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Minimal Money

Why the next generation of credit cards and banking apps look so bare.

Few design trends have been as widely embraced as minimalism, an aesthetic movement that has affected the visual identity of everything from clothing and home decor to personal branding. While some attribute the resurgence of minimalism – which arguably began in post-World War II pop art – to the success of Marie Kondo’s “does it spark joy?” school of spring cleaning, others point to a society influenced by the financial collapse, which seeks to simplify, acquire less, and be more mindful. Minimalism, according to popular thinking, appeals particularly to millennials who are supposedly monolithically enamored with tiny homes and simple wardrobes, forgoing possessions in favor of experiences.

The shift to less-is-more branding has also become the hallmark of the start-up world, from Everlane’s almost utilitarian clothing line to the sleek curves of easily recognizable logos from Uber, Airbnb, and countless others. Curiously, the global financial industry is also beginning to tap into this aesthetic, with recent banking, finance, and credit card upstarts showcasing pared-back logos and, in the case of existing credit card companies like MasterCard and Chase, re-branding with an eye toward streamlined design. But what is ultimately driving the “minimal money” trend, and what effect will it have on the way we think of money itself?

Blond Design chose a pared-back look for the Revolut credit card to entice millennials

According to research, millennials (those born between 1981-1996) make up nearly a quarter of the population, and have a unique set of values governing the way they spend money. Joining the workforce at the height of the recession, with record student debt, millennials accounted for 20% of all new credit card holders in the fourth quarter of 2017, with balances shooting up to 28% since 2011. But this generation, raised in the era of the subprime mortgage, government bank bailouts, and the global financial meltdown, aren’t exactly embracing big banks and traditional credit cards with open arms. Perhaps this attempt to meet millennials where they live, design-wise and in the digital space, is a way of making finance seem a little more user-friendly – or perhaps it is just good business?

“In terms of why these products end up so minimal, it’s probably two-fold,” said James Melia of Blond Design, the firm responsible for the visual look and feel behind Revolut – a "21st-century banking alternative" and credit card. “It’s the frustration with older banks by the younger generation, who want to change the game and shape things up,” he explained, noting that his pre-design research demonstrated that this generation craves quicker access to personal funds, increased transparency, and an overall "less-corporate" feel. While this has proven to be a set-back for traditional banking, it has been a welcomed challenge for startups.

The Revolut card, described as a "21st-century banking alternative", has equally sleek packaging

In creating Revolut, Blond relocated the card's banking numbers to the back panel for privacy, also simplifying the color scheme. (This same look was later adopted by Chase Sapphire and the Apple Card, both of which also feature numbers on one side.) Since Revolut is a financial technology bank, known as fintech, with a new approach to lending and dividing accounts, it needed to look like the future – and, more importantly, feel futuristic. “The minimalism came from that,” Blond said, explaining that the team also felt the look made the card feel more “intimate” and less threatening. This might also be part of the reasoning behind Pentagram’s 2016 redesign of the MasterCard logo, which Dezeen noted at the time was part of the larger trend of flat design replacing “skeuomorphic graphics that aim to emulate real-world objects on digital screens.”

While minimalism may be popular for its aesthetically pleasing qualities, it is enabled by the rapid evolution of technologies and security systems. Initially, credit cards, like passports, were created with intricate details to make them harder to duplicate, but the advent of smart chips and other software eliminated this challenge. The arrival of money-sharing companies and apps like Venmo, PayPal and now Revolut, also made it easier to share funds, further disrupting the banking industry. They have also muscled their way into the plastics market with products like Square’s all-black Cash Cards, or the Venmo credit card, which draws directly from your Venmo balance and comes in six soothing color options.

N26, a mobile-first banking app and credit card, chose minimal design to benefit user experience

For start-ups like Brooklyn's N26, a mobile-first banking app and credit card, minimalism is more for the user experience and less about aesthetics. “It's not only about the look-and-feel of the app, but also how intuitive and effortless it is to use,” said Christian Hertlein, head of design at N26. ANNA, the "world's first design-led bank", sought a visually-driven approach from the outset, "not because we're striving to attract a particular type of customer but because we know that putting design at the heart of a business is what makes a great business and enables you to create good products and services,” said company representative Dionne Griffith. She explained that the way businesses value and appreciate design is shifting, with research backing up the benefits of good design on the commercial bottom line. "If a banking app or service is brilliantly designed, a pleasure to use and elegantly includes features that enable you to stay on top of your finances, that can help take away the 'scariness' of money or budgeting," Griffith said.

But even paper money hasn’t escaped a minimalist makeover. Design firm Snøhetta, in partnership with the Norwegian Central Bank, recently redesigned the country's note system, swapping traditional icons for simple, geometric and nature-themed patterns. The studio, also responsible for the Norwegian National Opera and the SFMoMA expansion, has the unique experience of designing for both paper and plastic money. “When we designed credit cards for one of the largest Nordic banks, DNB, we designed the card program as a part of the bigger whole, with tools for branding and building brand equity in a competitive market,” said Martin Gran, partner and managing director of Snøhetta Design. Yet, in this instance, the banknote, while an example of a singular, independent design project, also needed to convey Norway’s identity, an additional and compelling function. “You could say that a nation’s banknote is its business card.”

The "minimal money" trend also extends to cash, as shown by Snøhetta's Norwegian banknotes

Norway, a relatively young country, was founded in 1905 after serving for more than 400 years as a subsidiary to Sweden and Denmark, making it somewhat easier to propose a monetary overhaul (unlike the process US, where a recent measure to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill was held up by a contemptible display of political posturing). Similar to a start-up company or banking app, Norway’s relative newness gave it the flexibility and freedom to break away from the traditional; as a part of a region known for its dedication to design, and particularly minimalism, a “rebrand” like this, which better-reflected current cultural shifts and values, was welcomed.

“The strong belief in equality and democracy that is so typical of Scandinavian countries made us think it would be good to create a design that suits an egalitarian society," said Martin, who also explains that while a banking note’s visual branding can go far, it can only do so much. “The economic institution it represents needs to have a certain authority.”

The team behind ANNA describes their company as the "world's first design-led bank"

Ultimately, Martin believes the banknote will always be present in our society, even if a decline in usage is high (Sweden is currently mulling over eliminating paper money altogether). “The institution it represents is imperative for a modern society, and we believe the symbolic value of a banknote is vastly important.” He points to the fact that many thought books would vanish as a medium when the innovation of broadcasting emerged via radio in the early 1900s. “But we still enjoy books,” he added. “It is almost like ‘the analog’ takes revenge in a digital era.”

Put more simply, customers may no longer need to visit a bank to manage their money, increasing the demand for well-designed, easy-to-use digital tools. "People (not just young people) are getting much more comfortable with [digital money and banking]," said the representatives from ANNA. "Mainstream consumers have become so design literate and discerning that it might be having an impact on how banks are thinking, and how they present and market themselves to stand out and attract new customers."

With roughly 60% of young adults, ages 18 to 34 years old, choosing banking and budgeting online resources as opposed to brick and mortar institutions, it’s highly likely we are just beginning to see the boom in minimalist financial apps and credit cards. But can we really sustain this ubiquitous aesthetic into the next decade? While some in the design world see a backlash to minimalism as not just inevitable but potentially already in motion – as noted by Eye On Design in 2018 – for now, simple and sleek is still the visual aesthetic for forward-looking branding. And if it means the future will also be less chaotic, easier to maneuver, and safer against theft and hacking, this might not be a bad thing.

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