Design & UX
Article

When Less is More – Why Minimalism STILL Rules the Web

By Richa Jain

Dr Ian Malcolm - Jurassic Park 1993

Design trends come and go. But some trends are eternal. Minimalism is one such trend.

HTML5, CSS3 and all the other technology behind websites has grown dramatically over the last decade, making it possible to have more complex webpages today than ever before in history.

And yet, I think minimalist designs still rock.

“… your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should

Dr. Ian Malcolm – Jurassic Park (1993)

Early in the first Jurassic Park film, Jeff Goldblum’s mumbly, hipster scientist questions the park’s creators with the line above. Similarly in web design, just because technology enables you to add fancy bells and whistles and the kitchen sink to your website, doesn't mean you should.

In fact, here’s what happens when you go all out embracing the latest technology and add every possible bit of it onto your home page:

Possible

Yes. That’s the real deal – the home page over at Possible which includes sliders, animation, parallax. Go take a look. Perhaps you’ll spot your favorite there too.

It’s very difficult to find the core theme. On the other hand, it still comfortably beats getting shredded by a velociraptor. So there’s that.

Bad designs aside, here are some concrete reasons why a minimalist website may actually be good for business.

Business and Marketing Reasons

1. It forces you to polish your message.

What's the purpose of your website? What are you trying to convey to your users? Focus on that. Don't let it get lost in the clutter on your site.

OwnerTerms

With a minimalist design, you don't have room to play loose. Every element on the page is deliberate. Every element serves a purpose. You can't be wishy washy about your message. You can't write a thousand words and hope that viewers will get the message. You can't use generic stock photos and graphic fillers. You're forced to consciously choose only what's absolutely required and reinforces your message.

2. Convey your USP Better

Since there's less clutter on the page, you have a chance to make your USP (Unique Sales Proposition) stand out and shine. Take a look at HelpScout. Their home page has a very clean, elegant design. There are a total of about 10 words above the fold (other than the menu), and a single clean background image that subtly shows people diligently working – perhaps the support team that's going to man your helpdesk.

HelpScout

Check out some other great examples of good and bad USP over here. Notice a common thread among the 'good' USP examples? They're mostly clean, minimal designs.

3. Less Clutter = Better Conversion

Yes, this should be obvious. But it isn't. Just check this screenshot of the Threadless website just a few weeks ago. Can you find the subscribe button?

Threadless

Or better, look at the contrast between Yahoo and Google. Can you guess which of these users are more likely to find and use that search button on?

Yahoo

or…

Google

A clean minimalist design helps highlight your CTA in clear, non ambiguous manner.

4. Responsive is just waay easier

Mobile highlights the whole 'less is more' experience much better than any thing else. Those who've been designing mobile first, understand the crunch that the smaller screen enforces, and are already used to somewhat minimalist designs. You just can't afford clutter on a 3 inch screen.

But it also works the other way around. It's so much easier to make minimalist sites responsive, or even port them for mobile. Simply because the layout is simpler, there are fewer elements, and on the whole, lesser, more meaningful content.

User Experience

5. Space. Whitespace. Breathing space.

I don't know if it's just me, but there's this sense of calm whitespaces bring. Like it's ok. I don't have to rush. A site that uses whitespace effectively conveys that sense of calm and authority. They know what they're about. They know what matters. They're not going to bury you with stuff. You have the space to be yourself. The ZenHabits blog captures this beautifully, radiating zen.

zenhabits

6. Navigation is Easier

The minimalist agenda to reduce the clutter also holds for navigation menus. Like everything else, the menu is forced to have only as much as absolutely necessary. Again HelpScout got it right. Their top menu has just four elements. They highlight the most important thing visitors would like to know – Product, Pricing, Blog.

Everything else, like the About page, the legal stuff and the help docs are tucked away under "More". No cluttering the top header space. No 3 and 4 level deep menus. This just makes it easier for users to find the right page.

7. Elegant, sophistication

Somehow, a minimalist website exudes an elegance and sophistication. That you're confident enough. That the business is sure of itself. That you're not afraid to stand for what you believe in. Look back at ZenHabits. Or take a look at TruthLabs.

TruthLabs

Unintentional Side Effects

8. Fewer resources. Less server space. Faster downloads

One of the perhaps unintentional side effects of a minimal site, is that you have less resources. That means less storage space required on your server. That means no overloading your server with large videos, flash or other jazzy content. No slowing it down with a hundred plugins, and overall faster page loads.

47% of consumers expect a page to load in 2 seconds or less.

Kissmetrics

Kissmetrics has a good infographic showing the impact of page load times on business revenues. Even Google penalizes slow websites.

