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A Closer Look At Minimalism Today—No Helvetica Allowed

What's behind our culture's perennial obsession with minimalism? According to Stuart Tolley, it resurfaces in times of social flux.

  • <p>Made Thought produced a 96-page book, <em>Portrait of a Company</em>, with G.F. Smith, an independent U.K. paper manufacturer founded in 1885. <br />
Art Direction & Design: Made Thought. Photography: Toby Coulson. Production: Push Print, Benwells; R Young Printers. Origin: U.K.</p>
  • <p>Art Direction & Design: Made Thought. Photography: Toby Coulson. Production: Push Print, Benwells; R Young Printers. Origin: U.K.</p>
  • <p>Art Direction & Design: Made Thought. Photography: Toby Coulson. Production: Push Print, Benwells; R Young Printers. Origin: U.K.</p>
  • <p><em>Riposte</em> is a London-based independent magazine for women. Shaz Madani, the art director explains that "the type-only cover reflects our desire to make sure the women featured are not judged or represented just by their looks.” Stylistic interventions and typographic tricks are kept to a minimum, and instead the focus is on creating beautiful and simple spreads. <br />
Publisher: Danielle Pender. Art Direction & Design: Shaz Madani. Photography: Nick Ballon, Jiro Schneider, Francesca Jane Allen. Production: CPI. Origin: U.K.</p>
  • <p>Publisher: Danielle Pender. Art Direction & Design: Shaz Madani. Photography: Nick Ballon, Jiro Schneider, Francesca Jane Allen. Production: CPI. Origin: U.K.</p>
  • <p><em>The Gentlewoman</em> is a magazine that celebrates modern women of style and purpose. The independent biannual magazine works with writers and photographs of the highest caliber to create an intelligent perspective on fashion.<br />
Publisher: Fantastic Woman Ltd. Creative Direction: Jop van Bennekom. Art Direction: Veronica Ditting. Editor: Penny Martin. Design Assistant: Jenny Hirons, Karishma Rafferty, Aude Debout, Andrew Osman. Photography: Terry Richardson, Zoë Ghertner, Alasdair McLellan. Origin: U.K.</p>
  • <p>Publisher: Fantastic Woman Ltd. Creative Direction: Jop van Bennekom. Art Direction: Veronica Ditting. Editor: Penny Martin. Design Assistant: Jenny Hirons, Karishma Rafferty, Aude Debout, Andrew Osman. Photography: Terry Richardson, Zoë Ghertner, Alasdair McLellan. Origin: U.K.</p>
  • <p>Continuous Tone is a new sound project by London-based Open Editions, an independent platform for creative partnerships founded by David Blamey and intended as a space for enhancing awareness of the aural in relation to the visual. The first release, <em>Rural</em> by David Blamey, features two tracks, “Wait for It” and “Nothing Happens.” They are compositions of environmental sounds recorded in the French countryside that reveal something unexpected about familiar situations.<br />
Publisher: Open Editions. Art Direction & Design: David Blamey, Julia. Photography: David Blamey. Production: Identity. Origin: U.K.</p>
  • <p>Publisher: Open Editions. Art Direction & Design: David Blamey, Julia. Photography: David Blamey. Production: Identity. Origin: U.K.</p>
  • <p>L'eaundry is a luxury laundry detergent that smells and looks like a high-class perfume. Released by the Deli Garage, a food cooperative from Hamburg, the product encourages users to treat their clothing as they would their skin—by pampering it.<br />
Publisher: The Deli Garage. Creative Director: Christian Doering. Copywriter: Lorenz Ritter. Project Manager: Shari Linthe. Production: KAWE GmbH & Co. Origin: Germany.</p>
  • <p>Publisher: The Deli Garage. Creative Director: Christian Doering. Copywriter: Lorenz Ritter. Project Manager: Shari Linthe. Production: KAWE GmbH & Co. Origin: Germany.</p>
  • <p><em>New Philosopher</em> is an independent quarterly magazine published in Australia and devoted to exploring philosophical ideas from past and present thinkers on ways to live a more fulfilling life. Each issue is curated according to a theme, which is cleverly reflected in the simple cover design created by London-based illustrator Genís Carreras.<br />
Publisher: The Bull Publishing. Art Direction: Carlos Egan, Aida Novoa. Cover Illustration: Genís Carreras. Production: Offset Alpine, Quad/Graphics. Origin: Australia.</p>
  • <p>Publisher: The Bull Publishing. Art Direction: Carlos Egan, Aida Novoa. Cover Illustration: Genís Carreras. Production: Offset Alpine, Quad/Graphics. Origin: Australia.</p>
  • <p><em>City by Landscape</em>, published by Switzerland-based Birkhäuser Verlag, documents the work of Rainer Schmidt Landschaftsarchitekten + Stadtplaner. They are German landscape architects whose work explores the interface between urban planning, open-space planning, and architecture.<br />
Publisher: Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH. Art Direction & Design: Hort. Production: Druck & Verlag Kettler GmbH, Bönen/Westfalen. Origin: Germany.</p>
  • <p>Publisher: Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH. Art Direction & Design: Hort. Production: Druck & Verlag Kettler GmbH, Bönen/Westfalen. Origin: Germany.</p>
  • <p>Imprimerie du Marais, a Parisian printing house, showcase their expertise in<br />
paper and printing techniques with the work of talented and prestigious design studios. In 2014, to produce <em>Notebook II</em>, they turned to the German creative studio Deutsche & Japaner to create an entire visual identity for their calling-card project.<br />
Publisher: Imprimerie du Marais. Art Direction: Deutsche & Japaner. Design: Adriaan Mellegers, Anagrama, Bureau Mirko Borsche, Homework, Ouwn, Partel Oliva, Present Perfect, Research and Development. Production: Imprimerie du Marais. Origin: France.</p>
  • <p>Publisher: Imprimerie du Marais. Art Direction: Deutsche & Japaner. Design: Adriaan Mellegers, Anagrama, Bureau Mirko Borsche, Homework, Ouwn, Partel Oliva, Present Perfect, Research and Development. Production: Imprimerie du Marais. Origin: France.</p>
  • <p>Publisher: Imprimerie du Marais. Art Direction: Deutsche & Japaner. Design: Adriaan Mellegers, Anagrama, Bureau Mirko Borsche, Homework, Ouwn, Partel Oliva, Present Perfect, Research and Development. Production: Imprimerie du Marais. Origin: France.</p>
  • <p>Publisher: Imprimerie du Marais. Art Direction: Deutsche & Japaner. Design: Adriaan Mellegers, Anagrama, Bureau Mirko Borsche, Homework, Ouwn, Partel Oliva, Present Perfect, Research and Development. Production: Imprimerie du Marais. Origin: France.</p>
  • <p>Art Basel, based in the Swiss city of Basel, is a premium contemporary art fair founded by the resident gallerists Bruckner, Hilt, and Beyeler in 1970. The brief for promoting the 2014 event, art directed by Lausanne-based Demian Conrad Design Studio, was to create something new and fresh for the Swiss campaign. The fair has always had a simplified approach, and the studio found inspiration through the “super normal” discipline coined by designers Morrison and Fukasawa.</p>
  • 01 /21

