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Minimalist Graphic Design History Essay

For the past two years Stuart Tolley, founder of Transmission graphic design studio, has immersed himself in minimal, simplified, geometric and reduced graphic design, all in aid of writing a new book,MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Designwhich is published by Thames & Hudson. Here he discusses the misconceptions that surround minimalism in graphic design.

I’ve spent a lot of time compiling research, a process in bookmaking that I really enjoy, but was struck by how divisive minimalism can be. People tend to love it, or hate it, and I’ve seen work criticised for appearing too effortless, which really surprised me. Even when explaining my design ideas to friends, I was greeted with the same wise crack: “That sounds easy. Put nothing in the book, that’s what minimal is." Although amusing, it got me thinking why does a simplified approach to graphic design attract these remarks?

One example of this misconception was when the then Tate Gallery was ridiculed for buying Equivalent VIII, a sculptural artwork created by the American minimalist artist Carl Andre. Originally created in 1966, and made from 120 standard household bricks that were arranged on the floor in two layers in a six-by-ten rectangle formation, the artwork was dubbed “the pile of bricks” by the mainstream press. The Daily Mirror newspaper ran a front page at the time, which proclaimed “What a Load of Rubbish” with inference that anyone who had a pile of bricks could have made the work. Obviously not everyone with a pile of bricks would have made Equivalent VIII, which is the point, but the perception stuck that it’s easy to create minimal artwork.

When at its most accomplished, simplified graphic design is so well considered and so well balanced, that it gives the impression that it was created with little effort. It just works. There’s no maxing out textures, filters, layers and ornamentation, so where’s the effort? Take a look at the Ishoku Orange book cover (pictured above), designed by Edited, which is a prime example. The type composition, arranged around the orange hairline circle, which is accentuated with a spot UV varnish inner circle, are all really well balanced. I can only imagine the amount of variations it took to get the final design looking just right.

Simplified graphic design also allows the emphasis to shift towards print production, instead of design ornamentation. One of my favorite examples is the FORMAT box set created by Trevor Jackson, and produced by The Vinyl Factory. It features individual tracks that are each recorded onto a different music format – these include vinyl, cassette, mini disk and reel to reel. The design is a celebration of print production and (some forgotten) analogue music formats, which are adorned by only minimal type design information. Fantastic.

In my new book I’ve aimed to document some of the best examples of contemporary simplified graphic design, which have come to the fore as ornamental graphic design has saturated the market over the last decade. But if you’re still unsure about the creative possibilities of minimal graphic design, please take a look at my book. And incase you’re wondering, no, the inside pages are not blank.

There’s a fine line between minimal design and design that’s boring or even worse, lazy. Remember Nigel Tufnel’s sage comment in the movie This is Spinal Tap upon seeing the band’s disastrous album cover for the first time: “It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.” Successful minimalist design expresses deep concepts through exquisite simplicity, edited down to bare essentials while maintaining intriguing details. In MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design (Thames & Hudson), author Stuart Tolley undertakes a thoughtful and certainly not reductive exploration of the topic. 

When things are so stripped down, designers need additional resourcefulness, and so we see examples throughout the book that owe a large part of their impact to tactile qualities as well as visual ones: glossy inks contrasted with matte papers, angled die cuts, and clever slipcases. And yes, so much black; many of the designs on display have no color palette to speak of, instead making dramatic use of black and white—the ultimate in stark minimalism. However, “I didn’t want to limit the work to only black and white,” Tolley says. “I used the most examples of colorful work in the final section, Geometry, so that when you pick up the book at the shop and flip through it from the back, the color is the first thing that hits you.”

The book is organized into three categories: Reduction, Production, and Geometry, each introduced with an interview with a design firm whose approach typifies and defines that category. Three essays by Tolley and one by London-based creative director Simon Kirkham round out the bill. “I wanted branding, magazines, packaging, records, and graphic design, rather than a narrow focus,” says Tolley. “A lot of young studios are working in this direction because there’s quite a big movement in simplicity and minimalist design, so I only included examples from the last three to four years.”

Tolley, founder of Transmission, a London graphic design studio and editorial consultancy, photographed the book’s more than 400 visual examples with a precise and stripped-down overall vision that serves the subject matter well. His photography maintains uniform backgrounds in cool neutral shades of pale blue and cream with a defined horizon line and almost no shadows, to keep the distraction level down and allow viewers to focus on the work.

Back to (black) album covers, MIN showcases some great ones, including Olaf Bender’s cover for Raster-Noton, a German experimental electronic music and art network. There’s also a collaborative project between artist Haroon Mirza, known for sculptural installations that generate audio compositions and London’s The Vinyl Factory, an independent music and arts label. The signed limited edition of 100 comes in a high gloss black outer sleeve accented with copper foil, mirroring the artist’s use of copper tape and surface textures on smooth materials like glass to create the sounds he experiments with in his work.

Tired of black records? Take a look at Konrad Becker’s design for Monotonprodukt 02 (above), a cobalt blue disk inside a sky blue sleeve featuring a circular die cut that reveals a red and white striped inset. The design draws from an eclectic set of references, including the look of  anonymously released 1970s dance club records and empty music stave lines waiting to be filled in—well-suited to music that’s based on a single note, droning mixes of electronic devices heavy on the sub-bass. In both these last examples, the deceptively simple packaging directly resonates with the content it contains: minimalist design at its best.