over-designed vs. non-designed vs. minimal design

i’d like to get a discussion going here about overdesigned vs. non-designed vs. minimal design…

some background.

i’m a picky consumer. i believe that if im going to buy something, i want it to be best that is out there and something that will last me forever. the last X i’ll ever need.

often, i find myself in the dilemma that many products out there seem just “too” designed. it could be that i lean more towards minimalism than the average consumer (i do), but often i find its the case that either there is just too much going on in a product, or there is too much effort to make a product “trendy”, “designed” or otherwise “styled”.

i dont have any examples to point to specifically, but wonder about the perception of others. thoughts? examples? in the age of mass consumerism, designed obsolescence and quick to market product strategies is there less focus put on staying power, neutrality and restraint in design than in the past?

i find the case to be pretty much across the board in most product categories from cars to consumer products to appliances to accessories. in my ideal world i suppose i would live exclusively with Braun, apple and Muji, perhaps…


Too easy, auto industry from 1935 to 1985. Only a very few are timeless, most are just chrome, tailfiins, jellybeans, or some version of all of them.
Fashion (only a few hundred realy stylish designs that have stood the test of time, the rest…just trendy crap)
Kitchen appliances, shit just give me ones that work for more than 6 months not some upside down snow cone that dont even suck up dirt.
Funiture in the 80’s

You’re not alone. Like you said, companies like MUJI specialize in “un-designed” products and the general public in the US is only now being exposed to their philosophy. Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa were calling this type of design “Super Normal” and hosted an exhibition on the subject last year. (their philosophy is very sharp). Luckily there’s scores of other designers out there (Sam Hecht, Grcic, many Japanese designers, etc) who see beauty in understated design-- I think there’s room for many more.

Exactly what I was thinking. The reality is that with a lot of Hecht’s/Fukasawa’s stuff, they realise that all they are designing is essentially a casing, which doesn’t need overkill, but maybe some nice detailing, which because of the products simplicity exaggerates the detailing and it’s worth.

I’m a hellish consumer as well though, but I think that all proudct designers are. It’s just one of those annoying traits of being a designer.

Just on a sidenote, and talking of Japanese design, have many people seen Amadana’s stuff? ( http://www.amadana.com/ ).

Anyone familiar with Wabi-Sabi (I think that’s what it’s called?!).

From a car stand point, there were two cars I’ve owned that I’ve never found a satisfactory replacement for, both from a design standpoint and a drive-ability standpoint. Both cars I look at now and see view as ‘classic’ or ‘timeless’…probably more so the Audi than the Acura but not by much.

I’m sure it’s just a weird tick I have, but I am in love with 80’s foreign car design, have been since I was 16. I like the simple lines and basic shapes, intuitive interior design, and overall minimalist approach. If you compare these cars to what Dodge or Ford was putting out at similar times, the difference is mind boggling.

My top vote was my first car ever. A 1986 Audi 5000cs turbo (well used) …and I should note it was a 5 speed. Not those crazy automatics that had a mind of their own that year!

Then a couple cars ago I had a 1987 Acura Legend L Coupe. Again…I loved it for the same reasons. Clever details inside, and stripped down style outside. I also loved the visibility while driving. The rear pillars are almost non existent and it felt very reassuring to drive it. Unlike cars now that barely have rear window visibility, let along the 18 inch wide pillars flanking it.

I have hopes of owning both cars again at some point (if I ever have to resume driving)

I’m starting to see some of these characteristics come back in cars now. The Scion Xb and a few of its kin like the Nissan Cube are clearly yanked right from the 80’s.


In general Japanese designs are minimalists at best. From interiors, to the kimono design, and even their food preparation (e.g., very little use of spices). But, for me minimalist designs, while elegant, lacks passion.

I’m particulary very fond of these brands and their design approach:

Aston Martins - Ursula Andress in a suit
Maserati - uber sexy with distinction
Audi TT - saw it, bought it - rhapsody of geometric shapes
Blanc Pain watches - timeless classic
VW Rabbit GTI - pure function & fun - Giugiaro design at its best.

