Stuart Tolley. Min: the new simplicity in graphic design

A closer look at Minimalism today - no Helvetica allowed

Min: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design.
Min: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design.

This tasty-looking new book by Stuart Tolley focuses on a “rebirth of simplicity in graphic design.” Taking nearly two years to complete, the 288-pager showcases around 150 designers working across a wide range of formats and media — from independent magazines and album covers to corporate identity and branding. The 400+ photos in the book are accompanied by commentary on the design and production processes involved.

The book is organized into three categories: Reduction, Production, and Geometry, each introduced with an interview with a design firm whose approach typifies and defines that category. Three essays by Tolley and one by London-based creative director Simon Kirkham round out the bill.

Stuart Tolley: “In my new book I’ve aimed to document some of the best examples of contemporary simplified graphic design, which have come to the fore as ornamental graphic design has saturated the market over the last decade. But if you’re still unsure about the creative possibilities of minimal graphic design, please take a look at my book. And incase you’re wondering, no, the inside pages are not blank.”

“I wanted branding, magazines, packaging, records, and graphic design, rather than a narrow focus,” says Tolley. “A lot of young studios are working in this direction because there’s quite a big movement in simplicity and minimalist design, so I only included examples from the last three to four years.”

MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design
MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design

Meg Miller of Fast Company CoDesign talks to Stuart Tolley about his new book:

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.

Minimalism is a “barometer of social change”—it comes in and out of fashion in response to social factors.

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

“I didn’t want anything that was too inspired by Swiss type or overuse of Helvetica—that type of thing.” 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.

Photos: Stuart Tolley. © 2016 Stuart Tolley, courtesy Thames and Hudson
Interview by Meg Miller, Fast Company Codesign, 25 April 2016

Author: Stuart Tolley
Title: Min: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design
Publisher: Thames and Hudson
Year: 2016
ISBN: 9780500292198