Brand Design: Risks and Benefits of the Minimalist Trend

May 2020 10 minute read


- Introduction to Minimalist Brand Design
- Benefits of Design Minimalism
- The Challenges of Going Minimal
- A Trend, not a Fad

Brand design minimalism offers significant benefits for marketers, but the trend also has its risks.

If you’re considering minimalist design for your brand, here’s some food for thought about what brand minimalism is, how your brand can benefit, and the major pitfalls to avoid.

What is Minimalist Brand Design?

Minimalism doesn’t merely mean less or as little as possible; it’s a focus on only having what is needed. That focus helps marketers and designers to ask more and better questions about branding and marketing requirements, to identify and serve those requirements effectively and efficiently.

As an example, note the removal of typography from many well-known logos. The dominance of social media and mobile, both of which place restrictions on image sizes, drives the need for logos that are recognisable when very small.

At the same time, when your brand equity is as strong as Starbucks‘ is, do you need the words “Starbucks Coffee” in your logo?

As the Starbucks example neatly highlights, the right amount of minimalism depends upon the brand in question. The typography around the Siren logo may not be needed today, but it was when Starbucks launched and it probably will be for most small to medium businesses striving for greater brand awareness.

Brand minimalism is the highly intentional inclusion and removal of design elements, where every decision has a defined purpose and justification.

The Drivers and Benefits of Design Minimalism

As mentioned above, the image size restrictions of social media and mobile devices have been a critical driver for change in brand design. Creators faced with these limitations responded resourcefully and practically by modifying logos, user interfaces and content.

Brand designers produced geometric logos, with crisp typography or none at all. Web designers stripped elements from websites, while copywriters favoured headlines and bullet points. Changes like these solved problems while creating further challenges, until minimalism in brand design matured enough for marketers to recognise several crucial benefits.

The Versatility that Enables Brand Consistency

Brands must present a consistent visual feel across every medium, which can require much work to achieve. Carefully planned minimalism can deliver versatile brand assets that work well on social platforms, websites, brochures, and packaging, without the need for a dozen versions of each asset.

This versatility extends to brands that use sub-brands, with BT Group’s recent rebrand being a great example. Consider the returns you could achieve, in brand perception and design overhead, by replacing a large library of logos and typography with one adaptable portfolio.

A selection of old BT logos

Previous portfolio of logos

The new BT logos

One logo and one typeface

Many have jumped to the conclusion that minimalism is boring and stifles creativity, but we see the opposite. For designers with talent and imagination, the simplicity of your brand assets provides a versatile foundation. Without compromising your brand’s core identity, designers can build upon minimalist logos and typography to create endless variations that support future marketing needs.

Successful Communication in a Distracted World

Minimalist design can be an extremely effective way to communicate with customers, most of whom are continually bombarded by marketing messages and have increasingly shorter attention spans.

Brands who learn how to capture attention and convey a message in only a few seconds are brands that win. Think about how long you pay attention to that next post in your feed, that billboard you drive past or those screens in tube stations.

Everything you publish needs to get attention, affirm your brand identity, communicate your message, generate positive emotion, and achieve all that in mere moments. That’s a tall order and a key driver behind the trend of design minimalism.

As an example, note how the minimalist design of the Help Scout homepage achieves the above objectives using less content than the older treatment.

Old Help Scout Website Design

Help Scout Homepage, Late 2011

New Help Scout Website Design

Help Scout Homepage, Early 2020

Leaner and Faster Content Creation

Marketers are under pressure to produce a continual stream of fresh and high-quality content. The traditional solution to that challenge is to plan well in advance. After all, quality takes time and often involves multiple creators with different skill-sets. However, marketers also need to adapt rapidly in response to changing business goals, metrics, customer feedback and sudden changes in market sentiment.

Minimalist designers can significantly enable agility and reduce timelines when they consider the needs of future content creation. For example, most pieces of visual content need an image, a font or two, and an aesthetic layout. By providing a portfolio of components with clear brand guidelines for their use, brand designers enable other marketers to assemble on-brand content with speed.

The Challenges and Risks of Going Minimal

Have a quick browse of Uber’s brand site. It won’t take long before the depth of their design process begins to reveal itself. In brand design, minimalism doesn’t equal quick or easy.

“Our logo is approachable, easy to read, and takes full advantage of our name recognition. Optical kerning, refined weight, and defined clear space, as well as well-delineated placement in relation to other content, all help to make it as instantly recognizable as possible.”

Here are some of the risks that you should be aware of before you start your design process, plus a reality check about the challenges your design team will face. Greater awareness of the factors they’ll need to manage will help your collaboration to run smoothly and produce more valuable results.

Throwing Brand Identity Out with the Bath Water

Brands must be identifiable, and identity requires differentiation. Unfortunately, not all designers bear this in mind when creating what they think is a minimalist solution. The risk is that the brand assets they produce are too plain and generic to express a unique identity.

The root of this risk is the limited perspective that minimalism is only a visual style. This mistake is easy to make because most people have seen the results of minimalist rebrands but not the process behind them.

Ensure that you and your team define and remain aware of what your brand assets need to achieve and make sure that everyone prioritises brand identity factors.

Expecting Increased Returns from a Decreased Investment

So, how can designers hope to simultaneously remove garnish and gilding without removing all trace of a distinctive personality? The answer is familiarity. Designers need to be familiar with the current and desired brand and its competitors. With deep brand knowledge, designers can be intentional, targeted and produce visuals that are truly minimal in that they only include beneficial elements. Without familiarity, designers are more likely to produce work that is merely simple and delivers little of the potential benefits of minimalist design.

“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” – Blaise Pascal, 1657

Again, it’s easy to judge from the minimalist designs we’ve all seen that because there’s less to see, the project must have needed less time, effort and investment. However, all worthwhile brand design, minimalist or otherwise, is the product of a robust process. Expect your team to devote more time learning about your brand, customers and competitors than they do on creating your final brand assets.

Creating a Franken-brand

You have many, many demands upon your time and budget. It can seem pragmatic to address whichever area of your branding is causing an immediate concern, then file the rest under ‘important, not urgent’. That approach works well with the rest of your task list, so why not with your branding?

Unfortunately, minimalist design elements usually don’t pair well with non-minimalist visuals. If you want the benefits that we’ve discussed here, you need to be holistic. Make sure that your brief and your brand guidelines are comprehensive.

When drafting your brief, try to include all of your brand assets and collateral. Inconsistency, such as a newly minimalist website that doesn’t match printed collateral, weakens the brand. It’s easy to overlook things, such as vehicle livery, signage and staff uniforms, so we recommend collaborating with your team or agency to get multiple perspectives.

Also, ensure that your brand guidelines include all elements. For example; guidelines that include punchy, clean typography but no reference to imagery can lead to mismatches that fail to impress.

Brand Design Minimalism: A Trend, not a Fad

Minimalism seems likely to be a lasting trend in brand design due to the significant benefits that it offers. Those benefits are becoming a necessity, which increases the need for marketers and designers to understand the purpose of brand minimalism, know the risks and commit to doing it well.

If your brand needs to engage customers across multiple touchpoints, in a world of distractions and continual change, minimalist design is likely to be the way forward. Keep in mind that effective minimalism requires more thought and effort than its visuals suggest, and you’ll be off to a great start.

We’ve developed our thoughts on brand design minimalism while delivering many rebranding projects, and we hope you found them useful. If you’re interested to know how we can help you realise the many benefits we’ve identified, simply get in touch.

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