February 12, 2018

Black Mirror and the Concept of Minimalism

When I was little, I thought the future would sound a lot like techno music and look a lot like the 1999 Disney Channel original movie Smart House. Fast forward 20 years and the future is now—and not feeling very futuristic. It’s hard to recognize just how far technology has come since I was a kid, since change creeps up on us slowly. If you would have told me 5 years ago that I would be telling a speaker named Alexa to change the music in my house, I would’ve been totally creeped out. This uncanny feeling that technology is both familiar and strange is what makes the series Black Mirror so perplexing.

If you haven’t watched by now, Black Mirror is essentially a modern take on The Twilight Zone— a dark, satirical look at the potential consequences of new technological advances.

As a graphic designer, it’s hard to watch TV shows or movies without analyzing the design choices. I found myself doing this even more than usual while watching Black Mirror, thanks to its focus on the design and marketing of newfangled products. Some of my favorite examples of the show’s aesthetic are in the episodes “Arkangel,” “White Christmas,” and “Playtest.” From sleek, minimalist typefaces and logos to ultra-simple product design, I couldn’t help but wish some of my household products looked more like these. Even the interior design struck a chord with its bright, white spaces and modern furniture.

The idea is that these devices are so simple, both functionally and aesthetically, that they fit into our lives with ease. Although the concepts are outlandish, they also seem very plausible, which is what makes the series so compelling. But it’s also what makes Black Mirror raise a lot of questions. Do I really want a tiny white device opening my blinds and perfectly toasting my toast? Doesn’t the beauty of life rest in its imperfections? Without burnt toast, would we ever feel the satisfaction, or learn the skills necessary, to fully enjoy the perfectly toasted toast? How automated can we make everything in our day-to-day lives? At some point, won’t we miss the emotion? The empathy? The very element that makes us human?

At first, all of these stark environments and modern designs appealed to me. They seem simple and easy-to-use. They look sexy. But at the same time, they feel cold, impersonal, inhuman. I can’t help but wonder if design trends are similar. It seems like every designer, including me, is constantly trying to simplify, simplify, simplify. Choose the modern sans-serif. More white space. Fewer patterns. Thinner lines. But at what point do we simplify so much that we lose a sense of humanity?

Here at Superhuman, we work with a lot of tech and software companies, a category where standing out is proving to be increasingly difficult. When looking at the competition, often the best way to differentiate from outdated, cluttered design systems in the category IS to simplify. But I’m challenging myself to find other ways to stand out and to explore unique ways to simplify systems. Is there a way to combine personality and humanity while maintaining simplicity? Can a tech company use a serif font (blasphemy!)? Can we use print, photography, and other non-technology focused art to influence our UI designs?

To answer these questions, we will have to carefully watch design trends and evolve our process as the world around us changes. We will have to experiment and find new paths of inspiration. We will have to involve clients earlier in our design process, so we can share insights about the categories and figure out ways to solve these challenges, together. We will have to continue to find ways to express our thoughtfully developed strategies visually. We will have to find ways to express robust brand values, simply.

Because as Black Mirror has taught us, simplifying can’t always be the answer.

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