Copenhagen minimal


If you read about Danish design, or talk to someone about Danish design, the key words seem to be light, or natural or well made or quality but then, somewhere, at some stage, you get the word simple or now, more often, the word minimal.

So thinking about minimalism in Danish design, I wanted to see if I could find the most minimal object or minimal design in the city. To count it had to be designed … obviously … so thought through and planned and deliberate … and not a one-off design but manufactured or reproduced.

This is my best offering to date. It’s the triangle in yellow painted on a kerb just along from a road junction to show that you cannot park any closer to the corner without obstructing the traffic coming in and out at the junction and, more important, you cannot park beyond the triangle without chancing a fine.

It’s small - each side just 10 cm - and I guess that reduces any ambiguity because the point of the triangle towards the road implies that there is a thin line that is projected out across the road - implied and not actually painted onto the road - so again about as minimal as you can get.


at Northmodern last year there was a discussion session about the idea of a Danish Design DNA - a way to focus thoughts on what makes Danish design Danish - so everyone was asked to write key words on post-it notes that they thought expressed what is best or what is characteristic about design in Denmark


The words minimal and minimalism are a bit overused - so sometimes added for marketing to a product or an interior that is not actually that minimal. In part it is because minimalism has become fashionable and in part it’s because being minimal seems more acceptable than calling a design simple and it seems a bit more aspirational - so potentially more profitable - to sell something minimal to a customer rather than calling it basic.  

Go into a store and ask for a simple mobile phone and they take it as an admission you are not up to understanding what they normally sell and go into a fancy design store and ask for something basic and you get that slightly quizzical look that shows they are wondering why you are in their store. Ask for something minimal and it implies taste and discernment … or that’s what you hope.

But minimalism is not about being simple or being basic. It is about reducing or removing what is not essential so it is about designing something that looks carefully thought through and looks rational or looks clean or looks functional because it has been stripped of all unnecessary parts or superfluous decoration.

There is also a role for minimalism to make something less intrusive if you want it to drop back and be less dominant if you are trying to define a hierarchy of importance. 

The yellow triangle here needs no sign on a post setting out times or prohibitions - you can’t park beyond this point at any time - and there are no double yellow lines running around the corner - as there would be in England - and certainly in Copenhagen no bollards on the pavement at intervals around the corner - so nothing is needed to reinforce the message. 

That also raises an interesting question about minimalism requiring complicity. So, for example, there are apps or controls for equipment where the designer has stripped back the design - because they know what does what and why - but the designer underestimates the problem that the uninitiated don’t actually know. So it might be best to remove a door handle completely if the door swings away from you - so it can only be pushed and not pulled towards you - but a designer has to judge if there might be situations where that is ambiguous and might create a problem … for instance in an emergency if someone pauses to work out what to do or wastes crucial time pushing on the hinge side. The more minimal the design the more careful the designer has to be that users understand what it means or what it does.

Here, with the triangle, it seems that anyone driving a car in the city should know exactly what it means so this small yellow triangle is not only minimal in its design but pretty powerful.