    Made Thought produced a 96-page book, Portrait of a Company, with G.F. Smith, an independent U.K. paper manufacturer founded in 1885.
    Art Direction & Design: Made Thought. Photography: Toby Coulson. Production: Push Print, Benwells; R Young Printers. Origin: U.K.

  • 02 /21

    Art Direction & Design: Made Thought. Photography: Toby Coulson. Production: Push Print, Benwells; R Young Printers. Origin: U.K.

  • 03 /21

    Art Direction & Design: Made Thought. Photography: Toby Coulson. Production: Push Print, Benwells; R Young Printers. Origin: U.K.

  • 04 /21

    Riposte is a London-based independent magazine for women. Shaz Madani, the art director explains that "the type-only cover reflects our desire to make sure the women featured are not judged or represented just by their looks.” Stylistic interventions and typographic tricks are kept to a minimum, and instead the focus is on creating beautiful and simple spreads.
    Publisher: Danielle Pender. Art Direction & Design: Shaz Madani. Photography: Nick Ballon, Jiro Schneider, Francesca Jane Allen. Production: CPI. Origin: U.K.

  • 05 /21

    Publisher: Danielle Pender. Art Direction & Design: Shaz Madani. Photography: Nick Ballon, Jiro Schneider, Francesca Jane Allen. Production: CPI. Origin: U.K.

  • 06 /21

    The Gentlewoman is a magazine that celebrates modern women of style and purpose. The independent biannual magazine works with writers and photographs of the highest caliber to create an intelligent perspective on fashion.
    Publisher: Fantastic Woman Ltd. Creative Direction: Jop van Bennekom. Art Direction: Veronica Ditting. Editor: Penny Martin. Design Assistant: Jenny Hirons, Karishma Rafferty, Aude Debout, Andrew Osman. Photography: Terry Richardson, Zoë Ghertner, Alasdair McLellan. Origin: U.K.

