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Less is More: Fundamentals of Minimalist Web Design

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This post is part of a series called Web Design Theory.
Errors: Bad Decisions or Bad Design?
Understanding the F-Layout in Web Design

Fighting the battle against clutter is something every designer undertakes, whether it's on their own site or when designing for a client. Your web site’s design should enhance your site's purpose by putting the focus on the content and being usable by everyone. Taking the extra time to ensure no detail is left overlooked will produce an effective and attractive website.

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in October of 2010.


Define the Site's Purpose

Your site needs a clearly defined purpose to eliminate any confusion from the start...

First things first - before opening up your favorite graphics app to design your hot new minimal site, you will need to establish what the site is going to be used for. Your site needs a clearly defined purpose to eliminate any confusion from the start by having a single, strong focal point. It may be to display award winning photographs to potential clients, share breaking technology news or used to sell your hand made pet toys. Start by making a simple statement:

My site needs to ______________________________________.

  • Educate teens on the dangers of texting and driving

  • Showcase award winning photos to potential clients

  • Sell hand-made, premium dog toys

By clearly defining a purpose early on, you will be able to use it to help keep your design on track. As you work through the design elements, continue to ask yourself questions such as:

  • Will this compliment and reinforce my site's purpose?

  • Is this really needed or am I just filling space?

  • Will this be distracting from my site's purpose?

Anything you add to the site that does not reinforce your site's true purpose can be a distraction, weakening your overall message. The additional items must compliment your focus.

Your site selling high-performance pogo sticks does not need to include a link to your stock photography portfolio, no matter just how awesome it is.

This isn't the time for things you want on your site, it's what is needed that is truly important. You only have a few seconds to convince your visitors to stick around and read your message.


Sweat the Little Things

Every detail has significance, what you remove from your design is equally as important as what you add.

The fundamentals are just that, fundamental. All your design principals become much more important to understand and implement when clutter and unneeded items are removed, pushing your message to the forefront.

Mistakes are magnified with clean, simple, minimal designs. Ensuring you have studied the design fundamentals is vital when it comes to placing items on the page and relating them to one another. Everything you do needs planning and purpose - just because there is room for "one more thing" doesn't necessarily mean there needs to be something there.

Many if not all of the design principles apply to clean, simple, minimal style designs but be sure to get these down from the beginning:

Unity

Your page elements need to get along and fit well together to improve the overall design. Items that stand out to grab attention on the page need to stand out because you want them to, not because they don’t mesh with the other items on the page.

Simple splashes of color add interest to a black and white color scheme and draw your eye from the logo right into creative, clever and fun.

Whitespace

Elements on the page need room to breathe. It may seem logical to you and you may be doing it without even thinking but common requests from clients seem to be:

  • “Let’s add one more thing, there seems to be a lot of extra space here...”

  • “There is room under the menu, move it up so we can add...”

  • “There is a gap along the sides of the site, we should also include....”

By giving up valuable whitespace between elements, the site becomes cramped and elements begin to run together, not giving your eyes a needed break which help to define separate areas.

Web Creme has a limited number of ads but places them in an area with greatest impact.

Alignment

There are many ways to align objects on a page but with a clean, simple, minimal design, if something is even a pixel or two off it will be much easier to spot.

Use a grid to keep everything you need aligned, squared away and perfect. They’re great from sketching out a design all the way to development with many frameworks to choose from.

Subtlety not your thing? Create an immediate impact by choosing a bold color to compliment your design.

Hierarchy

With many sites, you only have a few seconds to convey your message or help lead a user where you want them to go.

The way you use different sizes and weights of elements creates a path, leading the user through the page, typically ending up in a call to action area. When users feel comfortable they are heading in the right direction, they will continue on, but if confused as to what is going on, they may become frustrated.

Pandaweb uses whitespace to keep visitors’ attention on the promotional area.


Remove the Unnecessary

What is the best way to find and eliminate unnecessary elements? By not adding them in the first place! Spend extra time planning out the site and defining your purpose early on to eliminate extras that were just filling up space.

