Pared-back simplicity or pattern and print? Discover why the two camps are equally polarized in graphic design.
The holiday season often reveals whether we are minimalists or maximalists at heart. Some of us opt for a Scandi-inspired aesthetic, while others go all-out with seasonal kitsch. Recent years have seen a huge revival in maximalist design across graphics, illustration, and interiors. However, it seems that minimalism will always keep its currency among graphic designers, who were often raised on a diet of Swiss-style typography and Bauhaus graphics.
Here we’ll delve deeper into the philosophy and aesthetic of both sides of the coin. Compare how you can apply these two drastically different approaches to graphics, branding, web design, or typography.
Perhaps you’re already a committed minimalist or a devout maximalist. But, if you’re sitting on the fence, this article might help you to discover your next design obsession.
Minimalism: A Design Style . . . and a Philosophy of Living
Minimalism is the extreme outcome of the 20th century Modernist movement. Modernists were reacting against the exuberance and realism of 19th century art, creating buildings, furniture, and graphic design that celebrated the basic fundamentals of shape, form, and color. Minimalism then built on this idea, pledging to get rid of any excess in design and prioritizing function over form.
By the 1990s, minimalism spilled over into mainstream culture. There, fashion designers like Calvin Klein and Jil Sander and furniture brands like Habitat popularized and commercialized the aesthetic.
Today, almost every mega-brand on the planet uses aspects of minimalist design. In particular, Chanel, Google, Apple, and Nike are renowned for their minimalist approach to brand, logo, and packaging design.
Beyond graphic design, committed minimalists embrace the “less is more” approach more broadly by applying a stripped-back philosophy to their homes, lives, and consumer choices. Extreme minimalists do away with anything deemed non-essential. This results in pared-back interiors and clothing, which non-minimalists might find a little on the austere side.
- Think: Japandi and Scandinavian design, Kinfolk, 1990s Calvin Klein, COS.
Maximalism: A Celebration of Individualism
The austerity and seriousness that are common by-products of a strictly minimalist approach can be off-putting for some designers. Because minimalism champions reduction, designers can find themselves reducing to the detriment of creativity. In contrast, maximalism is an additive design model, encouraging the constant addition of more color, more images, and more experimentation. More is more is more . . .
Historically, we are natural maximalists. The accumulation of material things is an age-old practice. Plus, consumerism is the driving force behind the hoarding behavior that often results in maximalist interiors and lifestyles. While the Modernists wanted to react against the decorative emphasis of 19th century design, maximalism later revived in the 20th century, during the 1970s and 1980s, when materialism was at its peak.
While 90s minimalism made kitsch and excess seem outdated—vulgar, even—maximalism has truly returned to mainstream culture. Partly a sea change against bland and faceless design, the movement was spearheaded by the appointment of designer Alessandro Michele at fashion house Gucci. His penchant for flamboyant maximalism filtered across into interior design, graphics, and popular culture. High-end fashion and interiors were no longer limited to restrained elegance, but began to embrace eclecticism, clashing patterns, and eccentricity.
The maximalism revival has certainly been fueled by social media. After all, standing out in a crowd of images requires an attention-grabbing approach to styling and color. This peacocking approach has gone some way to dispel the association of maximalism with poor taste. Instead, refashioning a more-is-more aesthetic as a way to win social followers can cultivate a distinctive online presence.
- Think: Gucci under Alessandro Michele, Pukka Tea, House of Hackney, Missoni, Moschino.
Minimalism vs. Maximalism in Graphic Design
Graphic design formalized as a discipline during the peak of Modernism, so it tends to endorse a minimalist approach. Swiss typography, structured grids, and geometric graphics have always felt more at home within a minimalist framework.
However, today’s designers rediscovered the fun and novelty that maximalism lent to graphics during the 1970s and 1980s, and reinterpreted this for the 21st century. Bright colors, clashing patterns, and display fonts bring a distinct advantage to consumer-focused designs, allowing them to stand out in a sea of competitors.
Read on to find recent examples of how minimalist and maximalist approaches have been used in graphic design and discover whether pared-back discretion or all-out excess is the best fit for your next project.
Minimalism vs. Maximalism in Brand Design
Before the modernist era, maximalism was the standard in logo design, with traditional businesses using ornate stamps to mark signage and products. Calligraphic type surrounded by decorative borders or florals gave businesses distinction and authority. Today, this heritage is still felt in logo design. Many brands opt for decorative logos to give products a vintage or established feel.
