When designing a new website, one of the most important milestones is settling on a look and feel. Should the website be handcrafted, technologically advanced, fun loving, or financially reputable? It may often be a combination of several themes, but the important thing is to utilize what is appropriate for your business and your users. For the purpose of this article, I’d like to focus on the theme of minimalism and some tips for applying it to web design. I believe that adopting this school of thought is beneficial to the design process, but I also believe that it is occasionally misused or misunderstood by both clients and designers.
So, what is minimalism?
Minimalism, in very plain terms, is eliminating the needless and utilizing the essential. It is a term that has been around for more than a century, but became popular in the art world of the 1960’s and 70’s. This basic principle can be applied to all art forms, and can even be the foundation on which you live your life. Some other words that may be used to loosely describe the same theme are, clean, simple, uncluttered, subdued, quiet, etc.
Okay, so, what does it have to do with my website?
In 2014, there are more considerations for web design than ever before. With things like usability, load time, cross-device compatibility, and effective communication in mind, this medium can absolutely benefit from adopting the mantra, “Less is More”. It is, however, important to understand the fine line between clean and sterile.
When presenting a first round design to a client, designers will, on occasion, get this type of response, “I really love what you’ve done here, but can we remove this, this, this, and this? We want it to be more simple”.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting things to be simple.You should be able to reach your user, without them having to weed through a bunch of clutter. The trick is to identify what is clutter, and what is actually communicating brand identity and message. Keep in mind that having too little can be just as detrimental as having too much. When creating an effective, minimal design, you need to make sure that you’re still covering all the bases of what the website should do.
Being minimal is the opposite of being cluttered. We sometimes forget that there is a lot of acceptable room in between those 2 concepts. Often times, a design that has been deconstructed is not nearly as effective as it could have been.
Tips for Effectively Keeping it Simple
1. Say Something Worth Reading – Make sure you have enough content to tell your story. When you strip graphic elements away, and most of what you have left is your message, it better communicate clearly and effectively. The stronger your content is, the more it supports a minimal aesthetic. Using supporting photography, illustration, diagrams and icons in content is a good way to make things visually interesting while also enhancing what is being said. This is a purposeful way to incorporate interest into the design.
2. Make sure it’s usable – No matter the personality and theme of your web design, the thing needs to be user friendly. No one wants to fumble through a path that is too complex or confusing. The user should be able to quickly and easily identify which pieces of content are for them and how to access them. If you remove everything from the main navigation bar and decide it would be cleaner to just have one link on the homepage, you might actually be overcomplicating things for the user. Allowing people to get right to the content they want, in a timely manner is ideal. Keep in mind that every page should be accessible from the navigation set(s). Shortcuts on your homepage allow easy access to popular pages throughout the site.
3. Don’t lose your soul – When you have so little to work with, it’s not as easy to capture the essence of a brand. Black and white and devoid of color is minimal, but does it make sense when your logo is blue and orange? Adopting a truly minimal aesthetic can be appropriate for some industries, such as art galleries, architecture firms, blogs and design portfolios, but wildly inappropriate for others. One reason creative industries can benefit from this aesthetic is because they typically have portfolio pieces that should effortlessly outshine the design of the interface. Their portfolio conveys their personality. Be sure to retain yours.
Is it really appropriate for a plumbing service to look like an art gallery? On occasion, maybe. If your brand harmoniously blends the worlds of plumbing and fine art, own it. Otherwise, you might just be confusing everyone.
4. Is this broken? – Imagine you’re in the shoes of your user. If they land on your site, are they going to think they’ve landed on a site that is under development or only partially loaded? Sometimes failed attempts at keeping it simple just come off as incomplete or thoughtless.
5. Scrolling is not the enemy – Don’t live and die by “the fold”. It’s different on every monitor and device in the world. You cannot account for all of them. People are used to scrolling, and will actually often scoll before clicking on anything. Spacing content out, moving down a page, is a good way to utilize whitespace and a more minimal aesthetic. Trying to cram everything at the top of the page is a surefire way to make something, that was originally supposed to be clean and simple, aesthetically overloaded.
6. Be creative without being excessive – When keeping it simple, the subtle choices you make matter even more. Play with the grid, color and typography. Add creative elements of coding like parallax scrolling or html5 animation. Try to make smart decisions that will make development and usability easier. The goal is never to make clutter, but you may get a little carried away. Maybe that search box box doesn’t need a drop shadow, a linear gradient, and a texture all applied to it. Take a step back and simplify, if needed.
8. Don’t underestimate your users – Flashing buttons, elevator music and dancing cats can be distracting, but design in small doses is easily digestible. They can handle a few icons here or some colorful content boxes there.