Effective Minimalism in Experience Design

When used effectively, minimalism can really drive home a site's design. Writer Tara Hornor walks us through a few good (and not-so-good) minimalistic websites.

See: Minimalism

Minimalism.

It’s not easy to complete a study of successful minimalism. For starters, the more effective examples there are of “minimalism in action,” the less material there is for us to study. Nevertheless, minimalism is a guiding aesthetic behind some of today’s best websites.

Minimalism’s greatest strength is clarity of form; clean lines, ample white space, and minimal graphical elements lend an air of simplicity to even the most confounding subject matter. That is, of course, if it’s used effectively.

Some minimalist sites forget that easy navigation is always one of the top goals of web design. Sometimes the designer forgets to place links back to the Home or other pages of immediate interest. Or in honor of minimalism, the site owner may only allow visitors to visit pages in a certain order, not giving them the freedom to navigate their own way around the site.

This is why a beautiful minimalist site combined with great usability is so impressive: an easily navigated, simple site can be a very powerful form of communication. Before we dive into some examples of beautiful and effective minimalist web design, let us take a look at what minimalism is – and what it is not.

The art of minimalism

Minimalism exists all around us: in architecture, fashion, sculptures, graphic design, painting, literature, music, and other applied fields…the list goes on and on. No matter the area in which minimalism manifests itself, its distinguishing quality always remains the same: a perfect marriage of form and function. When a design is truly minimal, it is perfectly adequate. Nothing more is needed to communicate its message.

Minimalism has its roots in post-World War II America. Following on the coattails of the immensely popular Modernism movement, self-described Minimalists worked to reject abstract expressionism in favor of discrete, meaningful forms. One well-known minimalist artist who influenced the movement was Frank Stella with his artworks full of simple shapes and color combinations. Stella was one of the first artists of his time to move away from pictures as representations. Instead, he saw pictures as objects, saying that a picture is “a flat surface with paint on it – nothing more.”

Palmito Ranch

Created in 1971, Palmito Ranch is one of Stella’s most popular works. The image is comprised of simple, lithographic lines printed on an all white background.

Today, we still see the influences of the minimalist movement everywhere. Take a look at the following Merle Haggard concert poster:

Dirk and Carol Fowler, the owners of F2 Design, created this poster for a Merle Haggard concert in 2008.

This poster includes simply a gray background, a basic image of a train with Haggard’s name rising as steam, and simple text: the date and location of the concert. The message can be easily and quickly discerned by any passerby, yet the design fits Haggard’s style and look perfectly.

Minimalism in web design

When using minimalism in web design, does this art form give designers permission to leave off important navigation tools or icons? Not at all. Minimalism is the act of stripping the form to its very basic, necessary elements, the keyword here being “necessary.” No true minimalist would approve of those designs that leave the audience confused or unsure. The idea is to make the message more clear, not more hidden.

In fact, in a previous article on UX Booth titled “Less is More: Simplifying your User Experience,” Trent Martens points out that we must lead our audience to a decision, that too many choices can overwhelm. I believe that the opposite is also true, too few of choices and the audience may feel trapped or restricted.

With this in mind, take a look at the following sites that most would agree are minimalistic in nature. The first five of the following websites have accomplished very impactful minimalist designs, while the last two go too far in their use of limited design elements resulting in very unusable formats.

Useful minimalistic design

A highly effective minimalist website incorporates clarity and organization in design. The few elements a minimalist site does use (headers, menus, etc) must absolutely be consistent in order to create a sense of cohesion. Just as in any other minimalist design, the removal of any single element would render the site useless.

There are plenty of roundups for excellent minimalist websites, including 40 Beautiful Examples of Minimalism in Web Design, 50 Inspiring Examples of Minimalism in Web Design, 25 Beautiful Minimalistic Website Designs, 30 Examples of Extreme Minimalism in Web Design, and much more. You will notice the common minimalist principles in each website when viewing these roundups, as shown in the examples following.

Jeff Croft

Jeff Croft Home Page

This beautifully simple website uses a monochrome color scheme, a technique often used in minimalism. The name of the website is easy to find on the left in a bold, large font. Posts run down the center of the page and links are easy to locate. Probably the most impressive part of this site is the orange highlight that appears when one hovers the cursor over page links.

