NYT: ‘The Opressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism’’

Kyle Chayka, writing for The New York Times on the practice of minimalism, has a great score of perspective. The article talks about minimalism as a way of living and as the design and technology world thinks of it. An example of the minimalist lifestyle:

Altucher explains that he gave up his permanent home, life goals and negative emotions. He threw away his college diploma, which had been gathering dust in storage. (“I don’t hold onto all the things society tells me to hold onto.”) He now carries nothing but a bag of clothes and a backpack containing a computer, an iPad and a smartphone. “I have zero other possessions,” he writes, and thanks to this, he has found peace as a wandering techno-ascetic — Silicon Valley’s version of Zen monkhood.

Minimalism was popularised as an insult in 1965 — the lack of art in your work was looked down upon. However it clearly isn’t received with negative connotations in contemporary works; some explanation:

“Minimalism can return you to this basic state where you’re perceiving purely,” says David Raskin, a professor of contemporary art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Less is more because you strip away the familiar,” opening an opportunity to see the world without preconceptions. The objects might look mundane, but rather than the plain metal box on the floor, it’s the stark sensory experience the object incites that is the art, no previous knowledge necessary. The artist opens a radical infinity of possibilities. “Minimalism in the 1960s was very much along the lines of taking LSD,” says Miguel de Baca, an associate professor of art history at Lake Forest College.

(Minimalism and LSD — reminds me of a singular institution.)

The article then goes to argue that for some, minimalism might simply be a form of perversion.

I want to return to the practicing minimalism in creativity and, later, to Apple’s products; my theory: removing details from your creative endeavour, limiting axes along which its properties are viewed, perceived, and judged gives you a heightened capacity of targeting your attention to detail. The premise is simple: given limited attention, a higher attention to detail can be achieved by reducing elements that can demand attention.

I can construct this sentence, provide it with some structure, or I can embellish it with abstract and subjective properties with the hope of elating said subjective perception.
The NYT article features an image of a green pea on a marble-white plate set on a yellow surface — minimalism. You instantly see how well-centred the pea is, the texture of the plate is instantly apparent. It seems familiar even when you see it the first time. It’s neat, it doesn’t make you think any further than it has to, you understand how the image is meant to complement (and possibly mock) the practice of minimalism and it rewards your understanding — I know I’m overusing the word — instantly.

This is probably one of the reasons Apple favours minimalism. But to call Apple’s design minimal wouldn’t do it justice. The absence of clutter isn’t minimalism — the omission of details. The absence of clutter is order. Jony Ive articulates this point excellently when introducing iOS 7:

I think there is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation. It’s about bringing order to complexity.

Apple favours minimalism but its design isn’t just minimal. Elements are hidden, not removed. Think about Safari for iOS — it’s a complex app and yet, at its best, all controls recede away and what you’re left with (apart from the content) is just the name of the website.

Concluding my thoughts, the article does reference Apple through Jobs:

In Silicon Valley, the minimalism fetish can perhaps be traced back to Steve Jobs’s famously austere 1980s apartment (he sat on the floor) and the attendant simplicity of Apple products. Pare down, and you, too, could run a $700 billion company.

In Uncategorized by Mayur Dhaka