9. Less Maintenance Effort

Cleaner designs not only result in fewer resources to save and download, but also fewer resources to maintain. Just updating all the plugins, libraries, frameworks that go into making your website can be a nightmare. And then you have to make sure all the updates haven't caused any compatibility issues.

With minimal designs, chances are you've skipped the bells and whistles. You don't have as many plugins etc to update.

Conclusion

Some of the points I've written about would fall under good design principles anyways, but often get skipped in favor of convenience, or a time/price crunch. Minimalist designing forces you to make conscious design decisions. It makes you question each element, each resource on the page – many that we would normally just take for granted. Each resource has to earn it's place. Each element that is not absolutely required, is dropped.

Note that a minimal design may not work for all scenarios and businesses. You need to take a call about how basic or minimal you want to go with a particular design.

At the same time, do remember that just because we can do fancy designs doesn't mean we should. Just because new features, elements, queries have been added to CSS, doesn't mean we need to use them all.

At the end of the day, it's important not to loose focus of the real purpose of the design. Minimalism ensures that you focus on the customer, on the message.

Staying minimal can give a huge ROI.

  • Tim

    “Responsive is just waay easier”
    That is definitely the case, and the problem with that is it makes developers lazy. They would rather use a starter template than build something from scratch because it is faster. That leads to the other issue that ALL responsive websites look the same. The only thing that changes are the fonts and photos. This is bad. It reduces the impact of your site compared to another company. What’s going to make your company stand out… a big photo? A big video? The text that people never read? Why is the average bounce rate on web pages going up about 6% year over year on desktop devices?

    • Ralph Mason

      Yes, it’s good to point this out—that using stock frameworks dulls the impact of a site. The *real* minimalism is to code a site simply, more or less from scratch—creating a unique design that truly fits the content.

    • http://richa.strikingly.com Richa Jain

      IMHO, that just brings us back to the reason minimalism rocks – the focus is on the message, on the user. Not on the bells and whistles and decoration that fancy code/frameworks enable.

      The only thing that can/should make your company’s website stand out is there core message – and how well they convey it to their viewers.

      • Tim

        That’s just it – the message that is being conveyed is that “our company is boring because our website looks just like every other website out there today.”

        • http://richa.strikingly.com Richa Jain

          Then that’s just bad design. Minimalism (and even responsive design) is a tool / principle. It depends on how you apply them.

          If a designer takes the easy way out resulting in a bland copy cat website – the problem is not with the tool.

          • Tim

            It’s not the designer that’s taking the easy way out. It’s the developer. As I stated, developers want to use frameworks to make building sites faster and easier. When you do that, the site will end up looking the same as other sites. It doesn’t matter what the designer does. Yeah, the colors are different and the photos are different, but the overall fell and especially the UI is exactly the same.
            Take SitePoint as a classic example. This site looks like Pinterest, which looks like a bunch of other sites. SitePoint has done nothing to make this site look better than any other site. It’s boring. By making it “clean and minimal” you’ve taken away that which made it interesting.

          • Andrew Wasson

            @Tim, Developers don’t dictate the design, they are responsible for the application of the design. If the developer is taking the easy way out, then the designer needs to reign in the developer and provide them instruction to follow the design.

          • Tim

            The problem is the developers are convincing business owners that starting from a template/framework is a good idea because it saves time/money. Designers cannot argue that point because it’s the truth and business owners only want to save time and money. It helps them make more profit.

            So what are designers to do but follow a template and choose some colors and images that look good with that template?

          • sujaisd

            I am Developer/PM/Customer/Business Owner, I have taken both the paths in my past due to various reasons.
            1. Developers convince when there is no designer on first place, but expected to deliver a good looking app from day one.
            2. When designers are not interested in solving UX problems, but just colours and place content. Bad designers encourage developers to go with templates.
            3. Templates with frameworks pre designed really saves time as a business owner, because I choose, how I really wanted, and get some one to just fix it.
            4. Buying template has been a pain when, I have no idea about my content/audience, but just technology…. I need a designer first.

            Minimalist is the good/better approach and add things when needed, this works better if you really do things in a lean approach.

          • Tim

            So please list some examples of sites your company has created that look fantastic and different than other responsive and minimal websites that are out there right now. Can you? I am betting you cannot.

          • sujaisd

            Tim, what do you exactly want? or what are you trying to say?

          • sujaisd

            “4. Buying template has been a pain when, I have no idea about my content/audience, but just technology…. I need a designer first.”

            I have said, the pain and problem. But customers not everyone wanted a great design. They are very few who needs to have unique and special, most of them just want an app/site just like someone who has done earlier and getting them faster with lesser cost makes them happy.

