Minimalism is in. Thanks to Jon for the Photo.
The web is a cornucopia of design — its diversity includes some great looking sites, and some pages that might well burn your eyes out. Not all designs are created equal, of course, and in recent years, we’ve started to see more designers embrace a minimalist mindset.
The rise of mobile devices with their smaller screen sizes necessitates that designers effectively employ space and give top priority to usability. Besides that, there has been some backlash against websites that many see as bloated or cluttered.
This trend is likely to continue, for reasons that I’ll outline in this post, but it’s not bad news. In fact, it has positive elements and gives us a chance to think more effectively about the implications of our site designs.
The Emerging Minimalist Tide
Minimalism is nothing new — it’s a design philosophy that has been seen in art and architecture for decades, even centuries before the web was even launched. But in recent years, we’ve seen a surge in minimalist design on the web itself.
There has been a proliferation of simple interfaces, exemplified by the likes of Medium.com. The site presents content generated by users; in this case, it features blog-like posts. The focus is on storytelling and commentary — the written word. Or, to put it another way, content. Instead of shoving content into a bloated design, minimalists put content first and design second.
Medium isn’t an isolated example of design minimalism. We’re now witnessing the mainstream emergence of minimalism and websites that promote the concept. Take websites like zenhabits or The Minimalists. Not least, you could look at the cleverly named mnmlist.com.
The rise of minimalism is occurring alongside another, much more obvious Internet phenomenon: the exponential growth and widespread acceptance of social media. Instead of family blogs, you can have Facebook. Instead of personal blogs, you can open a Tumblr account. Vast amounts of interaction now take place on these “generic” platforms, where standalone websites once dominated. Design no longer claims the spotlight — with large social media sites, design has gone backstage, while content is front and center.
Indeed, some people even “blog” on Google+ and similar platforms — Mike Elgan is one of the foremost examples. For better or for worse, minimalism seems here to stay, at least for now. Alongside the growth of minimalist websites, we see that people are focusing more attention on social media platforms, which are themselves examples of content taking priority.
A New Approach to Design: the Window
One often-voiced criticism of minimalism is that such styles embrace a generic look to the detriment of establishing a unique web design that is “needed” to create and cement brand recognition and loyalty. But are such concerns warranted? After all, as sites like zenhabits prove, you can establish a widely-read and well-respected site while using a minimalist design. I would point to that fact as a demonstration of the idea that you can achieve effective branding without a complex or sophisticated web design.
Indeed, while branding is important, one can succeed with design as an open window to your content, services and/or products — not as a pretty frame surrounding (and potentially obscuring) them. For many of us, this represents a new way of looking at things, a real paradigm shift for web design. An older worldview stressed the importance of a unique web design, which would usually include a number of navigation bars and menus in addition to multiple colors to direct visitor attention.
This new paradigm throws all of that out the window — and views designs themselves as windows to your content. The look of your design is not an end in itself. Rather, it exists solely for the instrumental purpose of supporting your content and enabling easy access to it. Content is king — that’s (presumably) why users visit your site, and so, goes this new line of thought, it should take center stage.
There are substantial benefits to be had from a minimalist design. Adam Seitz elaborates:
Minimal design is more than just copious amounts of white space, large typography, simplicity in layout, and an absence of content and clutter. It is a clearly defined user path, one that is highly usable and functional, highlights essential information, critical features and focal points, and that demonstrates restraint on behalf of the designer. Minimal UI design was once considered safe, flat, boring, and lazy, but when minimalist principles are used judiciously, the result can be a highly emotional, elegant user experience.
Furthermore, branding doesn’t require a fancy design. The minimalism of your site could actually be part of your brand in itself. One obvious example is Apple, a company that prides itself in embracing a minimalist feel in both their marketing and their products.
Consider this: if you can attract just as many engaged visitors, subscribers, and customers with a plain and simple design, what is the point of more complicated web designs? At that point, they appear to be a waste of time and/or money.
But is minimalism viable under practical circumstances? The answer would appear to be yes. Besides the examples I mentioned earlier, you can consider the enormous success of Instapaper — a read-later app that was created in 2008 by Marco Arment. Earlier this year, he sold the app for a bucketload. I think that you’ve probably guessed it by this point: Instapaper boasts a minimalist look of its own. It’s a stellar example of the success of design minimalism.
My Own Experiment: Healthy Enough
I’ve given a lot of thought to the proliferation of minimalist design myself, and many of the arguments in favor of it seem convincing to me. In fact, I decided to completely immerse myself in the idea and re-launch one of my blogs with a new minimalist design. Healthy Enough is simple — a small navigation bar sits at the top of the site, the text is large and takes up a big portion of the page, and there is ample whitespace (all hallmarks of minimalist web design).
While it’s still a relatively new site, it does show signs of promise indicating that the design is helping, or at worst, not hurting. Engagement metrics such as bounce rate, time spent by each visitor on the site, and average number of page views per user are all comparable with my other site, Leaving Work Behind — a site with a far more complex and colorful design.
I think that Healthy Enough’s design works. Beyond the statistics, which speak for themselves, I think that the design is aesthetically pleasing. It also does what it needs to do: it intuitively guides readers through posts and on to new content.
My thought is that when someone lands on a post because they’ve clicked on a headline somewhere (be it Google, social media, etc.), they’re immediately presented with the article they’re interested in reading. After all, that’s what they came for — there’s no need to get in their way by filling the page with run-of-the-mill design clutter.
Once they are finished reading, however, they have the option available to visit the archives page. That page contains a search box, archived articles sorted by category, and a full listing of posts. The design follows the flow of the site’s actual users, not some artificial order imposed by conventional web design. I’m trying to strike a balance between focusing on the content and providing contextual links to other parts of the site.
You Can Embrace the Future
It is clear to me that minimalism has carved out a significant portion of the web, and has its own devout proponents to boot. There are strong reasons to opt in favor of a simple design. Indeed, my own little experiment shows that minimalism is unlikely to hamper your website — in fact, it may very well strengthen it.
That said, you will likely notice from the last section that while Healthy Enough has a minimalist design, my main blog, Leaving Work Behind, has a design with more flair and color. Let me be clear — I’m not arguing that everyone reading this post should immediately head off and strip their site of graphics, color, and navigation bars. That would be silly. Instead, my hope is that you can use the rise of minimalism in web design to inform your own thinking on the subject. We don’t all need to be minimalists, but there are important lessons to be learned from that approach to design.
Minimalism’s unspoken mantra is to put content before design, and while you needn’t take that to the extreme of nearly eliminating design on all sites, you should keep it in mind. Ultimately, you should worry less about “good” design and more about “effective” design — a design that best facilitates what a visitor or customer isreally on your site for: to digest information and/or make a purchase. That is the core contribution of minimalist thought to today’s web.
As I said before, the more you consider a design to be an open window, the closer you are aligned with what your customer truly wants.
Minimalist web design is enjoying something of a heyday, and with good reason — its principle of elevating content above design is grounded in the reality of how people actually behave on the web. They’re looking for information or products — not design. If all design disappeared tomorrow, but we were left with the text and information, most of us would still browse the web. But if all we were left with was pretty (or cluttered) design, and no content, would that still be true?
You can use this line of thought to inform your own web design. It’s beneficial to view your site as a window to your content, not a standalone attraction.
The shift in web design from involved to minimalistic offers an opportunity for us all to reflect on how our websites look and embrace a new paradigm where we put content above design.