Designing Minimalism in the Digital Age

Originally published in HOW Design.

Now that the Internet has provided everyone with easy access to product information and online stores, you’d expect that we would all be making more frequent and informed purchases. Of course, most of us are. That said, we are also seeing a growing number of people doing the opposite. They are proponents of minimalism: the antidote to fast fashion and overconsumption.

Minimalism is often confused with the frugal living movement, where people get off the grid in tiny houses and never buy anything. While that’s a legitimate pursuit, it’s not necessarily the point here. It’s about lifestyle, not consumption.

Last year, for example, Matilda Kahl, an art director in New York City, wrote that she wore the same outfit to work every day. The chief benefit was not the reduced cost (the cost was roughly the same), but that she didn’t like to have to choose what to wear every morning. She found that when she had to make clothing decisions, they stressed her out, and she often arrived at work late, frazzled and dissatisfied. Her work uniform made all that go away.

Art director Matilda Kahl found simplicity and peace of mind
wearing the same outfit to work every day
.

She has science on her side with this. Psychologists have long called the link between decisions and stress “decision fatigue.” The idea is that making choices takes a toll on us, and the fewer times we have to do so, the more relaxed we are. Kahl wrote that many women feel the pressure to have a flawless appearance in the mornings, and thus have to make dozens of choices about hair, makeup, and everything else every day. That’s a recipe for feeling tired and demoralized. On the other hand, if you limit your choices, you go a long way to making your life more zen.

In other words, minimalism is not about having as few things as possible; it’s about keeping only the things that truly matter to you and add value to your life.

multi-function skin care products

Some brands have begun to recognize this as well. Glossier produces multi-functioning products with a four-step “not-so-basic skincare basics” routine that takes mere minutes every morning. Restaurants have started to simplify their menus to provide only a few options. That eliminates customer decisions and allows chefs to focus on producing better meals in a more efficient way. The whole gourmet food truck movement, in a way, takes this even one step further.

Simple menu and ordering — Coy Sushi Food Truck Branding By Alex Celaire

We can see this in media as well. People are overwhelmingly bombarded by advertising on television and radio. In order to watch a 22-minute episode, they were (and perhaps still are) expected to sit through ads begging them to buy a product every few minutes. Every time we ignore the pitch, we are making a choice, and that can add stress. That’s one reason companies such as Hulu, Netflix, and Spotify have successfully provided an offering that allows consumers to pay a regular fee to watch unencumbered.

Streaming services see greater success when they are unencumbered by ads.

Others have cut back on social media, whose barrage of cheery life updates and oft-unwanted thoughts on politics has negatively affected them. In fact, we’re even seeing a trend of people going through a social media purge, ridding their feeds of sources of irritation, stress and negativity.

We also see this movement in the rise of the capsule wardrobe. For years, we’ve all been under the influence of fast fashion: a flood of cheap clothes from sweatshops overseas. It’s been estimated that the average American buys 64 pieces of clothing a year, which has led to closets that are often the size of bedrooms.

The capsule wardrobe consists of several versatile pieces that you absolutely love to wear. Caroline Rector, a pioneer in this movement, says that this approach gives her more time and energy for her to focus on things that truly matter, not having a huge amount of choices that might potentially lead to anxiety and stress.

This same practice of minimalism has even been applied to relationships too. As people are busier and more time-strapped, they have begun to re-evaluate the relationships they want to invest in and those that they wish to do away with. It doesn’t have to involve animosity (though it can), it simply means decluttering your life.

Of course, minimalism has a different meaning for different people. While one person may decide that any more than two pairs of shoes would be too much, another person may have the capacity to have 15 different pairs and value each of them equally highly. (Some of us really like our shoes).

The takeaway here is that minimalists want to find meaning throughout their lives, day after day. They want to make choices that are an extension of themselves, but also alleviate the stress, while defining who they are. There was once constant talk about possessions giving people joy, but minimalism preaches focusing on the relationships you have with the item you purchase.

It may seem ironic that in this highly digitized age a movement based on emotions and relationships is blossoming. But in many ways, perhaps this is exactly why it has taken such a hold. We may be a digitized and tech-savvy race, but we are ultimately still human. Relationships still matter.

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