            No use in creating a golden unique website, where they are not interested in it. So I would say not needed to do one different from others as they really don’t need.

          • Tim

            What I’m saying is your answer above solidifies my point about developers being lazy and only doing what they need to do to get the job done. There is a website called Tennessee Vacations http://www.tnvacation.com/ that was amazing looking and won a bunch of awards for its design (use the Wayback machine to see previous versions). You had a real feeling for what Tennessee was about by just looking at the homepage. Then along comes “responsiveness” and the site looks just like a bunch of other sites out there. The only thing setting it apart is the photography, which may as well be stock photos.
            It doesn’t matter if your customers WANT a great design or not. You should give it to them if you’re in the business of building websites.

            What I want to is to see some examples that will make me change my mind and say, “Wow! Maybe responsive websites DON”T all have to look the same, with crisp straight edges on everything and no real style.” Something to invoke a FEELING rather than just transfer of information.
            Can it be done? Prove me wrong.

          • sujaisd

            I would agree with your last point, “Maybe responsive websites DON”T all have to look the same” but people who do that are rare. They are the real passionate designers who do want to keep things unique and do wonderful job.

            “It doesn’t matter if your customers WANT a great design or not. You
            should give it to them if you’re in the business of building websites.”
            Business vs Passion are different, sometimes what we want to do will not really keep us in business, I don’t like to argue, just for the sake of argument, but the point is not everyone will be in same character everyone is different, the business model varies. Arguing here for design passion vs business decision is pointless. Each situation is unique, you cannot decide for someone.

            “developers being lazy” – What can a developer do to make things in UI, which is not his skill? Designers need to do the design that is unique. We cannot pay for the unique skilled designers, when the customers pay less.

          • Tim

            If you are not passionate about your business then you need to get out of that business and do something you’re passionate about. I’m more of an illustrator than anything else, and if a book publisher pays my $2500 for a book cover I don’t try to calculate how much time I should spend working on it so that I make a certain dollar amount per hour. I work on it until I think it’s ready (and of course to meet the deadline).
            Also, if developers are not in business of making UI, then what are they doing? It’s not ALL the designer’s job. Additionally, UI designers aren’t always the ones that are designing the website. It could just be a regular old graphic designer. The designer and the developer should work hand-in-hand to make sure they do the best job they can.

          • sujaisd

            I better stop my argument here as the topic of design is going away.

            I understand what you mean by passion and how to do that too, but you have no idea what I mean as business and not all business runs the same way. I am not here to explain what a business is and how to run it or what should be done there.

            I agreed with your points on design and disagreed with your views on other things. I am not here to prove I am better than you or to argue to the very end. I just gave comments why the templates and other models are in the market with pros/cons, but not to justify or convince you.

            Thanks for your comments.

          • Tim

            i’ve simply asked for people to post some website examples that show me that responsive websites don’t have to look all the same. So far, nobody has done that. Not even you.

          • Andrew Wasson

            Sorry to be out of the loop for so long… I missed the email that showed your reply.

            Using templated systems isn’t the problem providing the developer knows what they are doing within the theming system and that they take direction from the designer. If they just point to Theme Forest and tell the designer to pick a theme then they don’t deserve the job. The developer should be able to theme from scratch and duplicate the design they are provided. That’s the way I work. I use Drupal which probably has an advantage of a very flexible template based theming engine and since I’ve been using it for 8+ years, I know it pretty well.

            The bottom line is that if the developer can’t translate the design to the web then they had better have a good explanation or it’s time to find another developer.

          • Andrew Wasson

            Tim, here’s a minimalist site we built a while back that I particularly like: http://www.rjcfoundation.ca/

            It looks simpler that it really is. It’s multilingual, is (WCAG) 2.0 Level A accessible and it’s responsive and mobile friendly. The news section supports images and Youtube clips and news is automatically archived according to a specific date scheme. The client holds the keys to the admin and has full editorial control over the site and content.

  • Ralph Mason

    Great article, Richa. It made me feel calmer just reading it. You’ve put the case here very clearly, without overstating it or adding too much clutter—a nice example of practicing what you preach. :-)

    • http://richa.strikingly.com Richa Jain

      Thanks Ralph! Glad you liked it!

  • Kenneth Davila

    Great article, very valid marketable points. and not just opinion. I personally don’t like minimalism, I think it’s too cookie cutter. However your points on why to use it are very very valid. I believe I can combine that with a bit more creativity in my next portfolio redesign to stay on point with a strategy encompassing target audience, conversion and maintainability.

    Great read.

    I’m a front-end developer/UI engineer btw…. I’m not a designer… ;) ..

  • Andrey Kurtz

    Nice (minimalist) article and great examples. Thank you.

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