Maximalist logos can also help brands to come across as high-end and aspirational. Luxury brands, hotels, and restaurants often opt for ornate logo designs and patterned packaging to communicate a sense of effort, skill, and investment.
Minimalist branding is very different. But, it still has a distinct attraction for marketers because of its ability to make logos instantly recognizable and easily memorable. Most globally-recognized brands use logos that demonstrate minimalist traits, such as clean lines, geometric graphics, or sans serif type.
Minimalist logos are not only easy to reproduce (and translate to online media particularly well), but also often evolve into ideograms—graphic symbols that represent an idea, in this case a brand. These ideograms eventually become widely recognizable to consumers.
With most global super-brands opting for minimalist branding, and in many cases spending millions to streamline originally-busy logos—see the logo redesigns of Google and Airbnb as cases in point—it’s clear that minimalism equates to big bucks in branding.
Minimalism vs. Maximalism in Print Design
Maximalism peaked with the turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau movement. Elements of ornamental design also had a huge influence on the formation of the Art Deco style, which manifested in lavishly patterned posters and pamphlets. Maximalism has long had a place in the print world, with books, magazines, and posters being a canvas for ornate and decorative designs.
Traditionally, ornate designs for book covers signaled that the artist invested a huge amount of time, effort, and skill, which often made these items expensive and rare. Today, contemporary designers still find that maximalism has something unique to offer in publishing and editorial design. A beautifully illustrated, colorful cover can help to catch the eye on bookstore shelves. The immersive experience only continues when the reader opens the cover to find ornately patterned endpaper.
In print, maximalism can play the same role as it does on social feeds—shouting “look at me!” and offering an escapist experience.
Where maximalist print design demands attention, minimalism cultivates a different—and arguably no less effective—technique for seducing viewers. Often used to signal elegance and aspiration, minimalist design is a trademark of high-end fashion magazines and coffee table books. It’s also common in publications that sell a particular sort of wholesome-luxury lifestyle, such as Kinfolk.
Minimalist graphic design emerged in print. The first examples of the Swiss Style in poster and magazine layouts appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, and still dictates the building blocks of graphic design—from grid layouts to the hierarchy of type. Minimalism also promotes clarity and legibility. That’s why it’s a popular style for designs that require immediate visibility, such as signage and posters.
Minimalism vs. Maximalism in Web Design
Web design has taken the minimalist vs. maximalist debate into completely new territory. Equally impactful examples of each aesthetic push the boundaries of what it means to take a stripped-back or all-in approach to designing.
Maximalist websites are increasingly the norm, since they hold the attention of distracted visitors for a (vital) few seconds more. Variable fonts, animation, neon colors, and Memphis patterns are common traits of maximalist web design.
Other designers see the generous space allowance of responsive sites as an opportunity to create something altogether more soothing and serene.
Minimalist designs look expansive and beautiful on large screens. What’s more, they tend to be more user-friendly and legible on smaller ones. There’s an argument that minimally-styled web layouts promote longer browsing sessions, too. This might be why a large number of blogs, news, and other text-heavy sites use minimal traits, such as white space, neutral colors, and clean type, to encourage readers to stay for longer.
Which Camp Is Right for You?
Perhaps you’re already a committed minimalist. Or instead, maybe you find kitsch and superfluity captivating. If, however, you’re still unsure about where you stand on the argument, don’t fret—a middle ground not only exists, but can result in designs that feel balanced and contemporary.
Try using minimalist principles when creating a poster layout, for example. Arranging elements on a grid, promoting hierarchy in your typography, and being mindful of white space is an excellent foundation for trying something more interesting, experimental, and excessive. Switch to ultra-bright colors, a clashing pattern, or a funky display font to give the design a point of interest.
Want more graphic design tips and inspiration? Look no further:
- The Most Anticipated Graphic Design Styles for 2021
- The Evolution of Iconography: How It’s Used in Graphic Design
- What Is Neumorphism: Its History, Present, and Future
- Top 7 Must-Have Apps for Graphic Designers in 2020
- Graphic Design Essentials: 8 Free Seamless Geometric Patterns
Cover image by contributor Roman Babakin.