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InsightOct 04, 2021

The case for maximalism: Top 5 maximalist design styles

Written by Paul Twa, Paul Twa: Design + Illustration

By Paul Twa Provisional RGD, Graphic Designer, Sticks & Stones

From Alessandro Michele’s Gucci to the trends of eclecticism in interior decorating, maximalism is experiencing a renaissance in our visual culture. But what does maximalism mean for the graphic designer whose formal education has often favoured modernism and a ‘less is more’ approach? 

Maximalism is often described with negative connotations: excessive, showy or overly complicated. I would argue that Maximalism in graphic design is immersive, culturally vibrant and fantastical. Looking at the past century, I will highlight the advantages of this approach through 5 different expressions of maximalism in graphic design.

Arts & Crafts (mid to late 1800s)

The reformation of Victorian industrialization by designers like William Morris and Aubrey Beardsley embraced the concepts of ‘decorative honesty’ and gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). By embracing ornamentation and emphasizing the beauty of intricate motifs and typography, this movement exemplifies modern maximalism. 

Work created under this Arts & Crafts umbrella referenced Gothic manuscript illumination through the embellishment surrounding printed text. These ornamentations serve to increase our imagination of the story being told, whether that be a lush fairytale or an ecclesiastical epic. Owen Jones’s book, Grammar of Ornament (first published in 1856), became the guidebook to creating these richly detailed designs, providing an archive of historical motifs from the Egyptians, Turks and Celts, to name a few.

Nouveau Revival (1960s to 70s)

The psychedelic imagery of the 60s and 70s provided another revival of ornament that was not seen in the classical modernism of the 40s and 50s. Illustrations and typography are wholly integrated together in complex expressions. This style takes the historical reference of Art Nouveau (late 1800s) one step further by dousing the sinuous forms in psychedelic colours that pierce the senses.

One maximalist concept is called horror vacui, Greek for ‘fear of the empty’. This can be seen in posters, record covers and packaging where every inch of space is filled. These examples of all-consuming layouts are rich with illustrative details similar to the prevailing art movement of Neo-Expressionism. This take on maximalism was embraced by brands and advertisers looking for a way to tap into the ‘hippie’ youth culture of the time.

Postmodern New Wave (1980s)

American New Wave expressions operate beyond the orthodox purity of the Bauhaus and incorporate maximalist sensibilities. While works might be composed of simple geometric shapes, the final output is far from minimal. These works were kinetic, traveling the eye across the page in a careful dance of delightful play and experimental communication. There is an anti-design aspect to this work which takes the structure of a grid, bends it, distorts it and crumples it up on the page. 

Dan Friedman, an educator of post-modern design, wrote about this balance between legibility and readability. Legibility is the effect of simple clear communication and readability is the quality that promotes an interest in actually reading the material being communicated. Readability can be enhanced by using unconventional aesthetic configurations to treat the typography.

McBling (2000s)

For the first decade of the new millennia, we see a shift away from the more prevailing Y2K futuristic minimalism of the late 90s. Post 9/11, we observe a flourish of extravagant posturing within the larger design world. Music and fashion influenced the visual style of this era as well as the overwhelming interest in celebrities. Takashi Murakami described maximalism as ‘submerging [himself] in a surrealist world’, something we see evidenced in his famous collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Gothic and script typefaces, sparkly embellishments and bursting vector expressions of colour and pattern are hallmarks of the McBling style. We might describe these loud expressions of ‘luxury’ as kitschy, but we are also beginning to notice aspects of the style reemerge with hyperpop.

Hyperpop + Acidgrafix (2020s)

The rise of the hyperpop music genre has influenced maximalism in contemporary graphic design with a more futuristic take on McBling graphics. Acidgrafix is another contemporary microstyle that features a similarly all-consuming aesthetic. The extravagance of these expressions makes them attention-grabbing and confronting. We see the burying of white space in favour of rule-bending layouts, futuristic interpretations of typography, metallics and overlapping imagery. The use of blackletter typography reminds us of the appreciation of ornament within letterforms and expands on this by rendering the type in chrome, gradients and other surface transformations. The work is loud and far from boring. Its neglect of design standards and conventions makes it a playground for expression and experimentation. The work is its own fantasy of the world, not reflective of minimalist corporate design but something more alien and disorienting. While not widespread in the industry, these styles have a growing hold on graphics related to the music industry.

I hope this journey through maximalism has made a case for its value in the design lexicon. It’s often treated as a ‘bad word’ in our industry despite the fact that we owe much of our design history to its various expressions. The examples on this list remind us how ornamentation and visual density can provide a place for delight. The appreciation of form does not need to be in its singular presentation, but can also be found (and enhanced) when combined and contrasted with other forms.

If you are interested in learning more about these maximalist expressions I highly recommend the recently launched website of the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute (CARI) which explores past trends in consumer products, including many examples from this list.

Paul Twa

Paul Twa: Design + Illustration

Paul Twa is a graphic designer, illustrator, and lettering artist born and raised in Edmonton. Paul is a graduate of the University of Alberta's Bachelor of Design program and currently lives in Toronto where he has been working as an independent designer and illustrator. His work has been recognized nationally by the Graphic Designers of Canada, the Association of Registered Graphic Designers, and Applied Arts. He was selected as a speaker to present at the ICON11 illustration conference in Kansas City. Paul's practice as a designer and illustrator is driven by a desire to create visually distinct, thoroughly studied, and intricately crafted work for clients while also maintaining a personal body of work that explores his individual voice and creativity. With a keen interest in history, Paul enjoys studying the visual culture of the past as a way to inform the work he is making today; blending the magic of maximalism with research and intention. His annual ‘Year in Review’ project documents the memorable events of each year through illustration and has been highlighted by the CBC, CTV, and DesignTAXI.

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