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A Major trend – Simple, useful and efficient

Since 2009 we can observe a return to simplicity (re) taking place all over the world. This worldwide trend affects many areas such as packaging, furniture, signage, interface and interaction, objects and architecture. But not only. This is in fact the illustration of a major societal movement.We want and need many aspects of our everyday lives to be simplified so we can concentrate all our energy on « simple and  true » things.

This trend is by no means new and is drawing its inspiration from a story full of twists and turns, since the beginnings of industrial design to the arrival of Swiss Graphic Style in 1950.

Design trends are set by the evolutions and changes in our everyday world. People change, lifestyles and behaviours too and design adapts itself. It is not necessarily designers who push for changes, but their role is observe the world critically, both analytically and creatively. If we analyse the path our world has taken and compare it with the evolution of design, we quickly notice that it oscillates between two major trends:

  • Functionalism: in-depth work on usability, efficiency, relevance and feasibility;
  • styling: more superficial work on the visual appearance of objects with the main goal being attractiveness.

Obviously designers generally have always taken into account both parameters, but depending on the period considered, the cursor is placed more to one side than to the other. Authoritative Books on twentieth century industrial design*, clearly describe how the economic environment is closely linked to Design changes. In particular, we note that during periods of economic difficulty, functionalism is the leading tendency.

  • Times of Economic Crisis = search for simplicity, effectiveness, efficiency;
  • Periods of Prosperity = search for beauty and attractiveness


« Ornament and Crime »

Looking at the beginning of the 1900s we find a period of “rupture”. A certain number of people such as Adolf Loos, William Morris and Walter Gropius had a significant impact on the transition between “aestheticism” and “functionalism”. Following a period based on aestheticism with among other artistic movements “Art Nouveau” (Hector Guimard, Antonio Gaudí) we note a clear desire of returning to simplicity. It was at this time, precisely in 1908, that the social and humanist architect Adolf Loos wrote a text he called “Ornament and Crime”. This book advocates a simple idea “form must express the building’s function, without unnecessary ornaments.” In particular, he speaks about what he calls the “heresy of ornament” in a modern world and the beauty of the materials in their raw state. An example of his accomplishments is shown below (Villa Müller).

Villa Müller

The thought of the moment became, “aesthetics comes after functional considerations”. With the birth of the Bauhaus school, the ideas evolved such that the development of artistic values should combine with the need for industrialization. The principles emerging at this time in design and architecture are mainly:

  • Man is at the center of design. Simplicity, bare style, sobriety and unadorned.
  • Ergonomic studies must be performed .  Functional analyzes of created objects is essential.
  • The designer works in phase with the uses and needs.

We find at this period the work of Charlotte Perriand and Marcel Breuer (among others) with two well-known chairs (below), which have become inescapable and timeless.



Utility, simplicity, efficiency

These three keywords form the basis of Microsoft’s “Modern Design vision”  philosophy and represent its guideline since November 2010. These three words illustrate precisely the overall direction that this ultra present trend has been leading us in the digital world in recent years.

Speaking of interfaces, how could we not spot the comeback of the Swiss style also known as “international graphic style” which was developed in the 50s. This style has much in common with the design trends which appeared in the early twentieth century. Since 2011, many visual designers and illustrators have even appropriated the guidelines of this timeless style in their digital graphic design:

  • Simplicity and readability;
  • using beautiful pictures or simple visual designs;
  • sans Serif, font style (Helvetica created in 1957);
  • left-aligned text;
  • using a precise grid and working on the hierarchy of information through typography.


Simple and smooth animations

Animations create emotion and provide a better understanding of what we are doing or what we are looking at. A simple example: When designing applications for tablets, we often speak about “visual feedback.” This is in fact simple animations which improve understanding of the user. A few years ago at a conference given by Microsoft we learned that one of their sources of inspiration for the development of their style Modern Design was Saul Bass. The simplicity of the animations invented by this artist can be a great source of inspiration as they combine emotions and narration (aid to understand the mood of the film through words, lines, and shapes.) An example is shown below.


Monoprix, “what can we do for you today?” (french supermarket)

In France, the first major brand that surprised by adhering to this trend where content is central, was  Monoprix between 2009 and 2010. To do this, they undertook a complete renewal of their brand identity, advertising campaigns, their website and their packaging. I am still surprised by their creativity and humour that they dare to apply in their product promotion. At this time Monoprix explaine their strategy as follows

“On the packaging of these products, we decided in the majority of cases, to not use visual designs. The description (text) acts as the visual. These products express everyday life and must be recognised without trouble and, without cheating”.

Few examples below.



Todays Examples 

The return to simplicity in shapes, colors and interaction between us and our objects is everywhere. We are aiming at visually simplifying our existence and our daily lives. Below you will find a Pinterest gallery, which brings together application examples of this trend.


The place of connected objects in this trend

The explosive arrival of connected objects is following exactly the same trend. Again we try to simplify (again awkwardly) all aspects of our lives through smart objects. The possibilities are huge with the Internet of Things. But the question that some people are beginning to ask themselves is “how far will we accept to be guided or even replaced with the sole purpose of simplifying our lives?”. The Internet of Things must be present in our lives primarily to facilitate them and improve our quality of life but this facilitation must obviously take into account our personalities, our reactions, our emotions and leave room for our free will. I had the chance to discuss this topic with several people with radically different visions and my interlocutors have all expressed at least one of the three feelings below:

  • Distrust: Overall the idea that we will need to be careful about the evolution of society and objects that will accompany us;
  • lack of understanding: Those completely lost; when faced with these changes and evolutions that seems too brutal;
  • impatience and Excitement: Those who want the world to move as rapidly as possible along a seemingly straight digital road towards what they consider to be an inevitable outcome.

Reactions and feelings are strong around these objects and this trend. It affects all areas mentioned at the beginning of the article but also our behavior and lifestyle. That’s why it seems so important. However, new objects will need in the future to respect the three key values of this trend: simplicity, efficiency and effectiveness.


“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that it must be changed every six months” **

Although this trend is anchored in our past, our present and in our future, we must always keep in mind that times are changing fast and that the world is constantly in motion. A trend like this, also inspires other minor and not long-lasting trends, but that must be followed closely. I will conclude with this sentence of Piet Mondrian (painter of the modern movement of the twentieth century) that I find appropriate to illustrate our current position on our artistic choices and innovations for the future:

“At every moment of the past all variations of the past were “new”. But it was the new. We should not forget that we stand at the end of a culture, at the end of everything old”***


* Sources
Design du XXème siècle  Taschen
Histoire du Design de 1940 à nos jours by Raymond Guidot
Ornement et Crime by Adolf Loos
4 vidéos on user experience and Microsoft Metro style – Microsoft Build 2011

** “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months” Oscar Wilde – Sentence used since 1883
*** Piet Mondrian – Die neue Typography – Berlin -1928