Minimalism can be perceived in different ways, as it should be, because there are in fact many nuances to the movement. Is it even a movement? It’s perhaps better described as a guiding principle. Some of these nuances are highly commercial, some are focused on personal wellbeing and sustainability, and some are simply an appreciation of the aesthetic. As minimalism has been popularised in recent years by the likes of Marie Kondo and The Minimalists, driven primarily through their respective documentaries on Netflix and what I like to call fast food minimalism, I feel there is a large misconception of what minimalism is. The simple reason is that similar to “sports”, “minimalism” is not one single thing.
It comes as no surprise that minimalism can at times face criticism. On one hand it encourages intentional living, decluttering, and money saving. On the other hand it celebrates high-quality design with often high price tags. You can own less, but you can still spend a lot. At least that’s the shortsighted viewpoint. You see, the cost of a thing goes well beyond the price on the price tag. When we buy something, do we always consider its longevity? Do we consider its environmental impact? Do we consider what it costs to maintain—both monetarily and our time? Do we always ignore our impulses? Now and again, we’re all guilty of answering ‘no’ to these questions, but minimalism (in one form) can help us—it’s a tool that simply raises the awareness of these questions. It puts us on the path to make better and more mindful decisions.
Circling back to minimalism and its nuances, I want to try to paint a clear, concise, and understandable picture of the differences. There are essentially three top level variants:
- Minimalism in Art
- Minimalism in Design
- Minimalism in Living
Each of these can be broken down further, particularly the latter (living).
Minimalism in Art
Minimalism identifies works of art most often comprised of geometric shapes in simple arrangements and lacking any decorative or dynamic ornamentation. Minimalist art offers a highly purified form of beauty. It can also be seen as representing such qualities as truth (because it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is), order, simplicity, and harmony. Minimalism in an art form can be seen as extending the abstract idea that art should have its own reality and not be an imitation of some other thing. No attempt is made to represent an outside reality—the artist wants the viewer to respond only to what is in front of them. (Reference courtesy of Tate)
Minimalism in Design
Minimalist design can be expressed in many forms. It can be almost anything we use. The difference between art and design is simple: design needs to work—art does not.
Minimalism in the design sense is a way to express a function with as little design as possible. It exposes the essence in order to communicate the value, while carefully balancing form and function. I actually wrote an article on Five Principles for Minimal Design. This offers further insight into what minimal design is, or perhaps should be, from my perspective.
This area is one that focuses predominantly on aesthetics, simplicity, and usability. Whether it’s a website, a hotel, a smartphone, a chair, a watch, a bicycle, or a vase—it all falls under Minimalism in Design and with varying degrees of extremities. Of course, as this is such a broad term, the value and usability of design can vary wildly too. Some design leans more towards form, others towards function. Either way, it does not make one design inferior to the other by default. Rather, that is determined by details that comprise a design. For example, consider a piece of furniture—a quality product will be determined by the choice of material, how it’s sourced, its environmental impact, and its production process. A digital example might be a website build—many sites may appear minimal on the face, but a high quality minimal site will also be coded well, with as few scripts as possible, heavily optimised, and organised in a readable way, resulting in not just quality and easily maintainable design, but quality performance.
Minimalism in Living
This area of minimalism is perhaps the most subjective and complicated, but also the most rewarding. As we all lead different lives, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a minimalist life, and people might only choose to apply certain characteristics (or ingredients) to particular areas of their lives. Someone interested in minimalism could be described as one or several of the following:
- Someone looking to declutter their possessions—both physically and digitally.
- Someone looking to reduce their spending and save as much money as they can.
- Someone who simply enjoys the minimalist aesthetic.
- Someone who appreciates minimalist design, but only owns what they feel they need.
- Someone living a nomadic lifestyle and owns the bare essentials through necessity and practicality.
- Someone looking to simplify their life by removing anything they no longer value—in terms of possessions, commitments, and relationships.
- Someone looking to be more intentional, focused, and disciplined with their actions and time.
- Someone looking to reduce their environmental footprint and live more sustainably.
“Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”
Asking yourself questions helps you to become more self-aware, but it depends on the particular area of your life that you’re looking to address. If, for instance, it’s your physical or digital possessions, you might want to ask:
- Do I need this?
- Do I want this?
- Can I optimise this?
- Can I do without it?
- Are there alternatives?
- Does it add value to my life?
You can make a deliberate decision to be a minimalist, or it can be a byproduct of the life you live, and it can evolve over a lifetime.