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Work / Opinion

Back to the Future: what today’s creatives can learn from yesterday’s design principles

Jonathan Notaro, ECD and founder at creative company Brand New School, tells us why the tenets of good design will never go out of fashion, and why “we crave the least amount of design possible.”

There’s a timeworn adage that goes “everything old is new again.” One may be tempted to apply this to the practice of design every few years, say, when a certain movement comes back in vogue after laying dormant for a few decades. Ultimately, that would be inaccurate. The fact of the matter is, the tenets of good design are, or at least should be, constant – they will never go out of style. Design principles, those set forth by the masters, will never cease to be influential because they touch on base aesthetic instincts that have proven to be indestructible. In this case, let’s take a look at one of those – less is more. No matter how trite that statement may seem, there is a certain undeniable validity to it. Minimalism has managed to transcend eras, fads, and overhauls to remain the absolute classic.

First, let’s examine why people are attracted to this approach. We’ve grown to value tidiness in our lives, and this extends to everything we surround ourselves with – whether it’s furniture, technology, clothing, whatever. Simplicity has become synonymous with beauty. Even though we’re mainly talking about a product being sold to us, when we see something that is clean and minimalist in its design, we get the impression of honesty. We crave the least amount of design possible because we want our lives to be simpler, easier. Nothing we buy or interact with should really complicate our lives.

The work of minimalist graphic design empresario Massimo Vignelli has loomed large over every designer’s head for the past few decades and has found new legions of fans with each passing year. A Kickstarter effort raised over $800,000 to reprint Unimark’s 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, an exhaustive paean to Helvetica. Like it or not, the typeface popularised by Vignelli has remained in the conversation for so long for a reason – it’s one of the cleanest, most legible fonts available. Pentagram’s recent rebrand of the Verizon logo uses Neue Haas Grotesk, a digitalised version of the famous typeface – one of America’s largest corporations has decided to reintroduce itself using a typeface first released in 1957. Perhaps if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The past minimalist masters’ influence over the future isn’t limited to just graphic work – companies are realising that simplicity in product design will never go out of style. Nowhere is the past’s impact more apparent than in the work of Apple’s chief design officer Jonathan Ive, who has consistently looked to Dieter Rams’ designs at Braun for inspiration. And with good cause – the ten principles of good design that Rams adhered to during his 30+ year career with Braun (and many others) are bulletproof.

Style and fashion are two different ideas. Fashion is what’s now, it’s trends and fads. But style…style is timeless. Minimalism will never go out of style because simplicity never gets old. In these cash-strapped times, people are placing their bets on style over fashion because they want something enduring. Simplicity has trickled down to how we visually tell stories and influence people, and though the practice of design is now more accessible and widespread than it’s ever been, the best work will always have one foot in the past.