I've been a minimalist for far longer than I've been a designer. It might be where my interest in simple design comes from. There's an important thing that many people don't understand about minimalism: It's not about having as little as possible, at all costs. Minimalism is about having only what's necessary. It's an important distinction, because if there's a good reason for something to remain, it should not be taken away.
Kate Moran at Nielsen Norman Group makes the same point:
Unfortunately, some designers misinterpret minimalism as a purely visual-design strategy. They cut or hide important elements in pursuit of a minimalist design for its own sake—not for the benefits that strategy might have for users. They're missing the core philosophy and the historical context of minimalism, and they risk increasing complexity rather than reducing it.
An excellent example, which unfortunately is everywhere, is the hamburger menu. Even simple navigation items are tucked away behind an icon because the design looks simpler that way. Your design should not get between the user and the content they want to see, even if the result is a more minimal interface. If you have the screen space to show elements that you know the users will want to access, make it easier, not harder.
Minimalism was one of Dieter Rams' ten principles for good design - principles that made him one of the most famous designers in the world, and helped make Braun's products successful.
Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.
Minimalism can help with commercial success. Conversion Rate Experts, who invented the term "Conversion Rate Optimisation" and are the leading experts in helping websites succeed, recommend that you try for minimalism. They also remind us that less doesn't mean less beautiful.
If you do make your website more beautiful, ensure your designs are minimalist—visually and technically. Keep them elegantly simple and easy to update. And don't forget that ... good functional design has a beauty of its own.
Frank Chimero is a very respectable designer, and has made minimalism - only having what's necessary - a part of his approach to work.
If I had to describe my philosophy toward technology, I'd say I aim for the crux of whatever works the best with the least amount. You add things until it starts sucking, take things away until it stops getting better.
Nick Disabato makes a similar point:
There is an essential tension between simplicity, which is the thoughtful reduction of unnecessary elements, and completeness, which is to have enough function to be useful. Products must remain functionally complete through their fundamental tasks. The product must do precisely enough, and its creators must know where and when to stop.
One of the themes throughout these quotes is the idea of pruning ideas or elements back - removing what is already there, rather than not adding it in the first place. As creative people we obviously have a habit of creating things, and it's no surprise that this can be hard to control. Nor should we have to control it. Designers are taught that it's better to come up with ten solutions to one problem - to make sure that you've thought about every angle.
So many of the secrets to creativity and quality involve quantity: Make more, and you'll make better. At first glance, making more is at odds with minimalism. Daniel Haight at Darkhorse Analytics explains how this process can work in practice:
There's an excellent quote from Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Notice that he doesn't say: “Everything should be made as complex as necessary, but no more complex.” He recognizes that the creative process almost always overshoots. We arrive at a place of complexity and then work back to simplify. This is how ideas form - the tree grows, and then it is pruned. And then it bears fruit.
Create as much as you like, but you should be willing to remove much of it at the end if you want to produce the best. It takes an objective eye and a strong will to remove something you've created. Daniel Haight, Frank Chimero, and Jessie Scanlon of The New York Times agree that removing things is a valid approach to minimalism.
Set aside time for pruning. When you think you're done, take a hard look at all the elements of your design or your model or your slide deck or your blog post and begin to chop away. Let the different features compete for your attention, and only the strong survive. What remains is the beautiful essence.
Delete unimportant things. Even if you love them. If it isn't spectacular, it gets cut. Kill your darlings. Be a cold-blooded killer. Ruthless. Delete. Refine. Improve.
Simplicity hinges as much on cutting nonessential features as on adding helpful ones
As Kate Moran explains, everything in your interface should be considered for the chopping block.
Designers who adopt a minimalist design strategy must consider each element in their interfaces and eliminate any that are not required to support the core functionality or message of the website. An 'element' in this context could be any individual unit of the interface: including but not limited to: menu items, links, images, graphics, lines, captions, textures (like gradients), colors, fonts, icons.
Nick Disabato gives similar advice:
Everything that you add to a product should be justified in terms of its appearance, location, and behavior. All elements should have roles associated with them: in other words, they should serve some functional purpose for the product. Periodically audit every detail of the layout for what it does to help ... If you can’t justify an element’s existence, remove it.
Even for complex data or graphics, Daniel Haight tells us that we should be aiming to be as minimal as possible.
Most graphics don't struggle with understatement. In fact, most contain a stunning amount of excess ink (or pixels). Rather than dressing our data up we should be stripping it down.
It's easy to assume, thanks to the minimalist art movement, that minimalism is a visual approach. A quality of the design that changes how beautiful it looks, but nothing else. You might agree with this - minimalist interfaces often do look more beautiful. But beauty is not the only benefit. One of Jakob Nielsen's ten usability heuristics explains that minimalism will promote the parts of the interface that matter to your users.
[Heuristic 8:] Aesthetic and minimalist design. Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
Next time you design something, take some time to remove things. You might find that you didn't need all of them in the first place.
But remember, as John Maeda tells us, to remove things with care.
Typographic → ← Wordy Back to the table of contents
The process of reaching an ideal state of simplicity can be truly complex, so allow me to simplify it for you. The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.