Of maximalism and bold visual storytelling

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Of maximalism and bold visual storytelling
© Lars Crommelinck Photography
December 24, 2021

Often in visual design constraints need to be negotiated. These may be constraints of space, or of colour. There may be constraints imposed by a need for scalability that the design needs to account for. Constraints are not necessarily good or bad on their own. They are simply a truth to be reckoned with.

So a few years ago minimalism was all the rage. It was all my designer friends would talk about. I could see the appeal of course. The entire movement was nothing if not aesthetically pleasing. It was cool and modern and there was a focus on functionality. And it really helped with one particular problem- the apps grid on modern smartphones.

It seems like a different age altogether, but phone screens used to be much smaller. The resolutions were lower overall. Those little squares that we clicked on to open the apps we wanted didn't hold so much detail till just a few years ago. This was the constraint and minimalism was as good a solution as any.

And the whole movement had other benefits. Minimalism doesn't get dated as fast as some more adventurous designs that can get tied to a particular time.

A nice example would be some of the Bauhaus inspired designs that still look modern today a century after the school itself was formed.

Bauhaus, though, was trying to solve its own constraints related to the industrialisation of its time. Indeed an attempt was made during this time- and Bauhaus was at the forefront in some ways-  to marry art with industrialisation. The desire to inject some sort of soul into the machines made products that were governed, in terms of aesthetics, by the constraints of what was possible to produce on a mass scale in factories.

Of maximalism and bold visual storytelling
Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

That resulted in some amazing examples of finding beauty through minimalism that have endured through the decades.

But what I really wanted to talk about today is the opposite of minimalism- Maximalism. What happens when somehow or the other, the constraints disappear. What is the true potential of a canvas unbounded? What can art do when the industry decides to step aside and just let creativity do its thing?

A couple of shows on Netflix really encapsulate the idea of maximalism. The first being Love Death + Robots. I was initially drawn to the stylized logo for the series. I absolutely fell in love with it the moment I set eyes on it. It is a series of emoji-like illustrations with three of them highlighted from amongst them to represent the three words in the title. Now on paper this could be construed as minimalistic but in execution it is anything but. The use of a colour that pops, certain gradients, a spatter here, a subtle asymmetry there and the whole thing is transformed into visual poetry in my humble opinion.

And I am not even getting into the animation itself which added its own layer of thrill to the anthology simply by being as adventurous as it was. Another show in this vein that has been received positively very recently is Arcane. Just how amazing was the art design there? Big, bold, colourful. It felt fresh. But not in the sense that I had not seen such aesthetics before. In fact it felt like a product of our times. Because it seems all I have seen recently is big bold design language. Unbound by the funcional restraints of the prudent and the industrial.

I realise now that I wasn't really paying attention to just how important a strong visual identity was becoming among the youth. Or how it was being used increasingly to tell stories. When Billie Eilish challenged pop norms with her highly successful debut it carried with it a strong visual identity.

Take that album cover for her debut studio album. It's mostly white grey and then black and yet no one would argue it is, in any way, minimalistic. It is undoubtedly potent visual storytelling. I will not attempt to get into the actual story here and leave that interpretation to you. And if you get introduced to her music while you are at it I’ll consider it a win.

Also, I am wondering if maximalism isn't actually going to be a necessity to meet the demands of the upcoming future. With the metaverse right around the corner there may be artistic freedoms awarded to designers that we have not even realized yet. If our avatar can look any way we like, the possibilities when it comes to designing apparel for said avatar would be nearly endless.

In another corner of the barely-turned-present-from-the-future, there is all the NFT art floating around and the comeback of sorts of Pixel art. I am surprised by how many NFTs I’ve seen that are Pixel art. It's retro, but in the most bizarrely excess manner. It's retro by choice. Some sort of a rejection of norms. Yes, we can do smooth lines- we have had the technology to make smooth lines for ages now- but just because we chose to do it this way, here's a cat with jagged pixel edged lines.

All in all, this may all be dated someday. Or maybe we’ll celebrate it all as retro in the future. Or maybe it just keeps going in this direction for quite a while. We’ll know when we'll know. Right now though, it feels kind of right.

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