In response to the car minimalist stand point,

In as far as late 80’s timeless imported car designs…
there is still nothing that can compare with these two cult status cars, arguably the strongest two European icons of their time…

SAAB 900

Volvo 240

I love how the Swedes made the 740 to replace the 240… then the 240 still continued to outsell the 740, so it remained in dealers while the 740 was discontinued first

the volvo for sure. timeless indeed. there is a 240 GT like that parked just around the corner from me and even though its a beater, i still love it. the Saab, not so much. hardly classic, though i know saabs tend to bring out a more love/hate feeling in people.

i had a 84 bmw 318i back in the day, and still find its one of the most simple, classic cars of the ear, IMHO. its almost like that Marc Newson car in its proportions and form.

but i digress… (dont want to turn the thread into a car one, really).

indeed though, the japanese design stuff and of course german design minimalism fits the mold of what im talking about. what im more curious about is why the “understated” approach to design hasnt in some way penetrated all consumer product markets. it still seems that while common in some areas (ie. computers, thanks to apple), there are others that still are full of overdesigned, “styled” product. think of that huge thread on power tools, for example…or even more common products; i was looking for an electric toothbrush the other day, but couldnt find one that didnt look like a light sabre, so gave up!

as for 80’s furniture, dont get me started. the best stuff was just pretty much copies of 1920’s bauhaus stuff (bent tubes, chrome and all) and the worst (PoMo) was practically a crime on humanity (shield your eyes from the turquoise, pink, stripes and angles!)…


Ok, I’m probably more than a little biased since this was my first car, but there’s something so timeless about the simple curves of the 92-95 Civic sedans. Add the great mileage, low cost of ownership–it was a the sort of product that rewarded you with every use.

The best example of mass-minimalist design success is IKEA! They probably have the biggest industrial design staff than any other company.

Another furniture retail WEST ELM also has nice looking furnitures that are minimalist in design.

PS. I could I forget the Saab 900 - I used to own one!

I want to post one of my long winded posts here, but I’m still not sure what you are asking Richard.

As far as the product categories you mention (electric tooth brush and power tools), I think the designs are directed more by inertia than research or trying to reach out to different users. In companies that I’ve worked with that had a long history of evolutionary “overly-styled” (your words), generic (my words) design, the reason has been that management doesn’t want to alienate their customers. So change is banned.

I think cars and sporting goods might be good examples of whole industries that are not stuck in this rut. Both have a wide diversity of looks, not just 1 generic one.

Thought of another product whose success and almost legendary status in the professional DJ world, I feel, is in part due to its minimalist design: The Technics SL-1200. It’s gone through many revisions since 1972 with very little difference in outward design.

I spun some vinyl on a friends Numark tables a couple of months ago… more lcds, knobs, curves, angles, shiny bits than you could shake a stick at.

I allways like B and O stuff, on autos, oh there are a few, lotus elan (1970) jag xke/ xk150/pinnfraina designed 3.0csl bmw. But we are talking about over designed geck…Cellphones! and (duckin now for cover) athletic shoes…come on how many colors are needed?

i agree with you! I am a huge fan of minimal design. but how is it possible to demonstrate minimal design without making the product your working on look like its not really designed. a good example i think is the ipod. a lot of people (none designers) think that the ipod has no design. i personally think its perfect. any feed back?

i personally thing “not looking designed” is exactly what im talking about! a good way to put it. i would almost even argue that all good design should be somewhat invisible. like good typography product design when done well is the seemless interface between a product’s function, personality and style. not not looking “designed” it means that the user accepts the design as-is and focuses on the product itself…

of course design can also be overt, but in minimalism, i think an appearance of “non-designed” when it has been in fact highly designed (ie. ipod) is a good thing to strive for. better at least, IMHO than an object that just makes you wish it were designed differently.


I think Jasper Morrison’s work for Rowenta is a good example of this. Just super nice design. Not flashy at all.

But I also think the full spectrum should be available for those with different tastes and that great design is possible along all points of that spectrum. Without the dark there is no light… wasn’t that from a Tom Cruise movie?

I’m not sure where I started thinking about this, in this thread, or the consultant one. I guess this is as good a place as any to put my thoughts down. I want to compare these two works:

Both of these cars are not simple. Both are examples of post war streamlining. Both have fins and chrome. Both were also unsuccessful.