During the design process, spend ample time going through each element of your site asking - do I really need this? Your purpose or focus may shift slightly along the way so it’s a good idea to keep asking yourself this as you move along.

If you have access to a test group, try using click tracking software on a test site to locate elements that are never used. Look at the unused elements and decide whether you can remove them or place them in a different location.

Remember, creating a clean, simple, minimal design allows the mind to get down to the basics, shows your visitors what you have to offer and get your message across in the most efficient way possible.

Usability is Not Optional

There's no good reason to choose design over usability, they will work together perfectly if executed properly. A well designed, easy to use site will keep visitors around longer and fulfill the site's ultimate purpose of displaying your content and delivering your message effectively.

A site that is easy and comfortable to use will almost feel as if it is reading the user’s mind and browsing becomes easy and fun.

Don’t be afraid to be creative with new styles and techniques but be conscious of common functionality and placement of elements that you may take for granted:

  • Links should be easy to identify and click on

  • Always provide a way to go home

  • Never disable the back button

  • Add close buttons to content in pop-up windows

  • Indicate what page the user is currently on

Some people associate clean, simple, minimal designs with miniature text and almost unusable elements on an empty page. Some of the most basic guidelines are commonly overlooked when designing new sites:

  • The navigation should be consistent and intuitive to use

  • The content should be readable with clearly defined headings

  • The code should be clean and comply with the latest web standards

  • Ensure your site displays and functions properly on all browsers

Locating Trouble Spots

While some things look great in the design phase, once you get the site in your browser, you may uncover usability challenges you never noticed while the design was in Photoshop.

A great way to actually find out how the site is used is by grabbing a volunteer and looking over their shoulder or (with their permission) use a desktop sharing tool if you’re not in the same physical location.

Give them a list of tasks and watch closely to see if they’re easily accomplished:

  • Purchase a book from my store

  • Contact me for an appointment

  • Find out about my background

You may be amazed how different people may interpret different areas of the site or the paths they may take. Watch them closely but don’t give any help or tips along the way.

  • Will they know where to click?

  • Do they get lost on a specific area?

  • Are they clicking on a design element thinking it will bring them to a new page?

  • Do they have a hard time clicking on a tiny icon?

Take notes on areas they may struggle on and find ways to improve. Do not get defensive or angry if problems are found with the site. Use that new knowledge to improve your work and carry that knowledge onto future projects.


But I Like Color!

Creating a clean, simple, minimal design does not mean you need to be stuck in black & white or with a drab and uninteresting site, just learn to simplify your color choices. There are two main routes to take when adding color:

Color Splash

With small pops of color, your visitors' eyes will immediately know that the area with color is important. Use this to your advantage by using it to paint a path for the eyes to follow.

CSS Frameworks such as the 960.gs system provide a way to keep everything aligned perfectly.

Simple Yet Bold

A more daring choice may be to make your color statement in the background with a bold solid color. Bold can be distracting so make sure you are not taking away from the message of your site, making it hard to read or unusable but this will definitely get your site noticed.

The elements of Finch feel as if they all belong on the page and work together.


It's Not for Everyone

Nearly anyone will benefit from a site with a strong focus but a clean, simple, minimal style is not for everyone.

Website Theme Authors - Often times you only get a few seconds before a buyer will decide on whether they want to spend time looking at the site you created. Displaying only a super minimal design as the only layout option may register as “basic” and be thought of immediately as lacking in features. You may just need to show various levels of what's possible in areas and let them decide whether to use the feature or not.

Ad Heavy Sites - The clean, simple, minimal style will probably not the best fit for sites that rely heavily on advertising unless you have very understanding ad-owners that adapt to fit your style. A better option may be to place fewer ads but locate them in an area that would be clicked on the most.

Sofa uses an inverted pyramid of information leading you down the lage from the heading, company overview and into the services they provide.


Finding a Balance

Realizing we don't all get full creative control of every design project, try and find a balance with your clients.

When explaining why you designed a site in a certain way, refer to other sites that do things correctly and explain why it works and why their website is a success.

Explain how they benefited and how you could too. Show them the positive results and responses the other site has received because of the good design choices and taking the extra time to ensure all visitors have a usable, effective site.

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