complex web design

Why Designers Should Reconsider ‘Minimalistic’ Websites

Guest Blogger Web Design 16 Comments

Guest Post:

Author Bio: Yorrick is a freelancer by profession and currently writes for WebFirm, a website development company. Whenever he isn’t busy, he enjoys spending quality time with his nieces.

Minimalistic Design

Web design, much like any form of design, follows trends and fashions that dictate what’s hot and what’s not. Of course the prototypical site changes over time in response to technology, but at the same time it also changes simply because we change what we think looks good and what we expect from a website.

A perfect example of a current trend in web design is minimalistic design. There was a time when it was ‘trendy’ to stuff a website with as many graphics and animations as possible (the Geocities era… and later the Flash era), but then Apple came along and suddenly everything became much sleeker and minimal.

Designers began applying a kind of ‘Occam’s Razor’ to their work, and the new credo was simple: if your site can say the same without it, then you don’t need it. In fact, a saying in design generally is ‘communicate, don’t decorate’, meaning that every element on a page should have a clear purpose or it shouldn’t exist.

Design for Elegance and Speed

This makes sense for websites. It allows them to load faster, it helps visitors to know where they want to visit, it works for touch interfaces and small screen sizes, and it can often look very elegant and beautiful.

But I don’t like it. I don’t like it … I don’t think it’s always necessary, and I miss the old days when sites had a bit more detail and decoration. Read on to find out why, and to be convinced that your website needs more… more … more.

The Problems with Minimalism

My first complaint with minimalism is that it is limiting in its very nature. If you have a minimal design then your blank space will take centre stage and each element you include on your site will take on more importance and only exist if it absolutely has too. So what do you do then when you want to stick an advert on that page? Or when you have more than one link you want to link to? In some cases your own minimalistic web design will mean that you simply can’t add the touches that you want to – and surely it’s not right to be limited by the site that you built in the first place?

The Benefits of Complexity

Another problem is that minimalism is quite bland and quite impersonal. When you create a site you will no doubt be proud of it and you will see it as an expression of your personality – yes, even if it’s a business site. But if your site is mostly white, just like every other site out there right now, then what does that say about you as a designer?

How can you put across a sense of who you are? When you add decoration and when you add more controls, you’re adding personality and you are adding things just for the fun of it. And what’s wrong with adding things for the fun of it? Especially when websites are supposed to look good? As an added bonus, these ‘extra bits’ will help to make your site stand out from the millions of bland white sites, which means people will be more likely to come back.

complex web design

Complexity never did the Sistine Chapel any harm

Experiment with a spinning logo in the centre of your page and people will say ‘huh, it has a spinning logo in the centre of the page’… and ‘hey, what was that site with the spinning logo in the centre of the page?’

I would also argue that complexity can also be incredibly beautiful. I mean, no one has ever criticised the Sistine Chapel for being overly complicated. Would it be as compelling if you removed half of the detail? Complexity adds depth, gives you more to look at and is generally more interesting, in my humble opinion.

I’m not saying that every website should suddenly start filling its pages with unnecessary embellishments, and I’m not condemning those sites that chose to go the minimal route. All I’m saying is that sometimes having a bit more detail  can work in your favour. And crucially, you shouldn’t feel like you can’t add elements because you’re afraid of breaking the current minimalist chic. Sooner or later this will go out of fashion again anyway, so why not lead the pack and dare to be different? That’s how trend-setting is done.

Ed’s note: Yorrick brings an interesting question to the table here. Should designers be concerned with trends? Can they inject some of their own artistic personality into site design these days, or is it all about the branding? Design should of course be customer-centric, because without that, clients won’t be satisfied with the outcome, but web design is a creative process of course and so a good designer will want to inject creativity into a site in order to give the best to the customer and their creativity.


Comments 16

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  2. Sam

    I would say that this is purely situational advice. My portfolio website is minimal; the content that I showcase should provide the decoration, not the website itself. The content inside my portfolio isn’t (always) minimal, but the point of a picture frame is to showcase the photography, not the frame itself.

  3. Tim

    Really Google had more of an effect on minimalist design than Apple. Google’s website has been minimalist from its very inception. A logo and a search bar and a little bit of text.

  4. Jennifer

    I think your point would be better supported if you could find an elaborately designed user interface that is considered a masterpiece instead of a work of art meant only to be admired. I mean, yes, it’s gorgeous, but no one is trying to shop or find information fast via the Sistine Chapel.

