February 2020

Making space for minimalism

Founded in 2009 by Dutch designers Maarten Kappert and Stan Grootes, Minimalissimo is the go to online magazine for all things minimal. Having joined the editorial team in 2011, Carl MH Barenbrug, with fresh eyes and a passion for minimalism, was bequeathed the site when the founders were ready to move on. Since then, Carl has grown Minimalissimo's readership and expanded the online magazine to include a print edition, webshop, curated moodboards, and a full service creative studio. We chatted with Minimalissimo's creative director about minimalism and the growth of Minimalissimo.

You're quite the busy man, creative director of Minimalissimo, cofounder of Minimalism Life, curator of Mnmllist, and an active design consultant. Where did your passion for design originate?

I love creating new things, but I also love to persevere with projects too—to make them as long-lasting and sustainable as I can. It’s easy to create something as a flash in the pan, but I think it’s pretty special to build something, evolve it, nurture it, experiment with it, and push its potential. That’s what I am trying to do with the projects I’m involved in. That process is a lot of fun, but also super challenging.

Did you study design in school?
As these are all web-based projects (for the most part), my education in web design and development contributed a lot to making digital products. But that education just gives you a basis to work from. As the web moves at a ridiculous pace, you are constantly learning and discovering new ways to design and problem-solve. A lot of what I have learned is self-taught, but my education certainly made me fall in love with the web.

So, it's safe to say your interest in design started at an early age?
Yeah, I wanted to create things at a young age, especially to invent things. I liked the idea of building something never seen before, but I didn’t have any clue about how to make things work. That creativity has remained with me over the years, but instead of having a desire to be different, I just want to make things that are simple, clear, and useful.

It seems that a lot of young creatives—typically in the university/entry job level—get caught up in this desire to be different, oppose to focusing on crafting clear solutions.
It’s likely down to the volume of graduates and young creatives looking to make an impact in order to be noticed by agencies and startups. I think if you don’t follow the approach of being different, it can be really difficult to find work, unless you have some good connections already established. Although there are more opportunities than ever for young creatives, it’s also more competitive, and even more difficult to find an environment where you can thrive and genuinely enjoy the work you’re doing.

"... instead of having a desire to be different, I just want to make things that are simple, clear, and useful."

You're a savant of minimalism, both practicing and writing on the topic.
I’m not sure I’d say that, but I would say I have a good understanding of minimalism, particularly in the design sense of the word. There are many nuances to minimalism, and I am drawn to some more than others, and for different reasons. I enjoy writing about the topic because it plays a large role in my work, it gives me a chance to share some tips to simplify, but also because I think there are some common misconceptions of what minimalism is, so it’s important to address those from time to time.

What about minimalism draws you to it?
For me, minimalism is synonymous with design that has room to breathe and takes pride in its simplicity, and those are key reasons why I am passionate about it. Whether digital or physical, I want an environment to be visually quiet and harmonious yet clear and intentional. Applying this in a design sense actually impacts greatly on the way I live as well. For instance, how I design my home or office impacts the way I think, how I want to work, as well as my buying habits, which consequently impacts my footprint—something I’m trying to be a lot more aware of.

Out of all the design movements and styles, minimalism seems to be the repeating survivor. It doesn't fall victim to trends and it's timeless in nature. Yet, I've often found that minimalism is hard to sell to clients. These clients, when receiving a minimal and focused solution, feel like they've been fleeced.
Yeah, there is certainly a stigma attached to it. Just because it’s minimal, it might look as if not much time was spent on it. That might be right in some cases, and other cases it couldn’t be further from reality. Design isn’t just the doing, it’s also the thinking. All design should be simple for users to understand. However, simplicity in design is one of the most difficult things to do well—to find a balance between intuitive functionality and aesthetics. We naturally overcomplicate things we don’t understand. This is typically the root of over-engineered design. If it can’t be explained simply, it can’t be made simply. We often think adding things makes a thing better, but more often than not, it’s quite the opposite. Continually adding gives the impression of development, and in many cases that is accurate, but design that focuses on a product’s essence, without distraction, is always going to be better.

