Minimalism vs Maximalism in Mobile App Design
Nov 26th, 2017
Minimalism is defined as ‘a style that uses pared-down design elements’. Maximalism on the other hand is defined as ‘an aesthetic of excess and redundancy’. Quite clearly, these two design approaches are at the very extremes of each end of the scale. As it stands, minimalism is used far more prominently as a design direction than its opposite number. However, it was not always this way. Throughout most the the 2000’s, digital design used an abundance of heavy textures, detailed graphical elements, and heavy styling. This was made mainstream in 2007 with the initial public versions of both iOS and Android being released. iOS in particular used a whole host of maximalist design approaches. Where there was space to be filled and detailing to be added, it often would be. No background would be left without some sort of inclusion of patterns or gradients. No user interface elements would make their way into the system without layers upon layers of heavy styling. The results offered beautiful aesthetics but are a far cry from the minimalist design direction we see today.
Apps like Game Center later arrived in iOS 4 which used glossy design assets and felted background patterns. Each and every app had unique visuals and direction. It gave the apps excellent differentiation from one another and presented user interfaces which encompassed a great deal of personality and feeling.
Over time, these highly stylized app designs were refined. iOS 7 was the ultimate release which seemingly wiped all instances of heavy styling from the mobile app industry. Android was not as severe in its refinement. It continues to use some elements of depth and more heavy styling to this date, though its release of Android Oreo looks to bring it in line with the minimalist direction of iOS.
The question presents itself: why did mobile app design, and the design industry as a whole, move from a maximalist to a minimalist direction?
Apple saw it as a way in which to make its operating system design feel more cohesive with its slick minimalist product designs. Where in previous years they offered very personable products like the Clamshell iBook, they were now in a phase where product designs were essential a polished slab of glass and aluminium.
Often the trendsetter, Apple’s shift impacted designers in requiring them to adhere to the new style guidelines. It’s been refined further and further over the last four versions, eliminating almost every last instance of heavy styling and personality. Many gaming apps have bypassed this, still offering very graphic-intensive and detailed aesthetics to appeal to users.
Apps on the other hand have often tended to take this minimalist direction to new extremes. VSCO offers an example of this. Aesthetically, it’s highly refined and a beautiful example of minimalism as a style. But stepping back and viewing this with perspective, it’s important to ask the question of whether stripping back designs to their absolute bare-bones is positive for users.
There are cases where an icon doesn’t quite describe the action well enough. Rather than adding a label, it’s left untouched in favour of minimalist visuals. It becomes the classic example of form of function. Few would argue that the early version of iOS – in all its graphically-intensive glory – offered a poor user experience. Take buttons for example. They were clearly defined with borders, high contrast backgrounds, and well-designed active states. Now we are often presented with an ambiguous icon which blends in with the abundance of black and white. In other instances, we are simply presented with what looks like a text label. It has no clear target borders, and smaller text labels result in smaller buttons. Other examples present a mishmash of both.
Some argue that stripping back all styles and user interface elements presents a cleaner and more spacious design, therefore resulting in an interface which is easier to digest and casts greater focus on content. There’s little doubt that this is true. For stripping back everything aside from imagery and icons, there’s very little visual distraction at all.
The issues with minimalism lie with balance. Renowned architect Frank Gehry once described minimalism as a dead-end. He highlights how if we keep ridding design of its feeling, we’ll end up with little more than a canvas painted black. It’s a difficult concept for designers, since our job has become so accustomed and focused on refinement. Where before, we were looking to add to designs – to make them more unique and more visually impressive – we now practice the opposite. If we find something that is not integral and absolutely necessary to the core product, we take it away. It makes designs look simpler, though not often simpler to use. A great number of apps are losing sight of this and heading toward the black-painted canvas Frank Gehry describes. In an industry which has to be focused primarily on user experience, this is a counter-intuitive direction.
As with all trends, they come and go. Designers, and people in general, always have an appetite for something new. Minimalism will likely reach its extremity and begin to revert back toward maximalism. Sources like Co.Design are already signalling that minimalism is on its way out, referencing shifts within the high-end furniture design industry. Over time, a reversion to a mid-point point between the two design directions will likely present the most balanced user interface designs to users. This will avoid circumstances where visuals cast priority over user experience: something that occurs within both design directions. We’ll likely see buttons with borders, clearly defined design elements, and app designs with greater personality.