Jeff Croft Speaking Page and Highlighted Page Link

Each page is consistent with the Home page, with text in the center of the page and the exact information visitors would expect to find when visiting that page. Croft includes images when they further improve the comprehension of the subject matter.

Jan Reichle

Jan Reichle Home Page

The use of minimalism in the design of this website highlights how minimalism works. The message is clearly spelled out and the site is void of unnecessary clutter. The only use of graphics is a large JR which serves to make Jan Reichle’s name more memorable. The overall design is ultra clean and highly functional.

Jan Reichle Drama Menu

The home page is the navigation menu and it is perfectly clear and concise. Not only can you find what you are looking for easily, you can also find it quickly in a well-organized drop down menu.

Olson Kundig Architects

Olson Kundig Architects Home Page

If you find yourself on the home page for Olson Kundig Architects, you will immediately notice the old siding background (the image changes each time you revisit the site) and the single black strip with white text which stretches across the middle of the page. As you navigate around this strategically designed website, you will discover that everything you want to know is easy to find.

Olson Kundig Architects Projects Page

The concise navigation bar is at the top of each page so that you can maneuver between pages with ease. Every page is clean and well-organized with a layout that quickly shows you what you want to know, without clutter and confusion.

Hermes

Hermes Home Page

With plenty of white space, the home page of the Hermes site begins with simplicity. The orange logo above the menu column, the orange selected text, and the brief orange lines in the illustration are the only color on this page. You will begin your charming journey of this online store by selecting the country from which you are shopping, which is indicated by the orange text.

Hermes Shopping Page

Navigation buttons are easily recognizable by the simple sketches on every page of this site. Every page makes sense and it’s a breeze to travel through the pages to find items for which you are shopping.

Behind Design

Behind Design Home Page

I love the simplicity of this website but also its functionality. The home page is ultra simple with a single slim column. At first glance, the introduction may be difficult to read, but as you hover your mouse over the text, the words come into focus. When your cursor is not active on the page, the page is gray text on a white background. This text trick goes perfectly with the name of the site: Behind Design.

Behind Design Portfolio Page

The menu is brief with only three choices: home, portfolio, and contact. Each of the pages remains in the single column design with the highlighting text throughout. On the portfolio page, descriptions of each project pop out as you hover your mouse over the thumbnail. This site succeeds in adding a hidden element of excitement to a minimalist design.

Pierrick Calvez

Pierrick Calvez Home Page

The contrast of the dark gray background with the white text and bold and colorful images is a great example of good minimalist design. The background remains stationary as you scroll down through the images on the Work page, and this nice usability feature remains the same on each of Calvez’s other pages.

Pierrick Calvez About Page

Throughout this website, you won’t be disturbed by unnecessary images or misused fonts and colors. In fact, the About page is quite unique with a white flat globe image and icons that reveal more information when clicked. The minimalist design of this site is right on.

Confusing minimalistic design

Sometimes a web designer makes the mistake of creating a minimalist site that is difficult to use. These ill-designed sites often lack one of a few vital components: leading graphics/copy, consistency, or effective links. Below are a couple of sites in which the designer attempted minimalism, only to acheive confusion.

Straightline

Straightline Home Page

This website can certainly be called minimal with the black and white color scheme, no images, and plenty of white space. As you scroll down the page, you can find blog entries. The problem, though, is that links to additional information is hard to find. Without a clear menu, a visitor is unable to know exactly what kind of information is available.

Straightline Blog Post

You can see that the designer had the intention of creating a simple blog site that leads followers to check out a personal portfolio. The only problem is that most visitors in a hurry will not take the time to find the links hidden in the introduction.

Corporate Risk Watch

CRW Home Page

With no images and simple layout, this site is clearly minimalistic. However, the function of the site can be a bit confusing, which shows that minimalist websites need to take every part of site development into consideration.

CRW Due Diligence and Compliance Services

Subheadings for heading links drop down within the grid on the page when scrolling over each link. Unfortunately, this not only covers up the text below, but can be distracting when trying to read the text. A menu that takes over the entire page disrupts the flow of the site, especially since the drop down menu remains highlighted after the link has been clicked.

Making minimalism work for you

For those who are wanting to give minimalism a try, make sure that you know some of the basic rules of thumb before beginning.

