Carl Barenbrug

Product design, creative direction

Design Ethos

I've been designing various things—principally for screens, and to a lesser extent physical products—since 2007. Only now am I writing an ethos—that is, my attitude and approach to design. An ethos is useful to me because it consolidates my design principles and gives you a deeper understanding of my thinking. And my attitude towards design has ebbed and flowed over the years. As it should. Because design is influenced by the world around us; by society, by technology, by nature, and by our mentors. We're in a constant state of flux, so we must adapt. And with that said, with time, we can shape our attitudes, values, and future by listening and watching carefully. So consider this ethos a living thing—subject to change always and forever.

A reflection of good design puts simplicity and utility at the forefront, while often adopting an understated aesthetic. Good design requires human understanding, personal expression, and an open-minded attitude with collaboration at its core.

Designers have to be visionaries, but nothing can be promised—only proposed. We must identify challenges, ask honest questions, and problem solve with a systematic yet open and passionate mind to serve us in the quest to design well for the future. And as we learn from each project, each other, and evolving technologies, we can ultimately design with more efficiency, less ambiguity, better ethics, and with a continual sense of artful wonder. So, I want to break down a few foundations to explain further what I mean.


Simplicity is the importance of clarity. It's about streamlining the user experience so design can be easily understood. Because who wants design to be a hedge maze? When something is crafted simply it will typically be intuitive and balanced, removing unnecessary complexity and distraction. My design process is considerate and purposeful where everything seen and experienced is intentional (unless it looks wrong, in which case let's just call it wabi-sabi).

I avoid excessive visual elements and ensure an interface is organised in a logical manner, making it easy for users to understand and navigate. And there's always an intentional use of white space (empty area around design elements) to allow content to breathe. I always draw on the Gestalt Principles for digital work. They form the basis from which to design with clarity and assist with understanding how humans perceive and interpret visual information.

An important characteristic of simple design is consistency. Visual elements such as typography, colours, icons, and spacing should be consistent throughout the design. Consistency enhances familiarity and reduces thinking time for users, as they can quickly understand and predict how different elements will behave. Is predictability boring, though? Well, sometimes, but it ultimately comes down to what a design should achieve.


Form follows function. That is, prioritising functionality, usability and practicality over style and flair to serve the needs and goals of users. But that's not to say it'll be devoid of character and distinctiveness.

Design needs utility otherwise it ceases to be design. A utilitarian approach puts user experience first. This involves understanding the target audience, their tasks, and their expectations by means of research, and then designing interfaces that facilitate the success of those tasks and iterating on them. The design is optimised to reduce the cognitive load and provide clear and straightforward pathways to desired actions or information.

Utilitarian design also takes into account factors such as accessibility, robustness, and performance optimisation (speed is important). Remember, we design for humans and human constraints. Visual elements are employed purposefully to enhance usability and provide visual cues that guide users. This approach encourages a design aesthetic that is typically clean, simple, and uncluttered.


Although minimalism plays an important role in my work, it feels more like a byproduct of my simple approach to design. I don't necessarily set out to make something minimal unless minimalism is, or is related to, the subject matter. Yet, it's really rewarding stripping back a design—inside and out—to find the lightest solution. That goes for form, function, and performance. Some may argue that minimal design lacks character, but I would argue that if something is honest, fast, clear, and focused, it is far more enjoyable to use. And a minimal design can still be interactive and lighthearted. Loud design might impress you initially as it demands attention, but that feeling is unlikely to last. Loud design tries too hard to impress, whereas minimalism is effortless and approachable while cutting out the ornamentation; that is, redundant components. And this makes for a better and more immersive user experience. It'll also avoid falling victim to trends.

I'd consider minimal design a combination of the following:

  • A byproduct of simple design: Simplicity is at the core of anything that represents minimalism. A simple approach to design is the only way to find its purest form.
  • Understated: It is quiet, restrained, and modest yet expresses elegance and refinement through detail.
  • Exposes its essence to communicate its value: For a design to be appreciated, it must focus on the essential aspects. It must be devoid of unnecessary features to make it as clear and understandable as possible.
  • Geometric: Its composition reflects pure and well-structured forms to emphasise the precision and intentionality of its development.
  • A balance of form and function: By means of a well-executed build, it demonstrates the importance of aesthetics without compromising its core functionality and usefulness.


Form follows feeling, just as form follows function. Sometimes we need spices of wonder and unpredictability in what we craft to spark emotion. That's where the fun, curiosity, and personal expression lies. Conversely, we want to avoid needless questions and wasted time, so at its core, a design should still be understandable and performant.

Experimental design can appear in many forms and be applied to varying degrees. I wouldn't say I question conventional design practices, but I do like to push certain boundaries and embrace the unknown. Because it can lead to surprising results. I find experimenting through interdisciplinary collaboration as something that leads to good energy and good creative output. A cross-pollination of ideas fosters innovation and unique design solutions. I've proudly collaborated on many projects including The Forest, 099, MNMLLIST, 3D printed objects, and conducted countless experiments on Minimalissimo with varying results. And even if something doesn't work the first, second, or third time, there is always insights to learn from—to help form better solutions.

While experimental design may not always result in immediate adoption, it does fuel creativity, sparks imagination, and serves as a platform for trying new things. And we need more of that in design.

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