In spites of sales & appearance concept though, I think the Studebaker is a good design. In fact, I think it is a fairly timeless design. At least, I’ve loved it ever since I was 8 (when my dad told me it was a POS).

This is what gets me excited. Good design, no matter what style. I still have a Zip drive on my shelf at home, and I like looking at its '90’s post-modern box. In fact, that might be what stops me from throwing it away.

Maybe it’s just me though. I remember during architecture history classes how my favorite architect was Le Corbusier. It was such a breath of fresh air to see his works. We had just been going on about Gropius, van de Rohe, Johnson, Pei and the other modernists. All their buildings looked like they could have been the same architect. Then we hit Le Corbusier. It was clear to me that he was playing by the same modernist rules, but he experimented. Even his most sombre works still have his signature. I can’t explain it.

Even the modernists I like aren’t simple…


i totally agree. i am reaching a point in my real young design career that i can no longer stand organic shapes or the companies that force their designers to go that route. my eye finds simple forms much more pleasing than complicated shapes that has me thinking what the product is suppose to be. i hope i didnt offend any one by saying im not a fan of organic design. :wink:

i love the design of B&O, ipod, etc… wouldnt all this fit under bauhaus school of design? (open for debate)

never been a fan of organic forms.

i try to emulate the modernist acrhitects, not necessarily in form, but in restraint. knowing when to stop is an excercise in discipline.

Lots of good discussion so far… my $0.02:

Over designed items - the trendy stuff, over styled, the gaudy, etc. - isn’t new. We’ve had ornate and over the top stuff since the first time someone figured out how to take a plain object and decorate it to make it “better”. Its easy to tack on more and more, and difficult to say stop or even to remove what’s already tacked on. The fleeting definition of good and bad style is what changes over time. I dare say we’ve also had ‘minimalist’ counter balance the entire time as well, even if often considered unpopular or now ‘forgotten’ by history; it took until late in the industrial revolution to come up with terms and design movements dedicated to it (modern, Bauhaus, post-modern, etc.); Shaker furniture is a good example of a minimalist counter trend from years past. I don’t think we see so much of the past’s over designed/styled common objects around now, since the stuff was thrown out when it fell out of style (just like today…). Antiques/old stuff that is still around today is likely the “best” of past objects, the stuff that was built to a higher standard, more expensive (and better cared for because of it), or even “timeless” (less trendy?) in style so it wasn’t thrown out when the next cool thing came down the pipeline.

Planned obsolescence isn’t such a new concept, although aknowledgement of it might be more recent. We’ve just gotten better at making things more cheaply due to new materials. It makes perfect business sense to make something that will wear out sooner, so that your customers will return for another one sooner, profits be praised and all else be damned!

Non-designed items? The only examples I can think of are organic in origin - produce, for example. One might count hybrid or genetically modified produce as designed, however. In most cases, even if the product isn’t designed (water for example) the packaging is, as well as the infrastructure from wholesaler to point-of-sale at the store. If its for sale, chances are some aspect of its manufacture, transport, and/or sale has been designed.

Minimalism and simplicity at its most basic is terrifically difficult to achieve in a commercially viable product I think. I think that part of it is human nature, to make things more complex “because it feels right” or whatever reason it is people use to justify excess. There are a few good examples of very well done minimally designed products, but there are a seemingly infinite number of examples of the opposite lying dead on the side of the road of progress. At the consumer level, contemporary minimalism is still about being trendy and cool, just like garishly colored sneakers or any other trendy-style object, even if they may be polar opposites on the style-o-meter. We didn’t see a lot of minimalist products in the US until the minimalism trend gained a certain popularity, and even then, that trend is not very far reaching, nor are the stores that sell decidedly minimalist products - IKEA for example, although they are gaining some ground.

As a designer, though, my ideal product (anything and everything) is devoid of any style trends and made to last forever without causing any environmental harm nor wearing out, breaking, or failing. The ultimate triumph of function over form (and design over consumerism/industrialization) which is beautiful in and of itself (to a designer, anyway). But that’s not achievable in the real world, at least not for consumer goods, without a massive and total shift in consumer attitudes and shopping habits, and total shift in the definition of business…