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  • Dorian Winter

are we scared of beauty? a design manifesto

what exactly inspired our shift from intricate, filigree patterns to an acceptance of extreme minimalism and simplicity?

have brands focused too much on heuristics (that lightning-bolt moment of 'i know that symbol!') instead of focusing on the production of thoughtful, meaningful designs?

this is not to say that modern packaging design is bad or unworthy (i will touch on some good examples later on) - but is anybody else wondering why things have shifted the way they have? and whether the re-emergence of heritage branding and vintage inspirations (both in illustrative and typographic realms) might be the start of a more aesthetically-pleasing (albeit corporate) future?

hypothesis 1: purity & the clean girl aesthetic

we are victim to collective associations. it's likely that you've seen extremely busy, detail-heavy (but modern) packaging, and only started to envision the ingredient-heavy, artificial list waiting for you at the back. because of this, you may stop for a minute, and favour the simpler product on the shelf.

'surely it's more pure, organic - simpler.'

popular brands like aesop (and now examples like grown alchemist, necessaire) not only look good in your pinterest posts, or on your bathroom counter - but they are distinctly marketed in a way that emphasizes purity and cleanliness - whether leaning hugely into the 'organic & natural' origins of their product, or instead projecting a lab-like tableau of purity.

this, paired with the clean girl aesthetic, is a statement about purity (which eventually becomes a statement about class. how else do you achieve this kind of purity?). it is not enough to have a simple design. a simple design + a hefty price tag + the cold metal stamp of a brand = sales perfection. it's not an achievement to buy generic products, but it is an achievement to buy generic products for 4x the price.

hypothesis 2: innovation & grandma's vanity

while certain aesthetics are growing immensely in popularity (namely dark & light academia, cottagecore, and now old money) - there is still a little bit of hesitation when it comes to things that are too old and too dated. there is this strange venn diagram of desire, where we want products that make us feel like we're sitting at the vanity of a hollywood starlet, but we don't want said products to evoke that powdery outdatedness of yesteryear.

we find it incredibly innovative when someone uses a serif, instead of a sans-serif. it's also very innovative to

consider using a different shape rather than a circle, square, or rectangle as a border. we are edging towards innovation - but are we?

as we begin to age, and become mirror images of those who came before us - emulating older aesthetics can seem like a step backward. we only grow more wrinkly (and maybe more undesirable), so it could also be that nods to old trends and designs can create a sort of discomfort. but somehow, a lot of modern brands make it so that we can't see ourselves growing old with their products, no, they are the essence of our youth. we are not often marketed with the image of an aesop bottle on our 70-year-old self's bathroom sink.

however, i don't think this is the most obvious reason holding us back. my final hypothesis has to do with influence.

hypothesis 3: what is the crowd doing?

this section isn't going to make the argument that there are fashion & beauty oligarchs influencing the masses to commit themselves to one aesthetic. there might be. but what i believe is that the birth of Tiktok and similar platforms has inspired a need for self-categorisation (which has always existed, but has just become more pronounced).

in the attempt to categorize the self, we may become drawn to different schools of design, different aesthetics to align ourselves with. which pretty much means, the fight for antiquated, heritage and vintage designs is not over. we see this, especially in the case of officine universelle buly's popularity.

design today & the subtle rejection of minimalism:

one of my current favourites, buly 1903, is loud and harmonious. it offers personalization and monogramming, but in a distinctly 1900s style, with swooping calligraphy and serifs everywhere the eye can see.

the brand has gained a lot of traction due to a resurgence of french chic as part of the "old money" aesthetic (i may post about this phenomenon another time). what i like about their products is that they marry necessity with beauty - the function is not compromised by the unique form.

with my own praise in mind, i recognize that appreciation for the vision of this brand also has evolved as part of a process of sub-categorisation (see hypothesis 3). i see myself as a vintage enthusiast, so of course it brings me joy to purchase and own products that align with this self-identity of mine. and the case is definitely parallel when it comes to chic minimalism, like that of grown alchemist and other brands.

my conclusion:

it's a very insular view to claim that all beauty and intricacy has faded from product design and packaging. it hasn't. beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we all know that minimalism has a functional place, and sometimes an aesthetic place for the right audience. but we also now see that heritage design, and echoes of old styles like art nouveau and art deco, are making their way back into a semi-mainstream position.

what does this mean? well, nothing serious. to me, it conveys that we are seeing a melting pot of aesthetic preferences appearing as a result of shared ideas of beauty. past visions of intricate, filigree beauty are still around, where you can find them, and hope is not all lost.

but there is merit in both simplicity and complexity - i think i'll end it here.

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