    1. Kerry Butters

      I think that the guest author in this case attempted to find the most extreme example of how minimalism isn’t always the answer when creating something beautiful. But yes, it’s a post that perhaps could use a revisit, especially since minimalism has come even further to the fore since publication.

  5. Ander

    I can’t tell if I agree or disagree because there are no visual examples of what’s meant by “minimalistic web design”. Some examples would’ve made this clearer.

  6. Cam

    Unfortunately the author has confused progressing standards and more advanced understandings of what performs, with fashion.

  7. Aamir

    I agree… I began to think web design was descending into “One Button does all” style. Me being an Indian with a strong sense of culture cant bear to see it like this. Its too bland for my liking. I think that cultures should be created based on web design seeing as its such a massive platform

  8. LLL

    You’re not really comparing websites with the Sistine Chapel – a painting! Websites are not paintings, there is information that needs to be clearly understood by the users, where to click, where’s the information they need, etc. A designer doesn’t need to add more complexity than necessary.
    Minimalism doesn’t mean the page will be all white “like all the others”, nor that will be void of decorations. Instead, it means that it will have as little details as needed.

    1. Kerry Butters

      There are plenty of examples of minimalism overdone though LLL – I do think though that given the debate that this has given rise to that we (as a blog – the post was a guest post) should revisit the subject with examples of good and bad and how minimalism is seen by some designers to be art. I personally have come across some sites where minimalism has been so pronounced as the aim of the designer that it’s completely ruined the UI. And at the end of the day, we want to create sites that have awesome UX and UI to the point where it provides the best possible design that the user wants to spend time on.

      1. GFargo

        No user wants to spend their time waiting for countless requests to complete so they can view the content of the page. As you stated there is always a balance to be found, however this article completely leaves out the drawbacks which pushed designers towards a ‘minimalist’ approach in the first place.

        I would love to see an update, its a wonderful idea for a in-depth look at the trends within design. If it gets a revisit – maybe draw attention to new methods to minify resources, strategies behind creating ‘controlled clutter’, and potentially the changes that will occur with the adoption of HTTP2?

        1. Kerry Butters

          I agree this needs a revisit, it’s caused a bit of a stir this week and there are some wonderful examples out there that can really add to a post, as well as some truly terrible ones of course. I’ve written a little around the subject for other sites myself and I know our designer Zoe is very interested in the subject while I am interested in how it can affect UX in particular. I think we will come up with a collaborative piece in coming weeks 🙂 So do revisit, or sign up for the newsletter, we will include.

        2. Tim

          Unfortunately, even though many websites are “minimalist” the new responsive nature of the web has made javascripts, animations, popup modal windows and ads with emails signup requests more and more popular. Not to mention database-driven sites with complicated CMSs. Complexity in look and feel has been replaced with complexity in the backend, which has lead to websites taking just as long to download as they used to when Flash was used.
          I’ve been designing websites since 1997 and while I don’t mourn the absence of tables, I will say that no matter which browser you viewed a site on, they all looked they way they were intended. No so today. Every browser renders divs with margins and padding and fonts differently. Not all browsers support the same things. It’s annoying. I am moving more and more away from web design and back to just doing print and illustration work because you can do so much more with design and color and don’t have to worry about technical stuff as much unless you’re doing spot color work.

          1. Kerry Butters

            And in the beginning of RWD there were so many sites out there that suffered due to the complexity at the backend and in turn that has affected UX badly. We all know that browsers are an impatient lot of ecommerce sites in particular can lose millions in revenue each year thanks to a site that is slow to load and not particularly simple to navigate. When minimalism becomes such a ‘design feature’ the user can easily get lost and are left guessing what they are supposed to be looking at/clicking on whilst a terribly slow site loads in the background.

            As I have reiterated this is one to revisit and soon – I’m pretty busy but would be up for a collaborative effort with someone who understands the overall picture – I.e. How it effects load times, UX, when it works well and doesn’t, etc. So let me know if any are up for you folks 🙂

  9. Lauren The Human

    I feel that one of the main reasons why minimalism works so well in this day and age, is because of how the brain has adapted to incoming data.
    Our attention span is now razor thin; but not in a way that is massively detrimental – we are more able to multi-task than we ever were before. Second screening is a common behaviour in most households – watching TV and looking at your phone at the same time. Often second screening is related, in that you’re often looking up something related to what you’re watching on TV, whether it be Twitter, or articles. But it means that data needs to be clear, impactful, uncluttered – otherwise the brain decides that it will take too long to process, and moves on to something else.
    Check out a book called The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. I was at a conference and this book was handed out free at the end. It’s a brilliant read.

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