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