I've noticed this over-engineered design trend as well. Companies should focus more energy on refinement of their product oppose to development.
Absolutely. If you build a great product that people enjoy using, remember the reason why people enjoyed using it in the first place. If you keep pushing hype features, they are only going to serve to be gimmicks after a while, rather than genuine improved UX. Don’t branch your product. Build a stronger core.

"We often think adding things makes a thing better, but more often than not, it’s quite the opposite."

Portfolio Review

A visually quiet place

Minimalissimo just turned 10. Congrats. That's a huge accomplishment. When you took over Minimalissimo, did you have a plan for the direction of the blog?
Thanks. I’m a little surprised as well. I didn’t really have grand plans for it after taking it over from its founders, but I had an idea of where I wanted to take it. Considering its readership back in 2011, when blogging was at its height, I thought Minimalissimo just needed some small refinements to improve it. For a start, I wanted the curation to be more consistent in terms of quality, and I wanted to introduce a more strict publishing schedule. I also wanted a proper brand identity for Minimalissimo and establish it as a company with the prospect of monetization. None of that happened over night, but it has come together really well over the years, even if there have been some difficulties, mistakes, and hurdles to overcome.

A print magazine and webshop are some of the ancillary components to Minimalissimo. Did you ever think Minimalissimo would grow so big when you first took it over?
Probably not. Initially I didn’t have big or ambitious plans, but over time, I think it’s fun to experiment, take more risks, focus less on analytics, and more on creativity. I opened the online shop because I saw it as another opportunity to monetize the site without selling out to advertisements. It was also an opportunity to explore collaborative designs with brands and individuals that I really admire. I didn’t just want another affiliate homewares shop like the thousands out there; I wanted to have a tiny shop with carefully selected products that we either felt really passionate about, or that we were directly involved in making. I’m not the most business-savvy person though, so making this a worthwhile and profitable branch of Minimalissimo is still very much a work in progress.

Is it just you behind Minimalissimo?
The vast majority of it is me, yes. But I work really closely with our web developer, Manu Moreale, to develop new ideas to improve the site, the shop, and other areas of the brand. I also have a small team of contributors working remotely in various parts of the world. Some focus on editorial features and interviews, and others on curation. I do a bit of everything, really, but I would like to have someone who is focused solely on B2B and partnerships. That would make a massive impact on our growth and sustainability.

What are some of the day to day operations?
Researching designs and moods to feature, communicating with brands and designers, researching creators, discussing ideas with the team, preparing photography, writing and editing articles, posting several times a day on social media, reaching out to prospective partners, developing the site with new or improved features, and processing shop orders.

Does Minimalissimo have its own studio or do you work remotely with your collaborators?
We all work remotely. I have my own office space at home where I do most of my work. As you might expect, it’s pretty minimal, but I am looking to add a couple of items to it this year. Most notably Vitsœ’s 606 Universal Shelving System designed by Dieter Rams—one of my all-time favorite pieces of design.

You're currently based in Edinburgh. Have you always lived in Scotland?
Yes. I’ve been in Edinburgh for about 10 years now. It’s a small but amazing city with a strong tech scene. It’s incredibly historic, but has a nice mix of modernity throughout. Because of the nature of my work, I am open to moving outside of Scotland, but I couldn’t see myself living anywhere outside of Europe. I say that, but I’ve tentatively planned a visit to Japan over the next year or two, so I’ll probably change my tune.

I see you're into bouldering. What else do you like to do with your down time?
Yes, I love bouldering. It’s my psychological oxygen. I don’t have much experience with outdoor climbing yet, but I am hoping to get to grips with that throughout the year. I also go to the gym a couple of times a week to work on strength and muscle endurance. I don’t really have the time or interest in anything else beyond spending time with family and watching movies, series, and YouTube. I’d like to spend more time reading and listening to podcasts, but at the same time, I want to avoid overwhelming myself with stuff I feel I need to do. As long as I manage my time and my health well, I feel good.

Twitter: @Minimalissimo
Instagram: @Minimalissimo
Photography courtesy of Carl MH Barenbrug.