and the arrival of the ‘Boiled Sweet’. For most of the 2000s minimalism was the overriding philosophy of graphic design in an era when graphic design took over the world. With the advent of the internet becoming a staple of every home, web design — and now what is known as ‘online content’ — needed its aesthetic and Ive and Apple’s designs met the needs. Along with more readily available graphic design software, the digital revolution was in full swing and had cool new look. Until it didn’t…
This was the era when home computers became designed furniture as Apple (rightly) predicted there would be one in every home. This led the way for the ‘look’ of that time. The crystalline whites of the early 2000s minimalism, inspired by modernist early/mid-20th century design from the likes of Bauhaus, bled into everything from iPods and iMacs, to various logos for the Olympics of the time and Obama’s practically Soviet ‘Hope’ poster. This was the era of the logo, with plain, sans Serif fonts against block colours, like product RED, Facebook and even TV show’s title sequences ended up like Lost; Films like Dogville took this aesthetic to extremes by deleting the sets of a traditional studio backlot and had the actors perform in what looked like a giant white lightbox; Book series like Penguin Modern Classics were redesigned with a white block at the top for the sans serif type title to now sit, while Swedish clothing brand H&M adopted brutally straight cut and block colour designs for their clothes. Even Art of the era offered majority-white, simplistic work like Emin’s My Bed. Back then, less was certainly more but, like all things, it didn’t last.
What was minimalism then is maximalism now. With the prevalence of design software on every device we now own and the need for your entire online presence to be branded since the explosion of social media in the 2010s ‘The Aesthetic’ as the meme has dubbed it has expanded from the disciplined and considered mode of minimalist design aesthetics to an overstuffed, hyper-detailed, kinetic, ‘to the max’ design philosophy. Combine this with the seemingly unending 80s revival in popular culture with its fluorescent colour scheme, 8bit imagery, piercing synth music and overwhelmingly individualist, conservative political agenda and we are living in the era of Neon Maximalism.
Whether it’s movies like Drive, Neon Demon, Only God Forgives, John Wick or even — and let’s be honest — the entirety of the overwhelming and brash Marvel Cinematic Universe, video games like Hotline Miami, Katana Zero, Undertale or Sayonara Wild Hearts, the endless procession of music and associated promo videos from acts like Muse, John Mayer, Drake, Taylor Swift or even Paul McCartney, Youtuber’s who when they aren’t lit with a neon glow have over-stuffed, neon backdrops to accompany them. Even the once slim, clean home computers of the early 2000s have given way to glowing fluorescent monoliths that are no longer hidden under desks but have pride of place in most gaming/streamers studios. It is all Neon and there’s always an awful lot of it.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m not a fan. I didn’t like the 80s the first time round and like it even less through the meta-modern instagram filter of today. To say it’s just me being an old fuddy-duddy, while probably true, also does a disservice to what a world with a more streamlined approach to — well, everything — has to offer and what Neon Maximalism therefore denies. The current ‘aesthetic’s’ benefits are, I believe, shallow but undeniably enjoyable. It is instantaneous, bright, diverting, attention-grabbing and generates a giddy emotional response of excitement. It also doesn’t hurt it aligns with a large level of indulgent nostalgia (particularly noticeable in today’s politics). The smooth, lightness of touch favoured by minimalism is not exciting nor does it invite an emotional response but what it is, is accessible. Serif fonts are easier to read for people with vision problems or dyslexia. The eye being lazy is naturally drawn to white space so design templates that use negative space draw the eye. It is also generally less confusing and visually exhausting than maximalism. Our brains naturally compress detail — think of when we look at trees, we do’t see the individual leaves, nor do we see each white crest of a wave nor every peak in a mountain range — as such, the overly dense style of maximalism doesn’t prompt close attention. Neon Maximalism is also (and this is a purely a subjective argument on my part) just plain ugly.
The reason I bear such a grudge towards today’s gaudy aesthetics is because my Dad was a leading graphic designer back in the day just as graphic design was taking over. He worked in DTP with publications like the Financial Times, Professional Engineer, What Car, Maxim and Loaded etc. He also taught people how to do good design by, quite literally, ‘writing the book’ on desktop publishing. He had a great eye for good design/artwork, something he was able to impart to his students. He also died just before the internet swallowed the world whole, at a point when he would have cleaned up professionally and, I believe, would have made him a leading light in the new wave of ‘aesthetics’. Though in many ways I’m almost glad he didn’t. I’m not sure he would have liked the eye-watering intensity of imagery today. And he certainly wouldn’t have liked the politics that have followed with it.
It should also be stated that this is largely a product of culture from white, wealthy nations. Afro-Futurism is doing far more interesting things today than either minimalism or maximalism, as well the kaleidoscopic, grass-roots design principles of countries like India. A philosophy of aesthetics should not rely solely on one school of thought, it should, ideally, be contextual and fit the demands of the information that needs to be communicated. Unfortunately at a time where the internet has become a dense river of slurry, everyone is trying to be the brightest and loudest in an increasingly bright and loud body of water. Neon Maximalism won’t last but until we learn that there’s more than one way to design a couch, as it were, we’re going to swing perpetually between the same, now rather tatty, set of principles that aren’t fit for purpose. I hope a new mainstream design philosophy for the white, wealthier nations emerges soon and that it isn’t just another rehash of an older one.