Make it simple: this is the design formula that rules our world.
It is the ethos of user-friendly minimalism, whereby complex gadgets are made both stylish and easy to operate. For this we can thank Apple, which probably designed or inspired the device on which you are reading this now. Though frankly, Apple does not need your thanks; having made its sleek aesthetic fashionable everywhere, it is now the most valuable company in the world.
The Apple look belongs to a different universe to earlier forms of minimalism. This is not Zen Japanese minimalism, chilly Scandi minimalism, or even stern Bauhaus minimalism. Apple’s approach is not about being content with less, or democratising good design. This minimalism belongs to a culture obsessed with personal productivity and consumption, and its purpose is to integrate our lives ever more closely with digital technology.
Apple products owe their look and feel primarily to Jony Ive, chief designer at the company between 1997 and 2019. Ive’s brilliance lay in his ability to break down barriers between people and technology. He began by developing gadgets with an inviting, tactile appearance – see the jellybean-like white plastic and rounded corners of the classic iPod – making them seem less geeky and intimidating. Above all, Ive ruthlessly purged products of complexity at every level, from the engineering and controls to the digital interfaces and graphics.
The point was to make the user’s experience as frictionless as possible. Ive wanted us to feel thoughtlessly comfortable with our devices, intuitively grasping the purpose of every button and icon. In the process, he reached the holy grail of commercial product design: objects that people regard as special to them, despite everyone else having one too.
Some say Apple is already past its peak, even if its market share is still expanding. Gone is the era when the company was regularly launching transformative products: iMac, iPod, Macbook, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch. But the Apple vision no longer needs its creator to continue metastasising: it is all around us, and its influence is only growing.
See the race to turn the car into an “iPhone on wheels”, corporate-speak for “another place to consume media”. The BMW i Vision Dee is one of the recent prototypes that follows this path. Its ultra-minimalist interiors do away with buttons, switches, and even screens, replacing them with a voice-controlled display on the windshield. Here you can read social media posts, watch films and one day do the metaverse thing. As BMW’s chief executive declared, encapsulating the main thrust of design today, “our car will integrate seamlessly with your digital lives”.
Contemporary minimalism gives new life to the motto “less is more”. Sleek devices pile up in the aspirational home, never quite amounting to clutter: KitchenAid juicers and Nespresso coffee machines, Alexas and Google Assistants, smart speakers and smart alarm clocks. Even sex toys look like Apple products now.
Domestic life is more and more a dance with machines, which listen to our conversations and monitor our sleep. The same principle operates in the digital world, where graphic design is streamlined into easily digestible blobs of colour and bold lettering, lubricating the endless flow of media. Across the board, corporate giants have stripped their logos of detail, from Burger King to Warner Bros, Burberry to Google.
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In this way, minimalism has led us to mistake efficiency for beauty. It has provided aesthetic cover for a gamified capitalist ethic – produce, consume, compete – to penetrate ever deeper into our lives. The ultimate example is of course Apple’s own smartphones, laptops and tablets, whose subtle forms and neatly organised contents are tempting to use in any situation. And so the social pressures that live in these devices, the demands of work and the pull of the online crowd, have overrun both private and public life.
Airpods are another step in this conquest: a piece of tech discreet enough to allow media consumption wherever we may be. Together with the iPhone, these white earbuds (owned by three out of four American teenagers) have surely secured Apple the title of history’s most anti-social product designers. Public spaces are now populated by zombies staring at their phones or locked away in a private world of audio.
This inoffensive, tasteful simplicity is a deception. Minimalist devices may be user-friendly, but their lithium batteries and short lifespans are not friendly to the planet. There is nothing simple about Apple’s supply chain, which consists of around 1.5 million workers, most of them employed by contract manufacturers in China. Producing several hundred million iPhones annually breaks human beings. Worker turnover is so high that some factories effectively have to replace their entire labour force several times each year.
The cult of simplicity has spread beyond the realm of gadgets. As the writer Stephen Marche observed a few years back, contemporary novelists like Sally Rooney have abandoned the pursuit of a unique voice in favour of concise, vacuum-packed prose that might have been written by anyone. Popular non-fiction writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Yuval Noah Harari are similarly abstemious in their style, not to mention their habit of streamlining subject matter into big simple ideas.
These trends no doubt point back to the problem of information overload, but they also suggest that minimalism is becoming a cultural sensibility. Increasingly, successful literature resembles the compact efficiency of the book covers and typefaces in which it is packaged.
You may be asking, can the answer really be user-unfriendly design? That would be missing the point. “User-friendly” is only a virtue in products that reduce us to the status of users. Of course tools will always be necessary, and we might as well have good ones, but the goal today is to prevent our tools from taking over our lives.
Fashion and furniture designers, architects and art directors do not need to limit themselves to the functional requirements of user experience. It’s time for these aesthetic practitioners to break the spell of minimalism, which has made slabs of plastic and glass feel like the natural centre of our existence. Embrace the organic, the baroque, the maximalist. Embrace surrealism if you have to. Embrace difficulty and texture. Anything that does not come easily, or make itself instantly understood.
This revolt has already been brewing for some time, as Paris fashion week recently demonstrated. Among the works on show were Reebok and Botter’s curvaceous trainers inspired by seashells, and a sublime runway designed by Joana Vasconcelos, where textiles in the form of bulbous tentacles drooped from the ceiling. Yes, these strange shapes are more visual traffic passing across our screens. But perhaps a world designed in this spirit would remind us there is more to life than what our minimalist machines can offer.
[See also: Apple’s Vision Pro is a bet on hard economic reality]
This article was originally published on 28 March 2023.