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.


“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

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.