One of the key universal design principles and an important component of great minimalism is Progressive Subtraction. Progressive Subtraction is the process of eliminating clutter and unnecessary as a product or design evolves over time and it is the most distinguishing character of a great design.
Progressive Subtraction & Design Strategy
A design can either go through a Progressive Addition or a Progressive Subtraction as it evolves over time. The names are very self-explanatory. with Progressive Addition, features or elements are added to a product to make it "better" or more elevated. But there is always a trade-off between how many features are added and the quality of the design- a design principle of its own called: The Flexibility of Trade-Offs which explains as the flexibility and use of a design increases, the quality and performance of the overall design decreases. The more you add to a product the more complicated the back-end and front-end design of the product becomes. Take our Social Media channels for example like Instagram. First, we were able to take photos and post them on Instagram for an insta update of our lives. Then came comments and videos and 24-hour videos and spammers and hackers and many other rules and complications...
In Progressive Addition and architecture, first we start with a space defined in terms of the site and SQFT. Then we start dividing the space into bunch of interior walls as we need a master bedroom, then we need at least 2 bedrooms for kids and a guest room, why not add an office and a half-bath for the guests and so on and so forth. I think you pretty much get the idea of Progressive Addition by now.
Now let's look at how a Progressive Subtraction approaches design and design problems. With Progressive Subtraction, the product goes through extensive remodeling and redesigning to remove the unnecessary so the product or the architectural space starts performing better than before, more efficient and as the result more advanced and elevated. This progression takes the design through a systematic and deliberate simplification process to the point that 80% of the functions and use of the product can come from 20% of the elements and components of the design. We can see several examples of the Progressive Subtraction throughout the history with logos of some of the most famous brands in the world like Apple and Nike and even the evolution and progression of design and decor like chairs throughout the history and movements like Modern Movement and ZERO and Zen that we've talked about before.
In Progressive Subtraction and architecture, we start with the site and how to make the composition of the architectural space beautiful and functional but with as little impact on the planet and nature as possible. It starts by sketching the ideas and every part that we know exists and then do an evaluation and analysis of what we can take away from the composition that can lessen the impact on surroundings while remaining foundationally and physically beautiful and practical. It's the idea of letting the concept to naturally shape the composition and interior room flow and navigation.
Progressive Subtraction & The Concept of Minimalism
One of the key elements of minimalism is the lack of clutter. When we enter a space or interact with a product physically and visually, there are elements and components that make up the composition and shape of a design and as the result our experience with the product/design. The surface level minimalism is the idea of emptiness or lack of clutter. But a great design goes beyond how a product or an architectural space looks but how it works. To truly make a product minimal, we need to look at the foundation and all its components and understand how each element works with each other and a whole before deciding what to eliminate.
It's not just the concept of eliminating clutter but what gets eliminated that ultimately defines the use and function of a great design.
To make an intuitive design, the design should be simple and built upon human natural instincts and functionality habits. We can take a look at one of the brands that established and innovated the way to simple products in the world of IT and computer design, Apple. Steve Job's understanding of simple design led the way to products that not only looked beautiful but also were simple and friendly by eliminating what was not necessary in terms of complicated back-end coding and components as well as the look and feel and size of products. But to get to that level of decluttering the right elements and keeping the core components and essence of a product is extremely difficult and requires a deep knowledge of human behavior, the structure and the entire body of the design.
"Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, “Make it look good!” That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." Steve Jobs
Another example of Progressive Subtraction can be seen in the Bulls series by Pablo Picasso that teaches us a lot about decluttering the unnecessary until an object is defined by the bare minimum components that can communicate the same, if not more, information about a design as the all other elements and extra components. The strategic curves and the interactions of lines with each other make up the entire composition of the minimalist bull. Comparing the 11th bull which is simply a few straight and slightly modified straight lines with the first bull of the series- below- we can clearly see the progression of simplicity and subtraction of elements until the "idea" and essence of the bull is communicated, nothing more and nothing less.
Another great example of the Progressive Subtraction is Constantin Brancusi who was a sculptor, painter and an artist of the 20th century who heavily impacted and influenced modernism and modern art and sculptor during his time and to this date. We will discuss his work in more depth in later articles but what he did for the world of sculptor and art using Progressive Subtraction to define and communicate true essence and foundation of objects rather than the true representations of them was quite revolutionary and genius during his time.
“Simplicity is not an end in art, but we usually arrive at simplicity as we approach the true sense of things.” Constantin Brancusi