Essen­tial­ist de­sign

Vic­tor Erixon ar­gues that it’s time de­sign­ers shed their egos and em­braced min­i­mal­ist de­sign

net magazine - - CONTENTS - Vic­tor (@vic­torerixon) is a de­signer from Swe­den. A found­ing mem­ber of the Cir­cu­lar col­lec­tive, his clients have in­cluded MailChimp and Lay­er­vault

Vic­tor Erixon on why it’s time de­sign­ers em­braced the rise of es­sen­tial­ism

We are the es­sen­tial­ists. You will be as­sim­i­lated. Re­sis­tance to sim­ple de­sign is fu­tile.

Sorry to be so blunt about it, but those are the facts. That may scare sta­tus­con­scious de­sign­ers, but it’s great news for users, who will con­tinue to be em­pow­ered by essen­tial­ist de­sign’s em­pha­sis on con­tent and ease of use.

Skeuo­mor­phism has served its pur­pose. By re­fer­ring back to the press­able but­tons and manila en­velopes of the phys­i­cal world, it helped early PC users get their bear­ings in the dig­i­tal one. Next came Web 2.0, all bub­bly and colour­ful, like a clut­tered candy shop. But that didn’t stick ei­ther, and for good rea­son – users wanted still more con­tent and fewer dis­trac­tions.

So in about 2012 a new gen­er­a­tion, raised online and un­sen­ti­men­tal about leav­ing the ‘real’ world be­hind, turned to es­sen­tial­ism. Soon, brands from Ap­ple to Uber were em­brac­ing sim­ple de­sign. In May,

even In­sta­gram saw the writ­ing on the wall and pawned its old-school cam­era – the last ma­jor skeuo­morph on the home­screen – for a flat, rain­bow-gra­di­ent icon.

Users have em­braced essen­tial­ist de­sign be­cause it de­liv­ers the con­tent they want, with­out a dis­tract­ing UI. In­sta­gram’s re­design is a per­fect ex­am­ple. Gone are the colour, noise and point­less scraps of UI, mak­ing users’ pho­tos pop like never be­fore. It’s sim­plic­ity not for sim­plic­ity’s sake, but for func­tion­al­ity and en­joy­ment.

Look­ing at the new In­sta­gram for the first time, I was re­minded of the Swedish con­cept of ‘lagom’. It means ‘just right’ or ‘in bal­ance’. That’s re­ally what we’re af­ter here. Why cling to a clunky de­sign when there’s a sim­pler, cleaner al­ter­na­tive?

Fear of uni­for­mity

The few re­main­ing pro-skeu­morphs saw things dif­fer­ently, of course. They took to Medium to com­plain about how brands all look the same now: black and white, bold head­lines, sin­gle ac­cent colours. They had a point, but they also missed the point, which is that the ubiq­uity of essen­tial­ist de­sign is a good thing, es­pe­cially for users, who can now spend less time learn­ing new in­ter­faces and more time with the con­tent they crave. They can move seam­lessly from Airbnb to Spo­tify us­ing this new aes­thetic Esperanto. If that’s not a tri­umph of de­sign, I’m not sure what is.

As for the fear of uni­for­mity, I’d say take an­other look. There’s lots of room for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion within the con­straints of es­sen­tial­ism. Just be­cause we speak the same language doesn’t mean we have to say the same thing. Each de­signer brings their tal­ent and ex­pe­ri­ence to the chal­lenge of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, and each brand has a dif­fer­ent idea in need of stream­lin­ing.

It’s time to ad­mit that es­sen­tial­ism isn’t a pass­ing phase. So rather than wast­ing en­ergy fight­ing it, we should be mov­ing de­sign for­ward, ed­u­cat­ing users and de­vel­op­ing es­sen­tial­ism.

Rock star de­sign­ers

Why don’t the de­fend­ers of skeuo­mor­phism see this? Maybe it’s be­cause de­sign­ers are con­trary. They cre­ate the il­lu­sion of ‘cool’ by diss­ing what­ever’s in style. When skeuo­mor­phism was in, they called for sim­plic­ity. And now es­sen­tial­ism is the norm, they’re nos­tal­gic for bevels and drop-shad­ows.

Or maybe they’re afraid of los­ing their new­found sta­tus. Not long ago, de­sign­ers were the grunts of the tech world, sweat­ing away in cor­po­rate base­ments. Then Steve Jobs taught con­sumers to value good de­sign, and sud­denly we be­came the rock stars of Sil­i­con Val­ley, prized and paid ac­cord­ingly.

And like many rock stars, we came to be­lieve we’re more spe­cial than we ac­tu­ally are. The rise of es­sen­tial­ism has made that painfully ob­vi­ous. Now or­di­nary users can cre­ate slick web­sites for them­selves, rather than re­ly­ing on us to do it for them. The pro-skeu­morphs are afraid that the more ac­ces­si­ble de­sign be­comes, the greater the risk they’ll be sent back to the base­ment, or worse – kicked to the curb.

It re­mains to be seen whether this con­cern is jus­ti­fied. What’s clear is that es­sen­tial­ism isn’t go­ing any­where; each new gen­er­a­tion of users will em­brace it more than the last. And it’s our job to de­liver. In­stead of re­hash­ing tired ar­gu­ments, let’s fo­cus on mak­ing es­sen­tial­ism work for ev­ery­body. Ul­ti­mately, a fu­ture that flat­tens learn­ing curves, gets UIs out of the way, and clears up clut­ter is one worth em­brac­ing, whether or not it in­cludes the de­sign­ers who cre­ated it.

The ubiq­uity of essen­tial­ist de­sign is a good thing. Users can now spend less time learn­ing new in­ter­faces and more time with the con­tent they crave

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