The Optimal Form

Over the last couple of years a number of software tools have come out that vastly amplify the capabilities of designers.

To use these tools the operator first defines the mechanical requirements that should be fulfilled. The program then spits out designs that are more efficient in their use of material than anything a human could have thought off. This software assisted method for creating optimal geometries is known as generative design.

GM generative design seat bracket
GM used generative design to create a seat bracket that was 20% stronger, 40% lighter and reduced the number of parts from 8 to 1.

The Clash with Minimalism

When I first saw the output of generative design software I was struck by how the aesthetic clashed with minimalism. Instead of using few basic geometries the programs created complex interweaving patterns similar to those we see in nature.

SG1 Chair — designed by Pierre Guariche
Generico Chair – Created using generative design by Marco Hemmerling and Ulrich Nether

If both software and nature are telling us that these organic geometries are more efficient when it comes to material usage– why are we attracted to minimalism? From a pure material consumption standpoint there seems to exist far better alternatives.

Making Sense of Minimalism

There are many possible contributing factors for why the minimalistic aesthetic is popular despite being far from the physical optimum.

One possible explanation stems from the limitations of our manufacturing procedures. The machines used in mass manufacturing favour straight lines and simple shapes. It is possible that through product availability our preferences have been shaped to align with that which is manufacturable at scale.

While manufacturing capabilities have played a large role in shaping our preferences, I do not believe it explains the emergence of minimalism fully. After all, modern designs often go through great lengths to make the aesthetic simpler at the expense of manufacturability. Removing seams, hiding screws and eliminating surface breaks are some examples of modifications made in the name of minimalism.

The Cognitively Optimal Design

I believe that the main reason for the popularity of minimalism is the low cognitive overhead required by the aesthetic. While products created through generative design tools might provide the best strength-to-weight ratio, having a house full of them would be mentally exhausting.

A simple shape is easy to recall and manipulate in the mind. Because of this a product that consists of simple shapes will be more usable than one made out of complex patterns. I suspect a generative design tool that optimized for mental effort would create designs strikingly similar to those we see from companies like Apple.

Every sensory input takes up some of our mental bandwidth. In today’s age of information overload we are forced to be more careful than ever about what we pay attention to. The popularity of minimalism today I believe can be summed up as an unconscious recognition of this need by the consumer.