Eliminate unnecessary items

This ad for Google uses two simple images and brief text to convey the point.

Every item within your design should have a purpose. Images should not be included unless they’re necessary for making your message clear. Edit your written content to include only the bare minimum needed to thoroughly explain your message.

Incorporate lots of white space

An ad for SanDisk keeps the image small and in the upper part of the ad, so that the eye focuses first on the image before moving to the logo below.

White space is the blank, not necessarily white, spaces between content. Rather than thinking of white space as empty space that needs to be filled, think of white space as frames and borders for your content. Make sure the empty space leads the eye in a logical pattern through the content. With plenty of white space, you will avoid a cluttered look.

Go easy on the color scheme

The website Designme uses only three colors for the background.

Limiting your color scheme doesn’t mean that you need to design in black and white with one accent color, although many minimalist designs do follow this color technique. Rather, the idea with a minimalist design is to use only the colors necessary to accurately portray your design and create hierarchy. Often, minimalism incorporates several colors but used in large chunks. Others only incorporate two colors into the design.

Design for character

The eye-catching font for the heading adds an original touch to the design.

Because minimalism requires the use of only the most essential elements, get creative with your design to stand out. For instance, create your own unique font for the title of your website. Use images rather than standard text for navigational elements or create your own original images for use in your design. Just be sure to add character by using only the bare essential elements, not by adding in extra unnecessary content.

Minimalism is inspiring, not lazy

Hopefully from the examples above, you have gathered that an effective minimalist site is an impressive piece of work and not something designers do just to cut down their design time on a tough project. In minimalism, the design is stripped of everything except for those components that are absolutely essential. If any element were removed, the design would cease to function.

Minimalist design has to be concise, organized, and consistent to be usable. What really makes a minimalist website inspiring is when a designer combines the usability factor with refinement. This perfect combination is a worthy goal that any designer can aspire to acheive.

If you have a favorite minimalist design, feel free to share it with the rest of us!

About the Author

Tara Hornor

Tara Hornor writes about marketing, advertising, branding, graphic design and desktop publishing. Tara works for PrintPlace.com, an online printing company that offers postcards, posters, brochure printing, business cards and more printed marketing media.

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43 Comments

  • Miguel Borges Reply

    Thank you Tara for such a clear writing on an often misinterpreted topic. Cheers!

  • Sean Reply

    “What really makes a minimalist website inspiring is when a designer combines the usability factor with refinement” – my 2 humble cents :) : Especially when usability implies not only human beings but also search engines. SE-friendly minimalist websites are real gems because they combine three main cornerstones of a good website – they are beautiful (good design), effective (robust functionality, good usability and conversion) and sufficiently visible on the net (traffic). For minimalist websites this all requires more efforts then for common sites.

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      I agree with you, Sean, that SEO minimalist sites really do require more effort than other web designs. Trying to fit in all that is required to make a site visible to search engines in a design that is purely minimalist can be quite difficult!

  • Manuel Ignacio López Quintero Reply

    I love minimalism in web design. In fact, my blog is a minimalistic site.

    I use whitespace always it’s possible. It’s very effective!

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      You are right about the effectiveness of white space. White space is a key to an uncluttered design, whether minimalist or not.

  • Jonas Reply

    Confusing headline – this is an article about graphic design, not experience design.

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      I’m sorry you found the title to be misleading! My goal was to show how a minimalist site should enhance the experience of visitors.

  • Justin Mifsud Reply

    Combining an aesthetically pleasing design with usability is always a challenge. I really liked the way you introduced usability in your post. Totally agree with you that minimalism combined with usability principles such as clear content and uncluttered navigation totally improves the user experience. Well done for this post Tara!

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      Thanks! I’m glad you like it; I believe strongly that a website should be usable above all else. I understand this can be hard to do, but it is completely necessary for visitors’ sakes.

  • Eric Bieller Reply

    Thanks a lot for sharin. This will definitely make me more aware of both successful and failed attempts at minimalist web designs hah. Love the SanDisk ad btw ;)

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      Glad you enjoyed the post! I also love that ad, which is why I included it. :)

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      Very nice! It’s minimalist but very easy to navigate. I love that I can still figure out what each page is about without turning on Google Translation tool.

  • Jacob Creech Reply

    Some really nice examples here. Thanks very much for sharing.

