three colored blocks green red yellow

Minimalism is a trend whose time has come — again and again. In the early 20th century, artists and designers rebelled against representational imagery, in part as a visual response to political revolutions. Later, in the 1950s and early 1960s, bold, clean typography and flat, colorful imagery underscored the optimism of the jet age.

“Flat” design, a form of minimalism that leaped onto our phones and screens in 2014, jettisoned the gradients, shadows, reflections and beveled edges that previously dominated interface design. Gone was skeuomorphism — the concept that a digital item visually resembles its real-world counterpart. Designers argued that users no longer needed to see a 3D button or a library shelf to understand the purpose of an icon or tool. Besides, UI developers needed more space for more stuff, and all those shadows and 3D objects were bulky and busy.

Apple and other software developers were also itching for a distinctive visual style to help launch new or revamped products. Just like designers in the 20th century, they circled back to minimalism to signal a break from the past toward a bright, enticing future.

Apple’s skeuomorphic calculator and the flat version launched in iOS7

So where are we now in the minimalism cycle? For the moment, minimalism still has a fairly strong hold on current design aesthetic, especially in digital. This makes sense, since small screens are becoming the device of choice for accessing content.

Google’s Material Design, a unified system that combines theory, resources, and tools for crafting digital experiences, is at the forefront of codifying a universally understood flat-design language. It’s understandable that Google is championing Material Design: as it jumps into new enterprises like autonomous cars and virtual reality, it benefits from tapping an easy-to-deploy design system. And by making the system available to everyone — as it does with Drive, its cloud platform — it brings more products and services into the Google universe. Many brands sit alongside Google in this design space, so understanding and embracing Material Design will be important to their success.

Above: Google Material Design guidelines example

So where does minimalism come in when a company is updating or developing a brand? Classic logo designs have often gone from complex to simple (and sometimes back again), frequently in response to technological challenges. When print was king, simplifying a complex representational logo like the Prudential rock made offset lithography easier and more consistent.

Today, most brand expressions are digital, even printed material, so simplicity isn’t a prerequisite for reproduction. But today’s logos need to stand out and remain visible in the cluttered digital world, often on those small screens we all carry, so a simple mark is still an imperative. Mastercard recently simplified its classic logo, which now reads more clearly even at tiny sizes. MetLife, already simplified, added a colorful mark, which helps distinguish it from its surroundings.

The Metlife revamp underscores an important consideration in using minimalism in brand design: if everyone is using sans-serif type, flat, bright colors, and plenty of white space, how can a brand stand out? Maybe less isn’t more if it comes off as generic instead of distinctive. There’s a me-too sameness in many websites today, particularly in start-up consumer tech brands — a proliferation of simple typography, minimal text and extremely flat architecture. Turnkey website-creation platforms like Wix and Squarespace are dominated by this design ethos.

One key brand element that can create a distinctive look is photographic style. Photography is becoming increasingly important as a communication medium — more than ever, brands need to leverage imagery to tell their stories. Unique photography and identifiable imagery styles provide immediate recognition and identity.

Another way to stand out in a sea of simplicity is to take a risk on a brand element that is outside your industry’s comfort zone. Zocdoc’s recent brand revamp steps away from the ubiquitous bright blues and greens usually employed in healthcare brands, and features yellow and baby pink instead.

Of course, the minimalism pendulum may be poised to swing the other way. Some critics argue that skeuomorphism was unfairly maligned, and has an important role to play in digital design. Texture and 3D are starting to creep back in to user interfaces. Uber’s new brand includes globally inspired patterns that add textural interest to an otherwise minimal brand language.

Above right: one of Uber’s globally inspired patterns

And that bane of design snobs everywhere, the 1970s, is making a comeback. Along with orange shag carpeting and macramé, we may see a return to baroque typography and eye-popping graphics.

But minimalism, with its clarity and flexibility, still rules many communications toolkits, and will likely stay relevant for years to come. So it appears less is still more — at least for now.

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