It’s not simply a matter of changing taste that drives modern design towards a minimalist aesthetic. Modern design has been gravitating towards minimalism from the beginning of the last century, and with the beginning of this one it seems to be reaching almost complete saturation. The reason for the prevalence of the aesthetic has nothing to do with fashion—though it may have sparked initial experimentation—rather, it is simply the result of the designer’s expression of the modern ethos—namely, its absence.
Proust defined style as a quality of vision, a “revelation of the private universe that each of us can see and which others cannot see”.1 To share your subjective vision with others through your work is to fashion it in the style of that vision. In this way, style is not an “original” arrangement of lines, shapes and colors on the screen, or words on the page, but an authentic expression of your inner sight, that is, your taste and your judgement. Contrary to modern opinion, style has nothing to do with “creativity”—the pointless pursuit of originality for the sake of standing out—it is, rather, the expression of the maker’s subjectivity through their work.
The modern world presents us with two problems in respect to one’s expression of style. The first is that in the consumer market oriented society the subjective taste of the designer is not important—and may even be detrimental—to the creation of consumer goods. The aesthetic of these goods is driven by the marketing directed aesthetic of the brand. Where the brand guidelines end the aesthetic must remain unassuming and restrained so that it does not compete with the “message” or “character” the branding team is trying to “communicate”. Simply put, design decisions outside of brand guidelines must intentionally lack style, for otherwise the subjective style of the designer would assert itself over the style of the brand. The designer acknowledges this tacitly and gets on with “solving problems”.
The one segment of the consumer market which allows the designer to express their own style in their work is called the “designer goods” market. It is telling that the term used to describe this segment of the market actually puts it in contrast with what one would assume to be the “non-designer” market, that is, the general market where the designer’s vision is restrained by the brand. In this “designer” market the designer becomes themselves the brand, and their “signature” style becomes the attraction. Here, however, we run into our second problem.
The designer’s vision—their taste and their judgement—is not something developed in isolation, it is not a product of mystical genius, not something they are born with. Vision grows from experience, and it is developed through living. The content of that experience is one’s environment, one’s culture, society and civilization. Simply living in one’s culture and interacting with it conditions your own sight through the lens of that culture. Because the general principle of modern Western liberal culture is non-judgement, such a society shifts towards a subjective world view in which everyone’s opinion and preference carries an equal weight to your own. As we move into the 20th century, the world of design schools, that is, design styles, breaks down into individual styles. But while the former “schools” were all influenced by the ethos of their era and civilization—empire, religion, ideology, history—the modern designer finds themselves working on an empty shell—a civilization without an ethos. As a result, what directs their work is no longer a shared spirit and vision, but their “creativity”. Their work is no longer celebrated for how well it is able to communicate a vision, but for how original it is. We arrive at postmodern design.
These two problems: the problem of being unable to express oneself due to commercial constraints, and the problem of having no definite cultural ethos to develop one’s vision, lead to design taking its course towards a minimalist aesthetic. This minimalist aesthetic is not itself an expression of vision, but rather, it is a reaction to an absence of vision. In place of the eye, the modern designer substitutes the perfect measurements of the computer, in place of instinct and gut feeling the designer substitutes mathematical ratios and color palettes. Design shifts from an organic activity in which emotion expresses itself into material to an activity of measurements and adjustments. There is beauty in modern design, just like there is beauty in all instances of harmonious arrangements of parts, but there is no style, or, in the rare cases there is style, it is something primal and undeveloped, a product of a creative outburst rather than a thoughtful expression of the spirit of one’s civilization.
Without either the will to express themselves, or without anything to express, we arrive at a world of plainly shaded squares, whose only redeeming qualities are their simplicity and their mathematical perfection. Thousands of years ago, primitive craftsmen carved blocks of stone into beautiful forms. Today, we revert back to the block, celebrating the clarity of its lines.
- From Proust’s explanation of Swann, published in Days of Reading, Great Ideas series, Penguin Books.