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February 24, 2020

Simple Does Not Mean Minimal

It seems that no matter your area of expertise there are two idioms that get tossed around without reservation – Less Is More and Keep It Simple, Stupid.

You could be a cake decorator or a dog walker and these two over-used clichés could apply to your current situation. But in the land of web design, is Less really More? Better yet, where does Less become More? And when is too little not enough?

There are so many possibilities and routes that designers can take to develop a functioning and aesthetically pleasing website. It is hard, if not impossible, to ever find the end to your project.

While working for a larger corporation, this might not be an issue. Your work is supposed to evolve and change with the data you receive. But, for those designers working as freelancers or with an agency, you’re going have to show some restraint, as eventually, you will need a final product to present your client(s).

To get the most out of your work, designers should know how to apply simplicity and minimalism. These two terms are not synonymous but are often used interchangeably. So, let’s go through their differences, what their definitions should mean to a designer, and how you can better express simplicity and minimalism as an objective of design with clients.

The Difference Between Simple and Minimal Website Design

One of the most infamous terms in design that can be tied to a designer’s quest for utilitarian design is one that we are all familiar with: Minimalism.

Originating from the works of abstract artists in the 1960’s, minimalism created waves from its detachment from the norm. Famously described by the minimalist painter, Frank Stella, “What you see is what you see.”

When it comes to the web design equivalent, minimalism often seems to be defined by large white-spaced hero images, little to no animation, and as little colour as possible. The internal battle that designers must face with minimalistic design is what to keep and what to scrap.

With minimalism, content is king. The style finds a purpose and attempts to remove all distractions from the product or service.

But, to more accurately describe the two principles of Simplicity and Minimalistic, we ironically have to break them down to their simplest explanations.

  • Minimalism = lack of quantity
  • Simplicity = a lack of complexity

It is these distinctions that plenty of designers have failed to separate. In a sense, minimalism is a style, whereas, simplicity is the intermingling of UX with UI.

Simplistic design, for this reason, requires a greater understanding of the whole. From the moment a visitor arrives on your website to the time they leave, they shouldn’t have to think. A simplistic designer has already done the thinking for them. These designers are empaths at heart.

Minimalism, on the other hand, is spoken through visual elements alone. The images are chosen, menu, scrolling, call to actions, etc. All in efforts to eliminate visual clutter. While there are benefits that can arise from minimalism, they are often done with intentions of style and can be seen clearly.

A simple design is often invisible. Its benefits are built into a website’s functionality, and when done right, simplicity is reminiscent of countless mothers – you don’t notice the jobs they accomplish until they aren’t there.

When Should You Practice Simplicity Over Minimalism?

Whenever we have discussed this topic we are usually met with questions of application – when and where should I use these design elements?

However, it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Simplicity should always be your goal. Smoothing out the bumps in your user’s experience through the use of UI is a goal synonymous with every style.

If we take a look at a website such as Search Engine Journal, by no means is it complicated. With a menu bar to help you navigate the website, loads of fresh content streamed throughout each day, and colourful pop-ups to introduce articles or promotions, the website is chalked full of visual elements.

But, each element has a purpose.

For websites like these, a minimalistic approach would not work. Each article would share the same hero images and content would be written in mundane black text over a clean white background.

While minimalistic design would serve the same functionality of presenting knowledge, it wouldn’t encourage readers to stay on a page longer or visit related articles through attractive use of colour and imagery.

Minimalism is perfect for websites that lack complexity in the first place. Examples of minimalistic websites would be portfolios such as photographers and freelancers, as well as niche e-commerce companies, such as jewellery, and/or fashion.

Where Less Becomes More

As with all polar choices, there is a spectrum in between your two options. In between simplicity and complexity, there lays a combination suited for your website. This is where Less becomes More, and inversely, where Too Little becomes Not Enough.

This isn’t an exact point on the spectrum. In fact, it isn’t even a feeling that you will have figured out in your first or even final drafts.

Good design allows for fluid user experience. The problem is that user experience isn’t truthfully known until a website is pushed live. While certain elements, such as menus and checkouts, stay relatively consistent between designs, journeys between pages, articles, or products are not always cut and dry.

To discover where Less is More is going to be a consistent task. It will require testing, feedback, and implementation of updates to find your sweet spot between simple and complicated.


How to Talk to Clients About Minimalism

Whenever a client approaches you for a minimalistic design, you should ensure that, for one, they aren’t mistaking simplicity for minimalism; and two, that their business and website will be congruent with a minimal design.

As a professional designer, it is your job to steer clients in the right direction and to speak up when an idea might not be beneficial for your client’s objectives.

However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t comfort your clients with the knowledge that their site will be fluid and uncomplicated. As we mentioned before, simplicity should be built into every design.

Luckily, now you have all the knowledge to explain the difference between minimalism and simplicity to potential clients!

Good luck designing!

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