The conversation about minimalism and maximalism is a very new one, and perhaps slightly irrelevant if only looked at from an aesthetic form standpoint. In a country where all kinds of design languages and styles co-exist, to isolate and study these two extremes is perhaps unidimensional. One must properly research it, and organise it before coming to any clear conclusions on the matter.
Having said that, since I’ve been requested to write this article, let me attempt to put on various lenses and break it down, in the best way I can. I also would like to clarify that I look at graphic design in India from a very broad point of view. For me, graphics on architecture and textiles is as much part of Indian graphic design, as are branded seals and typography.
The big picture
I often get irked when people tell me that graphic design as a field is new in India. Even though I understand that they are referring to the fact that as a formal, well-paying career, it has found new roots in the current age. But if we look at the definition of graphic design as ‘communicating through word and image’, we have been doing this since ancient times.
One of the world’s oldest scripts, from our ancient Harappan civilisation — was pictographic, hence proving this region’s long history with graphic communication.
Long after the ancients carved out pictographs on rocks and tablets, there have been traders and invaders; colonialists, kingdoms and political parties, religious texts and imperial records — all creating their own communication and even branding. From currencies to languages and scripts, on scrolls, coins, rocks, parchments, temple walls and cemeteries.
Within these lie both, very minimal colour blocks, line and dot work; and very elaborate frescos, calligraphy and textile work. Sometimes they both lie in juxtaposition in the same space, often in the same era and culture.
It is safe to say that the variety of graphic styles here, correspond to the various cultures, regions, religions, kingdoms and languages we’ve had through history. And hence it’s not just about looking at these two polar opposite aesthetics but looking at the various juxtapositions in between.
Maximal v/s Minimal
It is also important, if not imperative to ask why this aesthetic.
In India form always follows function even though the form is often so beautiful that you may forget that its genesis was in fact, a function.
As one travels through India, you notice that the decadent more maximal aesthetic may appear in instances of
Show of wealth and power: decadent carvings on temples and palaces, intricate embroideries and weaves, jewellery, typography on mosque and temple walls etc.
Decoration by the common man, often a function of time and the owner’s love for the design object: decorated vehicles (trucks rickshaws, bikes), elaborate block prints on fabric, tattoos on camels, etc.
Celebration: henna, elaborate mandaps and pandal decor, festival decor, religious paintings and imagery etc.
Marketing and campaigning: Political murals, film posters, hand-painted shop signs etc.
Minimal aesthetics show up when
‘Official’ material influenced by Western Bauhaus standards: Road Signs, Forms, Uniforms, etc.
Simple rural artefacts: we are a poor country, hence a lot of the minimalism is a function of poverty, lack of resources and the simple living practices preached by Mahatma Gandhi. Eg — khadi clothing, simple rangolis etc.
Religious and spiritual austerity: The maximalism of religious practices is juxtaposed with its minimalism in its purest form. Simple colour-blocked walls at places of worship, pure white clothing in various spiritual practices, basic artefacts etc.
Grids and systems: Vastu maps, mandalas, city maps and time tables.
I must admit, making these tabulations, although look simple, (and borderline simplistic), are quite a task and were done mostly from my memory and limited to the travels I’ve had across the country. These are by no means comprehensive. One must work on a thesis on this subject for months tot do this any justice.
One of the biggest issues is that Indian design is often seen as craft and to separate the form from the function becomes quite difficult because we are so good at hiding all that function under beautifully rendered forms. This is in my opinion a mark of great design, where form and function seamlessly combine.
Secondly, there is such a dearth of structured literature and research material on Indian graphic design in particular, that finding starting points and factual data is difficult.
A Tip for a modern Indian Graphic designer
I feel, this idea of minimalism and maximalism is forcing a designer to pick a corner, often to match trends. In my practice at LOCAL I have emphasised that one must be equally comfortable in wielding both where required. The ultimate goal is to solve the communication problem for the client.
If you either want to distil the communication to its bare minimum (eg. a logo mark), or communicate something sublime, quiet or exclusive, you can use minimalism.
But as Indians, we love to decorate and embellish, we don’t shy away from colours, and bold graphics even in our daily lives. So, our graphic design must not shy away from using this philosophy for communication, and hence our innate sense of maximalism must be embraced.
In an attempt to create more research and data points for future designers, we have started LOCAL Labs. It is an incubation platform for research ideas and projects. As students of the design community, I urge you to join this movement and help us understand our own context better. And help us all become better graphic communicators.