People keep saying minimalism has gone too far. But, a lot of what they’re referring to is what we term, “fake minimalism”.
Minimalism will always be a key component of modern digital design. Where applied with consideration and in appropriate circumstances, minimalism can serve to simplify a product or service to the point where it becomes easier to use.
It includes the removal of superfluous design details which have no positive (and sometimes have a negative) impact on user experience. It might be removing a colorful background which makes text harder to read, or condensing eight navigation items down to three or four. It can make products easier to use and more accessible. This has a benefit to the end user, and so should always be a defining part of usable design, regardless of where the industry currently stands on the cycle of trends.
It also has a number of secondary effects including a speed up of development and load times, improved ease of maintenance, and reduced likelihood of pushing a security flaw, bug, or design oversight.
Where minimalism begins to amass criticism is when applied in one of two ways. The first of these being "extreme minimalism".
This entails using a reductionist technique to strip a design to its very bare bones. It surpasses the point of ensuring optimal user experience as the key consideration. Instead it transitions to the more visual side of design, often affecting the real everyday users of the product in a negative way
It includes examples such as replacing clearly defined buttons with ambiguous, “subtle” icons, and failing to clearly differentiate between elements and sections of a design.
The results are often on-trend, and visually appreciated by other creatives, but they can have some profound effects on accessibility and ease-of-use. This often only affects a minority of users, but a section that should be designed for without fail each and every time.
It can often be extremely easy to fall into this trap as a designer, since industry trends, client demands, and the requirement to stand out can all be conflicting factors in producing an optimal user experience.
The second criticism often attached to minimalism is the rise of fake minimalism.
Whereas extreme minimalism is a by-product of pushing for too much reduction, fake minimalism is an altogether more serious issue which is rising further in prominence all the time. It’s visual minimalism for the sake of being on-trend. This means using elements like small typography, navigations hidden behind hamburger icons for no reason, and poor call-to-action and button designs. It also often includes using grid systems which are visually impressive, but not conducive to a good reading experience.
Many fake minimalist sites also bypass many accessibility considerations such as contrast, color blindness, poor visibility, and more. These tendencies that have arisen with this trend are becoming the norm. The list of negatives this has on user experience is seemingly endless and continues to make some web and mobile applications hard to use.
While this trend has a place in more visual design areas such as branding, it’s made its way to prominence in an industry that should always have user considerations at its very core.
Design trends always had a way of clouding our vision to the real issues at the heart of design. It’s difficult, since aesthetics play such a large part in design. Not only do they provide us individually with a sense of identity and interest, they are also, often, a defining factor in improving chances of employability and attracting new clients who want designs that feel groundbreaking and current.
It’s important to take a step back every now and then and ask yourself whether a compromise should be found between aesthetics and usability.
Even for more visual sites such as portfolios, they are not exempt, despite popular opinion. They are still a usable product which may want to be accessed by young and old, and those with greater difficulties in navigating the web.
Despite its downfalls, minimalism has a great deal of merit when applied with care. It’s one of the most important design philosophies, since it encourages us to find a balance in our designs. It ensures we don’t end up with a product that is overly complicated, visually overwhelming, or lacking in important elements like spacing and separation.
Thus, next time you are opting to employ a minimalist design language, be sure to question key elements like navigations, typography sizing and contrast, link formatting, and button design.
By paying extra attention to these key components, you’ll find yourself closer to a design which has both visual merit, as well as great usability and accessibility for all.
Here are some examples of web and user interface design that break away from fake minimalism, presenting products that are usable and considered, while also remaining visually attractive and current.
This user interface mail app kit uses a refined layout while maintaining a focus on great contrast, iconography, and visual separation of key design elements. It results in screens which have excellent usability, while also maintaining a modern and minimalist direction.
Kapena is a beautifully designed minimal responsive portfolio WordPress theme focused on displaying portfolio images in elegant manner. It comes with a neat Ajax infinite scroll option (for Portfolio items and for Blog Posts) as well as 6 pre-made portfolio post layouts. If you need even more customization than what you get out of the box, you'll be happy to know that a Child Theme is also included.
Opta is minimal and clean WordPress theme focused on displaying portfolio images in elegant manner. Clear and beautiful typography will complement your images nicely and keep the focus on your visual content.
This stunning admin dashboard is a perfect example of how impressive and refined a user interface can be without employing the tendencies of fake minimalism. Taking cues from Material Design, the template uses depth and color to provide separation between content areas and the primary navigation. The navigation items are labeled alongside informative icons, and the active state is clear and defined.