  • 07 /21

    Publisher: Fantastic Woman Ltd. Creative Direction: Jop van Bennekom. Art Direction: Veronica Ditting. Editor: Penny Martin. Design Assistant: Jenny Hirons, Karishma Rafferty, Aude Debout, Andrew Osman. Photography: Terry Richardson, Zoë Ghertner, Alasdair McLellan. Origin: U.K.

  • 08 /21

    Continuous Tone is a new sound project by London-based Open Editions, an independent platform for creative partnerships founded by David Blamey and intended as a space for enhancing awareness of the aural in relation to the visual. The first release, Rural by David Blamey, features two tracks, “Wait for It” and “Nothing Happens.” They are compositions of environmental sounds recorded in the French countryside that reveal something unexpected about familiar situations.
    Publisher: Open Editions. Art Direction & Design: David Blamey, Julia. Photography: David Blamey. Production: Identity. Origin: U.K.

  • 09 /21

    Publisher: Open Editions. Art Direction & Design: David Blamey, Julia. Photography: David Blamey. Production: Identity. Origin: U.K.

  • 10 /21

    L'eaundry is a luxury laundry detergent that smells and looks like a high-class perfume. Released by the Deli Garage, a food cooperative from Hamburg, the product encourages users to treat their clothing as they would their skin—by pampering it.
    Publisher: The Deli Garage. Creative Director: Christian Doering. Copywriter: Lorenz Ritter. Project Manager: Shari Linthe. Production: KAWE GmbH & Co. Origin: Germany.

  • 11 /21

    Publisher: The Deli Garage. Creative Director: Christian Doering. Copywriter: Lorenz Ritter. Project Manager: Shari Linthe. Production: KAWE GmbH & Co. Origin: Germany.

  • 12 /21

    New Philosopher is an independent quarterly magazine published in Australia and devoted to exploring philosophical ideas from past and present thinkers on ways to live a more fulfilling life. Each issue is curated according to a theme, which is cleverly reflected in the simple cover design created by London-based illustrator Genís Carreras.
    Publisher: The Bull Publishing. Art Direction: Carlos Egan, Aida Novoa. Cover Illustration: Genís Carreras. Production: Offset Alpine, Quad/Graphics. Origin: Australia.

  • 13 /21

    Publisher: The Bull Publishing. Art Direction: Carlos Egan, Aida Novoa. Cover Illustration: Genís Carreras. Production: Offset Alpine, Quad/Graphics. Origin: Australia.

  • 14 /21

    City by Landscape, published by Switzerland-based Birkhäuser Verlag, documents the work of Rainer Schmidt Landschaftsarchitekten + Stadtplaner. They are German landscape architects whose work explores the interface between urban planning, open-space planning, and architecture.
    Publisher: Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH. Art Direction & Design: Hort. Production: Druck & Verlag Kettler GmbH, Bönen/Westfalen. Origin: Germany.

  • 15 /21

    Publisher: Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH. Art Direction & Design: Hort. Production: Druck & Verlag Kettler GmbH, Bönen/Westfalen. Origin: Germany.

  • 16 /21

    Imprimerie du Marais, a Parisian printing house, showcase their expertise in
    paper and printing techniques with the work of talented and prestigious design studios. In 2014, to produce Notebook II, they turned to the German creative studio Deutsche & Japaner to create an entire visual identity for their calling-card project.
    Publisher: Imprimerie du Marais. Art Direction: Deutsche & Japaner. Design: Adriaan Mellegers, Anagrama, Bureau Mirko Borsche, Homework, Ouwn, Partel Oliva, Present Perfect, Research and Development. Production: Imprimerie du Marais. Origin: France.

  • 17 /21

    Publisher: Imprimerie du Marais. Art Direction: Deutsche & Japaner. Design: Adriaan Mellegers, Anagrama, Bureau Mirko Borsche, Homework, Ouwn, Partel Oliva, Present Perfect, Research and Development. Production: Imprimerie du Marais. Origin: France.

  • 18 /21

    Publisher: Imprimerie du Marais. Art Direction: Deutsche & Japaner. Design: Adriaan Mellegers, Anagrama, Bureau Mirko Borsche, Homework, Ouwn, Partel Oliva, Present Perfect, Research and Development. Production: Imprimerie du Marais. Origin: France.

