Bad Minimalism

By Gaurav Kale

If you take a look at how UCLA’s web page looked at the turn of the century, you’d be shocked – it looks even more antiquated than it does today. A mix of fluorescent colors laid out in a quirky pie chart challenges the user to make sense out of complete chaos. It’s fine though–just a remnant of the past we can laugh off. We’ve all internalized that questionable graphics and design choices are synonymous with the early days of the web (and 2000s). By comparison, today’s tech looks shiny and sleek. 

Some of the most beloved designs today are based on a minimalist approach. Spurred on by the successes of Apple and other pioneers, the corporate world has embraced the motto of “less is more.” And while slimming down has resulted in a few incredible advances in mass consumer technology, a larger part of our world has been enveloped by a torrent of bad minimalism–most of which we just shrug off the same way we shrugged off early web pages.

In trying to wrap everything with a tiny bow, design has gone so sleek that users have started to lose their footing. The classic example of this is the TV remote. Think back to the clunky cable remote that sat on your coffee table a few years ago. There seemed to be about seventy buttons, yet the function of each one was obvious, with each button’s size organized by its importance. Compare that to the 2019 Apple TV remote, which looked gorgeous – yet didn’t sit comfortably in anyone’s hand, had five equally sized buttons, and got lost on an hourly basis. In this situation, minimalism trumped usability, and the customer won. After a wave of user complaints,  Apple issued larger, more ergonomic remotes. 

While Apple TV may appear to have been an excusable oversight, there are many similar issues that add up to create a frustrating user experience with electronics. In an effort to make toolbars more compact, Google Docs has created a system where it now takes 4 steps to get something as simple as word count. Microsoft Word does it in 0. Additionally, many websites that used to run smoothly with a static, mundane interface have switched their designs in favor of sleek, more interactive pages. And in doing so, they’ve managed to slow down and frustrate the users; from Reddit’s new design to overhauled banking user interfaces, usability has fallen as infatuation with the aesthetic rises.

In an effort to think outside the box, our one-dimensional design choices have instead trapped us inside one. Before companies became proactive about minimizing their websites, they had to weather the hurricane of questionable graphics and cursive fonts. But today, instead of opening the floodgates on new ideas, people choose to dip into the stagnant pool of corporate minimalism. Both designers and companies have become wary of straying from the established formula. 

The problem goes deeper, though. Recently, during the Gamestop short squeeze, we witnessed Robinhood cut off trading on certain stocks because it didn’t have enough cash to maintain a valid reserve. A company built on making the user experience as smooth as possible invested so many resources in the design that it overlooked the actual financial foundations that a broker-dealer should have set in stone. Platforms like Robinhood have become complacent by masking up the integrity of their services with sleek user experience (UX), and others (Facebook comes to mind) offer seamless browsing as a bribe to gather and sell user data. Some online games, EA and 2K for example, have pivoted their user experience to turn their simple app into a glorified gambling site. 

With the hold corporations have over the UX scene right now, it may seem bleak to hope that it will change any time soon. But there’s hope at the end of this minimalist rainbow. In time, there will undoubtedly be people that end up disrupting the monochromatic landscape, and send big businesses scrambling to adapt to the next wave. It’s happened a few times already, since the days of that disgustingly colorful myucla page. Every time people don’t agree with the current standard, there’s a new wave of innovation meant for the consumers (think YouTube in 2007). With those changes, we will arrive at a new formula that works, one that corporations will take a longer time to pick up on and adjust to, giving users the freedom for creativity they desire.

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