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Minimalism versus being a MNMLST

The following is a guest post by Bryan Cromlish. Bryan is currently the Online Community Manager with Engine Communications. He can be pretty active on Twitter @bcromlish. I really appreciate Bryan’s willingness to offer a different perspective on something I wrote about a few weeks ago – really adds a lot of depth to the conversation. Enjoy, and share some of your own thoughts in the comments below.

Ever since Matt wrote a post about Minimalism recently, I’ve had a hard time getting my head around the subject.  I have heard about it before and have actually heard about most of the minimalists mentioned, but I wondered, is minimalism actually everywhere or something us ‘Lifestyle Design-Types’ are honing in on?

Matt wrote that the minimalist trend isn’t rising, it’s here, it’s everywhere around us. We’re living in a society that ultimately wants less. We’re condensing our wants to meet our needs – and in a world in which we are absolutely inundated and bombarded with information – we value simple and effective over flash and glamour.

Considering I see life primarily through a marketing lens, I wasn’t sure if I was hit in the face with an epiphany on new-age consumerism or something seemed off with the statement. As it turns out, it is a bit of both! Right from the beginning it seemed like an over generalization about consumer attention and buying behaviors, and I decided to go all left-brain and analyze what is going on here.

Minimalism should be divided into two forms, minimalist design (visual art, architecture, etc.) and minimalism as a lifestyle (living principles). I feel like the two should be discussed separately in order for people to make sense about what is going on here.

Design

The term minimalism describes American art and design movements beginning in the late 60s where the work was stripped down to only its fundamentals.  Work by Piet Mondrian can give you a good idea of what minimalist design is all about.  Even though advertising can be artistic in nature, for the most part it should be kept separate from being associated with actual art.

We were too quick to call well-designed ‘negative space’ layouts on products, magazines and websites as being minimalism.  Aesthetic composition in order to sell more products, gain more readers or increase page views is not minimalism.  It is true that the proper use of white space, for example, can be more effective for drawing the eye than cluttered flash and glamour.

It comes down to selling products. If everyone is going with flash and glamour then it makes sense to use more negative space in order to stand out.  It is also all about who your target market is – you will see a lot of upscale brands using this to communicate an elegant or classic appearance.

Lifestyle

This phenomenon of living a minimalist lifestyle is adventurous, but it is also brilliant marketing!  I am sure there is much more to minimalism than not having many material goods. I see how less clutter in one’s life could be mentally exhilarating.

One of the main principals is that you are free to travel and move with little restriction. I’m all for less restriction. Heck, it only seemed right to work on this post without pants on!  But, why don’t these people write blogs, sell books or tweet about being a new-age nomad? Because… being a nomad doesn’t sound sexy.

Thus, Minimalists have created a mental framework for people to identify with and associated benefits to that framework in order to sell their books. That sounds like pretty good marketing to me.

Closing Thoughts

I think Chuck Westbrook said it best in his comments: “We’re living in a society that ultimately wants less.”

Nope. We live in a society that has more debt than ever before, has more stuff than ever before, eats more food than ever before, and scatters its attention out to more than ever before.

What are your thoughts? Does this change your opinion of minimalism?

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15 Comments

  1. I think that minimalism IS becoming the NEW sexy. Remember drinking water. Who drank water anyway, just cheapo's and weirdo's. Soda's where the in thing. Coca-cola's everywhere. Those of us carting around water bottles with us everywhere were considered the extreme. Then the fad hit. Suddenly it was 'hip & cool' to be seen with your water bottle strapped to your body in some sort of fashion.

    You know this has happened in history too, minimalism lifestyle i mean. Look at the victorian period where everything was over the top, from design to decor, they couldn't get or have enough. Then the switch was turned on and people went back to straight clean uncluttered lines, like the colonial period.

    I think there will always be left & rights, ups & downs, your way & my way. You are right about the mainstream idea i believe. With the lines of communication open to the degrees that they are now we have just been able to meet more of our people.

    • I’m even cooler than you. I don’t even have a reusable water bottle. I simply drink out of water fountains when I am out and about. How cool is that?!?

  2. Great thoughts, Bryan, and nice follow-up to Matt's post.

    I'm not sure if we're living in a new minimalist mindset – I see it more as the way it's mostly always been. Some people will make the effort to be less “greedy/needy”, if you like, while others will continue to grab everything that's going.

    Perhaps, instead, we're more at the point where we're highlighting the minimalists as opposed to thinking they're a little kooky?

  3. Hi Bryan, Thoughts on minimalism marketing are provocative to do the best use of white space and making things work.Like what's important in a vessel is not its design but the space inside it that makes it something of value.I wrote about this in my latest post as well and that was focussed on uncluttered marketing tactics.Thanks for your sharing your thoughts on the culture of being a minimalist.

  4. I LOVE the point about drinking water. Interesting how you compared a health-based lifestyle choice to minimalism. On one hand I think we as a society are becoming more health conscious and explains how water has become cool with the association to physical activity like lifting weights or especially Yoga (Lululemon here in Canada?)

