Getting the maximum out of minimalism
Sometimes, it pays to keep things simple.
I was reminded of this maxim over the weekend, when I recently came across this blog post from artist and designer Christian Jackson at Square Inch Design. Jackson took classic children’s tales and rendered them as minimalist posters – basically reducing the stories, characters, and plots into very simple designs that are at once striking, yet instantly familiar.
With all the extraneous stuff out of the way, the viewer is left with just the germ of the story, a simple visual cue that – to anyone who knows the particular story – conjures up images and memories of our favourite parts of each story.
This got me thinking about how we, as creatives, often get carried away in our work and sometimes lose sight of our objectives. Sometimes, being detail-oriented can be a very good thing.
But sometimes…things don’t need to be as complicated as we try to make them.
“Is the guy running away, or coming down the stairs?”
Details can do wonders. If you’re writing a book, you may need to expound on the layout of a castle or the idiosyncracies of an antagonist. If you’re producing a radio commercial, simply having two people talking to each other may not be enough; adding footstep sound effects or outdoor ambience can really flesh out a scene.
(And for those unfamiliar with radio production, ‘footstep’ sound effects are not as cut-and-dry as you might suspect; there are ‘footsteps on gravel,’ ‘footsteps on pavement,’ ‘footsteps going upstairs – cement,’ ‘footsteps going downstairs – wood,’ ‘footsteps running away,’ ‘footsteps coming closer,’ and tons of other variations I won’t bore you with right now. Talk about details.)
However, there are times when the details just get in the way.
“Spare me the details”
A friend of mine has been working for months on a middle-grade chapter book. An artist by training, when she first began writing her story, she would spend an entire page just describing a room: how the tables were set, what the chinaware looked like, what the curtains were made of, what flowers were used for the centerpieces. It was beautiful writing, flourishing imagery, vivid detail…unfortunately, much of it was irrelevant to the actual storyline.
So she ended up cutting some of her story, revising some of it, and also leaving some of it – and her manuscript is much stronger now because the reader doesn’t lose sight of the plot.
Unless you’re Tom Clancy, there’s no need to spend an entire chapter describing a boat.
Personally, I’ve produced hundreds of radio commercials that required significant details vis-a-vis sound effects or multiple voices, but I have also produced many spots that feature nothing but a voice. It all depends on the message, and whether or not music or sound effects will add to the listener’s experience or detract from it.
Background music in commercials: Yes or No?
Clients ask me this question all the time. I explain to them that music should only be used if it helps propel their message.
Music can create drama, evoke a mood, or act as a transition from one scene to another – but it will not, contrary to what some of my fellow radio programmers say, ‘keep things interesting.’ In a commercial, if the script is not written well enough to create a compelling message, no amount of music will keep a listener from turning the channel. Likewise, if a message is compelling, why muddle it with an electric piano?
Think about your own life and consider how ridiculous it is to think that music will make a message ‘interesting.’ An excited friend comes up to you to tell you some fantastic news – but you say, “Hold on, there, pal. Let me find something on my iPod to make our conversation interesting.”
This past July, I decided to leave my position as production director for a 5-station radio group and work from home. It was a scary decision because of all the unknowns ahead of me – will I make enough money, will I find new clients, etc. – but the clincher was an examination of the details of my life. My wife and I were amazed when we actually broke things down:
I was spending $400+/month just commuting (not total driving, just commuting). We were also spending $650/month for daycare for my 2-year-old. When I added just those two expenses, I realized I was spending nearly an entire paycheck for the privelege of working! After crunching the numbers, it became apparent that my goal of running my own voiceover business and pursuing my children’s writing was never going to have a chance as long as I kept spending almost $1100 and 245 hours each month just driving and working.
The details of my life were killing my dream!
So I quit the job on good terms, finished building my home studio, and now can work on my voiceover and writing careers while being a stay-at-home dad to my 2-year-old son. By the way, I highly recommend number-crunching. It may not sound like fun, but it’s worth it: I discovered that because of the money I could save, I only needed to make a minimum of $150/week to break even. (Granted, I plan on making more than $150/week – but that’s my minimum) With numbers like that, why would I NOT want to move forward??
Just like my friend’s book, editing out some of the details of my life has made my life better.
The Pizza Margherita is a prime example of the beauty of simplicity. Just three ingredients – crushed tomatoes, fresh basil, and mozzarella cheese – on a pizza crust. Yes, you can throw in a little extra virgin olive oil, if you want – but you’d better stop there. No amount of ‘details’ like garlic, onion, peppers, or anything else are going to make this classic pizza taste any better. It is a perfect blend of minimal ingredients creating maximum flavour.
Whether it’s a pizza or a poem or an aeronautical system, the more complicated it is, the more trouble you’re asking for. As Lockheed’s famous engineer, Kelly Johnson, once said, “Keep it simple, stupid.”
Remember this the next time you get stuck writing, producing, or creating. Take a look at your project and ask yourself if the details are needed, if they drive the plot, if they’re important for the goal…or if they are a detraction. Even if it’s life in general, like mine – examine the details. You might realize there are some that need to be edited out.
And, like mine, you may be surprised at the details you didn’t even know where there.