Simply Opaque


In the last years, minimalistic design has been facing a great decline in its appeal to both designers and consumers. The shift from this 50-year-old trend has philosophical roots and it is related to the way designed objects mediate and filter reality.
Minimalistic design is often the result of a functionalist approach. Every finalized element has been passing through a series of selecting processes and all the rest has been cleared away for it has been labeled as irrelevant. In other words, to make the object interface or surface as simple as possible, the designer reduces reality into a metaphor with limited prescribed ways of interpretation and action. As a result, the sometimes over-simplified external layer has no clues of the technological complexity hidden behind and within itself. The simplicity of contemporary design is a property of the surface or, using Tommaso Labranca’s words, only a lie. [1]

Veil of Maya

The reason why maximalism is on the rise is to be found in the fact that it respects the complexity of reality, whereas minimalism acts as a filter where accessibility is obtained through opacity. When the general user interacts with an object, he does not need to know what is behind and within it: consequently, a veil of Maya is put on these aspects for the sake of simplicity. Indeed, Mattew Fuller and Andrew Goffey quote Jean Baudrillard’s The System of Objects while asserting that certain recessiveness is often a crucial aspect of the efficacy of certain design objects. [2]


This argumentation can be applied to the entire mediasphere. As the computer scientist Bran Ferren defined it, “technology is stuff that doesn’t work yet,” [3] and the remaining, what is smoothly working and it does not need to be understood by the general user, is consequently infrastructure. [4] Indeed, media infrastructure is deeply characterized by dynamics of obscureness and difficulty of accessibility: as Bruno Latour suggests, any technology that is taken for granted for its near impossibility of failure becomes opaque, [5] since the user is not supposed to understand the mechanisms behind and within the object anymore.
However, this opacity can take shape in different ways. As Fuller and Goffey point out, “black boxing is perhaps too clear a term, for boxes are rather too sharply edged to describe all kinds of operations or practices of mediation.” Sometimes, it is more of a grey “cognitive camouflage” that marks everything that is intended to be uniformly dull and uninteresting, making the process of knowing boring. [2] In other cases, secrecy is deliberately the modus operandi of companies such as Google or Amazon, whose “data centers are information infrastructures hiding in plain sight.” [6]


The more a technology works, the more complex it becomes due to both its intrinsic developments and to the eco-socio-relational implications, since more people are adopting it in their daily life, evolving into infrastructure. The combination of growing complexity and the need for general accessibility generates the necessity of minimalism: reassuring (but not realistic) simple surfaces and interfaces let the users focusing on other issues. Maximalism is then the aesthetic reaction that denounces the limits of this mechanism; whereas media archaeology has the task of discerning structures of power through technological and industrial analysis behind the metaphors and the imaginaries that media companies provide. [6]


[1] Tommaso Labranca, Andy Warhol era un coatto. Vivere e capire il trash, Roma, Castelvecchi (1994)

[2] Mattew Fuller and Andrew Goffey, Evil Media, MIT Press (2012)

[3] Douglas Adams, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet, The Sunday Times (29th August 1999)

[4] Jamie Allen, Critical Infrastructure, Aprja (28th February 2014)

[5] Bruno Latour, On Technical Mediation, Common Knowledge, #2 (1994)

[6] Jennifer Holt and Patrick Vonderai, Where the Internet Lives from Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, University of Illinois Press (2015)