  • SEO West Midlands Reply

    A nice list of tips. It’s interesting to see such minimalistic web designs in such a busy web environment like today!

  • theComplex Reply

    Stunning examples of minimalism and usage of space.

  • SeoSemanticXhtml Reply

    We can also make use of white space or you can say gap between the images and text to keep our design minimalist. This gap creates a balance between the chosen elements and creates such an effect which is easy on the eyes and thus retains user’s attention.

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      Yes, you are right about white space. It is key to creating the perfect balance in any design, as you point out.

  • John Macpherson Reply

    Great article, always found it harder to less in a design than more. Love the examples too.

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      I’m the same way. Maybe that’s why minimalism intrigues me so much, because I tend to go overboard! :)

  • Gonzo the Great Reply

    Hi Tara,

    great article, but I really doubt that “Minimalism has its roots in post-World War II America”?

    But I don’t wanna sound as a nit-picker but Dadaisme (Zwitserland early 1920’s) and Bauhaus (Germany early 1930’s) are the roots to what we know as ‘minimalism’ style (sometimes also known as Swiss Style – although that is not completely correct).

    Nevertjeless I enjoyed reading your Article and your examples. Thanks for sharing ..

    Cheers 7 Ciao ..

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      Thanks for pointing out my error. I should have said that Minimalism as we know it today began post-World War II, not that it had its roots in that era. You are completely right; thanks for your explanation.

      • Jacob Mesu

        Bauhaus principle was that form follows function. A building should be shaped to support the function of the specific building. Bauhaus followed art deco and art nouveau which were more focused on decorative elements. You can see the same in web design. Web 1.0 sites were more focused decorative elements like gifs, blinks, etc. the trend in web 2.0 was more focused on lickable design as Steve Jobs would call it. :) the latest trend in web is flat design which is , like bauhaus focussing on simple geometric shapes and let form follow function. There are nowadays key players who define trends just like then. I’m not sure whether the examples are good examples of minimalistic design. A few contain elements which are there for pure decorative purposes. Anyway, interesting read. It made me think. And that’s a good thing… :)

  • Vegard Aspelund Reply

    Great read. This is an link worth spreading.

    Especially liked the parts about keeping it functional. Every part of a design should have a function. If it is just there to look nice, take it away, and make the rest look nice.

    (Must agree with Gonzo though, that minimalists probably predate WWII.)

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      Glad you liked the article! I completely agree that every artfully designed website should be functional. (And note my reply to Gonzo…he is definitely right about this).

  • Subash Reply

    Brilliant article, clearly defines how minimalist design should focus on usability as well. Thanks for the insight.

  • Guccimans Reply

    This is a really good topic but it’d be great to hear how these techniques can be applied to sites that have much more content to balance in terms of business needs and value to the user. For example, what about the sites that people use daily or multiple times a day, like news sites? It’s much easier to achieve an effective use of minimalism in portfolio sites (almost all of these are) but they don’t necessarily represent a particularly meaningful use case (e.g. what if you had to integrate advertising into any one of the examples above?). People aren’t returning to these sites on a consistent enough basis that their usability gets put to the test. What about the NYTimes, CNNs, and MSNBCs of the world? I think applying this notion to more lively examples will quickly show how much more complex — and interesting — a problem this is to solve.

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      I definitely agree with you that not all sites can be minimalist. A news site certainly does come with its own set of usability problems, for sure. Hmmm, maybe you have given me an idea for my next article! ;)

  • Marc Buurke Reply

    Awesome, big fan of minimalist webdesign here. And I try to incorporate alot of the ideas you mention into my own designs.

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      Good! I bet you do well, then, in your minimalist designs. :)

    • Tara Hornor Reply

      Nice! I love the large photo in the center of the home page. However, the navigation for the projects and constructions page was a little difficult and confusing. Other than that, very nicely laid out!

  • Michael Reply

    The Sandisk one is brilliant and actually the same concept I use on my own site to direct my user’s eyes to where I want them to look.

    When I used to work at Best Buy they would employ the same technique with surround ads in blue and then highlighting the sale with bright yellow and black bold text in the center.

  • Sergiu Reply

    Really enjoyed your article, as I love the minimal approach, but never looked at it from the user experience perspective. Thank you!

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