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Clean lines. Elegant minimalism. Bold simplicity. Call it what you will—we’re going to call it “bold simplicity” for the sake of this article—but in commercial design, it’s the idea of achieving less with more, communicating a message without fussiness or pretension. According to British designer Stuart Tolley, it’s “the economy of expression.”
Designers have aspired to this as a platonic ideal—but the aesthetics of minimalism have become increasingly overused, exploited and misunderstood. White space works only if it serves a purpose and is aesthetically pleasing. A sans serif font works only if it reflects the spirit of what it’s representing. You wouldn’t use a sans serif to represent the old-world opulence of Buckingham Palace, for example.
Mind you, there’s a time for full-on maximalism with intricate narratives, sprawling copy, and multilayered designs featuring collages of color, varied typography, and mixed media. We relish that. We’re a full-service online printer, after all, and love it when designers have a project that lets us use all the tools we have.
But today, we want to talk about this idea of making expression truly economic. This is not about keeping things cheap. It’s not about doing a job as fast as you can.
This is about thinking hard, stripping away excess and using elements in strategic combination to produce a message that is both simple and clever at the same time.
The best use of minimalism in commercial design achieves three things together in one clear, concise, compelling communication. Let’s look at an example of each.
“Design is intelligence made visible.” —Alina Wheeler
In 2014, a major U.S. airline went through a total rebrand. The company redesigned everything: their logo, their livery, their napkins. They and their creative partners could have tried to create something wholly new. Instead, they went back to their founding ideals:
“If you get your passengers to their destinations when they want to get there, on time, at the lowest possible fares, and make darn sure they have a good time doing it, people will fly your airline.” This is the principle that has guided Southwest Airlines since Rollin King and Herb Kelleher launched the company in the late ’60s.
“Make darn sure they have a good time doing it.”
That has been the focus of Southwest for more than 50 years. And it is what makes them different. That calls for a certain way of treating customers. It calls for having a heart.
Kudos to design agency Lippincott, who kept that ideal front and center in their reimagining of this beloved brand. This, from their website:
“Southwest wanted the hallmarks of its culture, humanity and a personal touch to be expressed in ways that resonated more clearly in an increasingly jaded market. The goals were to distill 40+ years of success into a modern, impactful look, [and] unite a fragmented visual system.”
The team wanted to create clarity for the brand. They could have focused on low fares or on-time performance. They focused on the heart of Southwest Airlines.
“The Heart emblazoned on our aircraft, and within our new look, symbolizes our commitment that we’ll remain true to our core values as we set our sights on the future,” said Gary Kelly, Southwest Airlines chairman, president, and chief executive officer.
The company and its creative partners honor this ideal in every aspect of the modernized brand. It’s all about heart, and it shows up everywhere: in the simplified logo, on the lapels of employees, on the bellies of the planes.
Alina Wheeler, who has literally written the book on Designing Brand Identity, calls Southwest’s symbolic heart “the identity’s emotional punctuation.” Well put, Alina.
Southwest and its team looked to the future and stayed true to its roots, giving the brand a new clarity of the vision it has had since its very beginnings.
After all, this is the airline whose home airport is Love Field.
For more Southwest love:
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Here at Mingo Press, we’re often given to excess when it comes to our own campaigns. I mean, really, we’re a printer and we love to show off what we can do. But back in 2015, our team found a way to communicate all that we can do in what WE consider to be a really tight, concise campaign. You may remember it. We called it M.I.N.G.O.
What does MINGO stand for? We answered this deep, existential brand question in five mailings—one for each letter. Those five letters simply say a lot about us.
M was for Mail. An obvious way to promote our turn-key direct mail services.
I was for I. And by “I” we meant YOU. Because really, it’s all about you, babe.
N was for No. No minimum orders. No limits. No rush fees. Well, you get the idea.
G was for G7. We had just invested in the G7 Method to ensure color accuracy and consistency.
O was for Offset. We wanted you to know that we’re not just a digital print shop.
We had a lot of fun with that concise campaign. And by your comments, we weren’t the only ones who did.
“People don’t read advertising, they read what interests them. Sometimes, it’s an ad.” —Howard Gossage
Let’s take the example of what was voted by Ad Age readers as the greatest ad campaign of the 20th century. It was a car ad. Created by Doyle Dane Bernbach in the 1960s, it was titled “Think Small.”
If there was ever a concept that called for minimalism, this was it. The post-World War II era was a time of unbridled consumerism after the sacrifices required during the Depression and the war. Cars were a perfect expression of this, with huge, finned land yachts like the Cadillac Eldorado and muscle cars like the Pontiac GTO extremely popular.
DDB was asked to sell a small car that didn’t go very fast and wasn’t very sexy. At all.
DDB turned these differences into advantages. They highlighted them. They emphasized the Beetle’s size and shape by shooting it on a white background. They intentionally made the car look small in the photograph, and in the ad.
The typography was sans serif. No ornamentation. No fluff. It spoke quietly, in an industry that usually shouted. Even the logo was understated, tucked into the text.
The copy echoed that feel, with short sentences, small paragraphs and simple language. The tone was humble, the CTA suggesting only that the viewer “Think it over.”
And it was compelling. This quiet print advertisement drew your eye and led you through the entire ad from top left to bottom right. You couldn’t help but walk away with the exact impression of this car and its maker that they wanted you to have.
It worked. It worked not because they used minimalism as a gimmick, but because minimalism was at the heart of this brand. It was one of the most accurate reflections of a brand ever created.
Joshua Johnson has written lovingly about the finer points of the design of this campaign in his DesignShack blog: The Greatest Print Campaigns of All Time: Volkswagen Think Small
While much of this exceptional work has nothing to do with printing, we appreciate design thinking wherever we encounter it. May we all do more of it.