The Difference Between Minimalism and Simplicity

by . February 23rd, 2015

From Apple’s iOS, Google’s material design to Microsoft’s Modern UI, minimalism is one of the most influential, if not the most, in design aesthetics today.

Most modern hardware design and user interfaces use minimalism in varying degrees or form.


Android Lollipop homescreen

But minimalism is not a new phenomenon.

Less is More

Minimalism is less of an art style and more of a principle that has endured for almost a century. “Less is more” is the widely-adopted guiding principle of minimalism. It was coined by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe referring to his  to reduce buildings and their components into their simplest forms.

The dictionary definition of minimalism goes as follows:

1. A school of abstract painting and sculpture that emphasizes extreme simplification of form, as by the use of basic shapes and monochromatic palettes of primary colors, objectivity, and anonymity of style. Also called ABC art, minimal art, reductivism, rejective art.

2. Use of the fewest and barest essentials or elements, as in the arts, literature, or design.

3. A style of music marked by extreme simplification of rhythms, patterns, and harmonies, prolonged chordal or melodic repetitions, and often a trancelike effect.

Essentially, minimalism is stripping off the necessary until the core parts remain. Imagine the fanciest house that you can think of, your dream house, say a three-story house with an elaborate brick design facade, four bedrooms, a decorated lawn and a swimming pool in its rooftop. But what makes a house a house?

Walls. A door. A window. A roof.

An extremely minimalist house would look like this, courtesy of Datar Architecture.

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But how different exactly is minimalism to simplicity?

Admittedly, I was a bit stumped myself when I was brainstorming on this question. If you think about it, there isn’t really much of a difference between the two. There are nuances however that are considerable points of distinction.


Consider the two photographs of houses above. If I ask you to point out which one is “simple”, you would probably choose the photograph on the right. The house on the right is barely decorated, standing on a raised platform with an equally plain chair. The house on the left has an elaborate design, two stories high with a terrace and fancy turrets.

In a sense, we speak of something simple as a contrast to complexity. In simple terms (heh), it is a a reduction of complexity.

Compare the red house to the previous photograph of the Datar house. The red house now becomes the “complex” one and the Datar house the “simple” one and undoubtedly minimalistic. What makes the Datar house minimalist is the reduction of its elements to just the essential parts—the necessary components that makes it a house. In a sense, minimalism is a reduction in quantity.

What I’m trying to say is, “minimal” can be simplistic, but simple is not always minimal.

I hope I cleared that up.

Photo credit: Martin LaBar (going on hiatus) /  skagman 

Did I make minimalism and simplicity complex? Comment below!


Kevin is a reader first, a writer second, and a gamer somewhere in between. When not rooting for Tyrion Lannister for the Iron Throne, he's probably writing some morbid short story. He enjoys some surreal art, clever advertising campaigns, and a warm cup of coffee while reading Murakami.