    For the most part, I still think we are at the point where only a select few CHOOSE minimalism as a lifestyle. It can be pretty extreme living on only 50 items. Maybe as a whole we are starting to realize that we:

    “[are in]more debt than ever before, [have] more stuff than ever before, eats more food than ever before, and scatters its attention out to more than ever before.”

    and are starting to control our personal expenditures. Great thought here.

  5. I think we are pretty close to the same page here Danny.

    Minimalism is best described as an Alternative Lifestyle (Compared to the North American beautiful lawn & BBQ “standard”, lol).

    I personally do not think it will amount to anything monumental but I think it has least started to get noticed as an option by the early majority. Where vegetarianism is known by everyone as a personal lifestyle choice.

  6. Thanks for bringing the Design aspect into the conversation. I took a look at your recent blog post – great work, I am headed over there to comment now!

    I completely agree with the idea of using the power of space but it is also important not to downplay the power of design. I think the relationship of the two makes something truly eye catching.

  7. I really don't think we're heading in a minimalist direction at all. Maybe a few are – but they're a quiet group for the most part. What we're generally inundated with is flash and glamour. Whether it's in the form of Lady Gaga, Gucci or Brangelina – celebrity culture and entertainment point us toward excess. And those are a lot of the voices that consumers are listening to. Some may market minimalism, but in looking at water, for example – is Vitamin Water telling you to simply turn on your kitchen tap, or are they telling you to buy multi-coloured, multi-flavoured, highly marketed, bottled water? Strangely today as I was getting ready to go for a walk, I wanted to buy a bottle of water. I only had a dollar – not nearly enough. I felt totally dated, remembering the days when water was *shock* free! Or at least less than a dollar, even in a bottle. This isn't minimalism. This is marketing.

    And people buy it. They buy it in droves! Look at your average local shopping mall on a Saturday. They're packed. It's frightening. The shelves at H&M are piled high with crap we don't need, but we buy, and buy, and buy it. Times Square wouldn't exist if we were truly reverting to a minimalist lifestyle.

    Anyway, I'm no better than anyone else, as I sit here drinking my Evian, but the point is, we love excess and consumption. If we didn't, then we'd be willing to share a little more with some of the people that really need it. Anyone remember Haiti?

  8. eh, I've had my style called 'minimalist' before, but I'm beginning to think there's more merit to be found in moderation and a strict adherence to efficiency – than to seeing how far you can go to sacrifice potentially useful things based on some self-imposed philosophy.

    I've had friends who try to reduce their spending to a pre-defined dollar amount per day, or friends who attempt to get rid of items in their house until they only have x amount of possessions left as though it's some sort of maintainable lifestyle.

    I fully support the idea of Occam's Razor, cutting out anything unnecessary and making things as simple as they can be made, but it was Einstein who said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

    Less is more, to a point, but there's a threshold where less finally becomes less again too.

    Well, here's where I've matured to -> Moderation is best; not having enough is hard, but having too much is harder. when I approach a design, I don't add ANYTHING to my project that doesn't have a very important reason to be there. Other people add a whole ton of stuff and then have to weed out what they don't want – I find it easier to approach each project from a standpoint of 'tabula rasa' and add in only what it needs.

    How do I apply that to web design? Well instead of starting off with a template and modifying it into what I need, I will start with a blank page and hand-code every line I need. It's fast, efficient, and clean – and in the end, when I inevitably have to go back and edit it in the future I will know exactly where to go to find what I need to change, because nothing else besides that is there to steal my focus.

  9. Thanks for commenting here Bryna. Those are AMAZING concrete examples that really illustrate the non-minimalism argument. Minimalism will never likly become popular unless key influencers in our society head in that direction.

    I really try to stay away from bottled water but wont lie – I am a sucker for Gatorade. Haha have you ever spelled Evian backwards? Its always been a joke amongst my “green” friends.

    Interesting you brought up H&M. They have large volumes of clothing but Id say overall they are on the minimalist side of fashion. What are your thoughts on American Apparel? Shift towards minimalism (at a hight cost haha)?

  10. Tom, thank you for this detailed response.

    Lifestyle:
    Yes, overall moderation is key. Too many north americans live beyond their means and just never clear items out. I can see how this can hold people back from being efficient.

    Design:
    This is what REALLY interests me about your comments since I have seen your work. Great stuff by the way ;) Interesting how you start from a clean slate unlike many coders. Lets use logos as an example: I agree that as little as possible should be used since the goal is to be memorable. Other projects may need a more complex feel — I play around with photoshop but I can hardly consider myself a designer like yourself!

    If not for style – tabula rasa SHOULD save on time!

  11. I think it is a little of both. We are certainly, finally, coming to a point where we may be getting the idea that have thousands of dollars in consumer debt might not be a good thing. We are trying to cut back and get out of debt. One way to do that is to start realizing that we don't need everything that we see.

    I think we are also coming to the point where we are simply finding that our possessions may be possessing us rather than the other way round. To have less allows us to be more free, not only to travel and be a nomad, but to do anything we want.