  • 19 /21

    Publisher: Imprimerie du Marais. Art Direction: Deutsche & Japaner. Design: Adriaan Mellegers, Anagrama, Bureau Mirko Borsche, Homework, Ouwn, Partel Oliva, Present Perfect, Research and Development. Production: Imprimerie du Marais. Origin: France.

  • 20 /21

    Art Basel, based in the Swiss city of Basel, is a premium contemporary art fair founded by the resident gallerists Bruckner, Hilt, and Beyeler in 1970. The brief for promoting the 2014 event, art directed by Lausanne-based Demian Conrad Design Studio, was to create something new and fresh for the Swiss campaign. The fair has always had a simplified approach, and the studio found inspiration through the “super normal” discipline coined by designers Morrison and Fukasawa.

  • 21 /21

"For me, it’s a cleansing of the palette," says Stuart Tolley, who runs the Brighton, England-based design studio Transmission. "It’s a way of stripping back work to go against ornamentation and layers in Photoshop and busy, busy, busy."

He's talking about a graphic style you may have heard of: minimalism. An overwhelming favorite—if consistently eye-rolled—style for many designers working today, minimalism can be seen everywhere from advertisements to web design (thanks, flat design) to fashion. It's also the subject of Tolley's new book, Min: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design.

Tolley argues that minimalism is not so much a trend as a "barometer of social change." In other words, it's a graphic style that comes in and out of fashion largely in response to social factors. In 1915, for example, the Russian Supremacist painter Kazimir Malevich's (self-explanatory) painting Black Square was an effort to revolutionize art and move it away from representation.

In the 1950s, graphic minimalism was a reaction to the rise of consumerism, a way to cut through the noise of busy advertisements. "[Minimalism] is a form of restraint that comes to the fore as a reaction to overtly ornate and expressive graphic trends, often during times of social flux," Tolley writes in the introduction.

All of which brings us to our current obsession with minimalism, which Tolley describes as a response to the visual excess of the '90s and early 2000s. "Previously there was a big interest in bling culture and everyone really showing off and talking about themselves that was reflected in the design itself. It was quite decorative and quite loud," he says in an interview. "But we’re really in a period of austerity now, and I think minimalism reflects that."

Made Thought produced a 96-page book, Portrait of a Company, with G.F. Smith, an independent U.K. paper manufacturer founded in 1885. Art Direction & Design: Made Thought. Photography: Toby Coulson. Production: Push Print, Benwells; R Young Printers. Origin: U.K. Still Life Photography by Stuart Tolley.© 2016 Stuart Tolley

It's this current wave of graphic simplicity that Tolley is most interested in exploring in his book. When choosing projects to include, he narrowed down his options to only work produced in the last three or four years. He ruled out personal projects, too, opting instead to focus on commercial work (according to Tolley, factoring in personal work would have meant including posters, many of which to him seem retro rather than boundary pushing). "I think there’s a bit of hangover for minimalism," he says, citing an oversaturation of graphic works that have a lot of white space and use Helvetica. "I didn’t want anything that was too inspired by Swiss type or overuse of Helvetica—that type of thing. The ones I chose are experimental and playful, and they all feel quite fresh and contemporary."

Yet Tolley's book, a compendium of more than 150 designers working today, is by no means limited. Divided into three sections—reduction, production (print), and geometry—the book features designs by studios such as Lucienne Roberts (makers of the beautiful Graphic Designers Surveyed), the inventive 3-D paper works of Swedish studio BVD Design, and the colorful geometric work of U.K. studio Made Thought.

Tolley says he wanted to move away from black and white, from Helvetica and other cliches of minimalist design, to show how designers today are employing the style in diverse and unexpected ways.

He points to a multi-material vinyl release of Brazilian electronic music producer Amon Tobin titled Dark Jovian, created by U.K. designer Alexander Brown, as one example. The records are encased in a white silicon container that resembles a car wheel—no frills, no color, and just about as pared down as you can get. Yet conceptually, it was something that Tolley, who did a lot of research on vinyl covers for his previous book, had never encountered before. One side of the record is playable, while the other is etched to give off a science-fiction vibe. "That kind of approach and design I’d never seen before and it really surprised me," says Tolley. Sometimes it takes visual constraints to design something truly novel.

Check out more of Tolley's curated examples of exciting contemporary minimalist design in the slideshow above, or head over to Thames & Hudson to buy the book.
Photos: Stuart Tolley. © 2016 Stuart Tolley, courtesy Thames and Hudson

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