Minimalism is one of my favourite creative approaches. As much as “less is more” has become something of a clichéd phrase, I have a lot of respect for those who can direct their energies towards refining and perfecting a single, simple idea.
One great example of a famous and iconic minimalist is the visual designer Saul Bass. His sharp and stark aesthetic can be seen all over the Hollywood cinema of the mid-twentieth century in the striking posters and title sequences for films such as Vertigo, The Shining, and Psycho (amongst countless others).
In his video essay about Bass’ work, Andrew Saladino sums up why Bass has come to be seen as one of the most influential and important graphic designers in history:
“What made his work so brilliant [was that] the title sequences, the posters, the logos … all were designed with the iterative guiding principle of distilling a film’s major ideas, themes, and overarching tonality into as singular an image as possible.”
Especially considering that much of Bass’ work was made for the purpose of marketing (he worked not only on promotional materials for films, but on corporate logos for the likes of AT&T and IBM); there’s certainly a lot that today’s marketers can glean from a tightly-focused and minimalist approach such as his.
Bass’ “symbolise and summarise” approach to film promotion was in direct opposition to the norms of the time. In an interview with Pamela Haskin, Bass talked about how:
“Before that period … advertisers threw everything into the pot, using the theory that, as a filmgoer, you would find something in the ad that would inspire you to see the film … If you didn’t like one [thing], you’d like another…”
As well as appealing to his own aesthetic sensibilities, Bass’ opting for a more succinct and pared-back approach also made some sense from a marketing perspective. If you want people to get something out of your content, it makes sense to not bombard your audience with too much information.
Writing a blog post about simplicity in web design, Neil Patel elaborates further on this:
“Cognitive fluency is ‘a measure of how easy it is to think about something’. As you’d guess, we like to think about things that are easy to think about. Our brains get tired easily [and] if there’s an easier way to think about something, we choose it.”
Patel goes on to talk about the more subtle, unconscious ways in which simplicity and complexity influence consumer behaviour; noting how there’s a tendency, in stock markets, for stocks with easy-to-pronounce ticker symbols to perform better than those with more complicated ones.
Once a simple icon or format has been established, it can be used as a creative jumping-off point for a variety of other ideas. One of the best examples of this can be seen on the Google homepage.
On a functional level, the site’s home page hasn’t changed much over the years. Its expedient, no-nonsense aesthetic is often cited as one of the key reasons for the company’s success. Creative marketer Ben Meszaros writes:
“Why are [Google’s] products so widely used across such a broad range of demographics, age-groups, and cultures? … I argue that Google has invented a rhetorical web genre that uses white space, colour, and simplicity to appeal to the largest possible audience … This new genre is directly correlated to Google’s broad base appeal and continued success.”
What I find particularly interesting is how the company has managed to use this fairly austere-looking format as fertile ground for creativity with their tradition of “Google Doodles”, whereby they will regularly redesign their logo to reflect notable events that have occurred on a particular day in history.
The thousands of these that have been produced to date have ranged from commemorative illustrations to more experimental, interactive efforts (including a fully-playable version of Pac-Man) enabling Google to — to quote an article from The Guardian — turn its simple homepage into “a global showcase for beautiful illustration fused with creative technology.”
On the surface, a well-crafted piece of minimalist content may appear effortless. Returning to Saul Bass, Andrew Saladino sums up perfectly just how creatively challenging minimalism can be, when noting:
“Bass’ work comes across so simple and almost casual, but simplicity is an art of iteration. Behind every curve, every line, and every idea are hundreds if not thousands of preceding drafts. Looking at a Saul Bass poster is looking at the work of someone who’s put the same amount of energy into a one-sheet that the director … put into the entire project.”
Producting creative work is often a high-pressure task, and it can be tempting to try to put loads of ideas into a single project. Taking an approach where you consciously seek to pare back a bit, however, can be a really effective way of managing the ideas that you have.
This can allow you to use these ideas more sparingly, to create more content with a greater focus and clairty: content that can reinforce your brand's message in a way that your audience can easily engage with. The challenge posed by minimalism is certainly one that's worth taking on.