It’s Time We Re-Examined Aesthetic and Minimal Design

Let me know what you think about this video in the comments!

Here’s what I talk about in this video:

Let’s have a look at one of the most widely accepted and deeply held beliefs in the UX space and turn it on its head. I had this idea while thinking of Nielsen’s heuristics, mainly “Aesthetic and Minimal Design”. Let’s just start with the bundling aesthetic and minimal together. Why does it have to be that way? Clearly, it is possible to have something that’s aesthetically pleasing without it also being minimalist. If you look throughout antiquity you will see so many examples- The Meenakshi Temple, Angkor Wat, the list goes on. 

Of course, the heuristics are written from a usability standpoint. For the design of tools and services that are to be used to accomplish particular tasks. In that sense, it makes perfect sense to let go of excessive ornamentation if it interferes with the goal, which is the successful completion of whatever task is at hand. 

The issue I have with the laser focus on minimalism is when it bleeds into other aspects of life. As UX-ers, we’ve all been there. When we first get into this field, maybe you read the design of everyday things or some of those other staple books and you start looking at everything around you through the lens of design and usability. How many times have you come across something and said “hey, that’s bad design”. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that. Some of us still do that, because we can’t help ourselves. And in many cases, it’s warranted- like when you have to park your car in a very confusing parking structure, for example. 

However, in many cases, it turns into a more tribalistic shaming of certain things. Let me give you an example from my own life. My mother loves having a house full of different stuff. Just collections of books or small trinkets or whatever it may be. She loves collecting stuff and changing the décor with the seasons and the festivals throughout the year. It’s always a very involved process for her- taking things out of boxes, putting them in particular spots around the house, and making sure every corner of the house has something placed in it. When I was younger and I was learning about minimalism, I used to think this was all very excessive and unnecessary- that it was inefficient and a waste of time, and that all this ornamentation was … just too much. That it was, well, not good design. 

Thinking back to it now, I realize that I was looking at it from a very myopic mindset. When my mother decorates the house every so often, she’s not creating unnecessary ornamentation. The whole process that I mentioned earlier is delightful in and of itself. UX-ers are always chasing the holy grail of “the delightful experience” all the time- we discuss it in every forum, in internal conversations at work, and so on. Anyway, the point is that a lot of things that bring joy to people are considered illogical or suboptimal when looked at through that minimalist lens. 

Let’s think instead from the “maximalist” point of view. Where it’s not “less is more” but rather “more is more”. Of wanting ornamentation, wanting every nook and cranny full of intricate details. A lot of cultural traditions are like that. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that the thought of minimalism as the only way for something to be aesthetically pleasing is a very euro-centric way of looking at it. The first things that come to mind are Scandinavian minimalism and to an extent Japanese minimalism as well. There are so many cultures that are not minimal though- I grew up in India and the dominant aesthetic sensibilities in my country are unapologetically maximalist, in my opinion. There’s also the phenomenon of minimalism as a form of cultural erasure- this is a more controversial stance which states that minimalism was used by authoritarianism to erase cultural heritages, from antiquity to modern times. In fact what people call modern design that was developed in the middle of the 20th century has that backdrop of authoritarianism and wanting to detach from the cultures of the past. 

As the field of UX becomes more international day by day, I think we as a community need to rethink the core tenets of our craft. We need to think about the overall contexts in which those rules were codified. I think that at least on the digital side of things, these heuristics that were formed in the 90s and 2000s were created when the internet and digital UX were in a nascent stage- when most of the creators and the end-users were limited to Europe and North America. 

So instead of shaming maximalism, let’s try to see how we can fully understand these different cultural and historical sensibilities and move our field forward. 

Thanks for watching, and remember:

Design IS political. 

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