The Difference Between Simplicity and Minimalism

There is a popular question among minimalist and simplicity bloggers. What is the difference between simplicity and minimalism? Despite the popularity of the question, it has no easy answer. This is because it is a deeply philosophical question. So, I will answer it.

The first thing that we can say is that simplicity and minimalism are not the same thing. They seem like the same thing, but they aren't. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, this imprecision of the terminology leads to a lot of cognitive dissonance for people. What we can say is that simplicity and minimalism are not maximalist. Maximalism is the belief that more is more. I think it will help us to define maximalism in a better way.

Maximalism's belief in more being more comes down to a quantitative measure. If one room is good, two rooms must be better. If one house is good, two houses must be better. The error of maximalism is that it does not account for diminishing returns. A second house is not nearly as valuable or as useful as a primary house. Since that second house also demands maintenance and costs such as insurance and taxes, its marginal utility is less than the first house. At some point, the marginal utility of subsequent houses will exceed the marginal costs making it a foolish endeavor. This is why when people downsize and simplify they feel as if they are becoming richer in the process. This is because fewer units require fewer costs to resources. This concept is very important, and you need to keep it handy in your brain for later.

Minimalism is the belief that less is more. By paring down to the essentials, you eliminate the waste. But there is a fundamental flaw in that thought process. If maximalism is an increase in the marginal cost with a simultaneous loss in marginal utility, minimalism is the exact same thing. To achieve a minimalist lifestyle, you have to spend more to achieve less. Less really isn't more. Less is less.

This concept is best illustrated by the fact that most minimalist homes and structures are unworkable and unlivable. Whenever someone sees the interior of one of these minimalist abodes, they usually exclaim, "How can anyone live in that?!"

The reality is that no one can live in a space like that because the act of living will change it from being minimalist to something else. While a minimalist space may be aesthetically pleasing, it is functionally deficient. It is also insanely expensive.

Simplicity is different from minimalism in the same way that it is different from maximalism. Simplicity aims for optimal utility at a minimal cost. This would be a couch from the thrift store and a book shelf with books in it. Simplicity is form following function. When this functionality is diminished or lost, it becomes minimalism.

Minimalists have a hard time with functionality. One well known example was the infamous episode with the iPhone when it would reportedly lose reception when held in a certain way. The response from Steve Jobs was to not hold it that way. Similarly, Edith Farnsworth was not so pleased with the Farnsworth House that Mies van der Rohe built because it did not include laundry facilities. What we learn from these episodes is that what is beautiful may not always be useful.

Maximalism and minimalism are fundamentally the same in the increase of costs and the decrease of utility. The difference is that maximalism focuses on the quantitative while minimalism focuses on the qualitative. Neither has any true concept of "enough." This is where simplicity gets it right.

Simplicity is about having enough. It means having the correct number and quality of an item. The other thing is that simplicity is easily achieved and sustained. Once you have enough, you don't need anymore. This does not mean restriction to the purely utilitarian. No one needs to hang a painting on the wall, but it does give everyone something pleasant to look at.

Most people who call themselves minimalists are actually practicing simplicity. Where they get into trouble is that they sometimes get them confused leading to things that are not simple. For instance, minimalists have a nasty habit of buying Apple products especially the iPhone. But what if there is an Android phone that is more functional and costs less than the iPhone? This is that cognitive dissonance I was mentioning earlier. If you can gain greater utility at a lower cost, this is the wisest choice. But the minimalist will buy that iPhone because it is "minimalist."

These sorts of choices vex the minimalist at every turn. Instead of spending all their money buying everything, they spend all their time trying to buy the right thing. Naturally, that right thing comes in white and costs three times what a normal item would cost. Or, they will spend the bulk of their time coming up with ways to save time, but they would save more time if they didn't spend so much time trying to save time. It sounds like a Seinfeld episode.

Being simple is simple. The difference between simplicity and minimalism is that simplicity is human. It is real. It is natural. Minimalism is not real. It is not natural. Plus, it is boring. This is because the minimalist aesthetic is an abstraction. It does not serve human means and ends but serves an idea. It is like reducing all human wisdom to math.

Minimalism and simplicity have become hopelessly mixed together being one part Thoreau and two parts Dieter Rams. I think people would be better served by looking to Thoreau. If you have ever disposed of a perfectly good product or appliance just to buy one that was more "minimalist," you are going down the wrong path. But if you have chairs from the thrift store that don't quite match, you are doing it right. This is simplicity.

I think it is an unfortunate accident that voluntary simple living got linked with the minimalist aesthetic in art and design. As such, people will call themselves "minimalists" even though the term does not mean what they think it means. Perhaps that confusion will be cleared up in the future. Or maybe we just need a new word for people who choose to live simply.