a woman looking at a minimalist art display

Minimalist design is everywhere, and it’s especially popular among web designers. It’s easy to see the appeal: Many of minimalism’s core tenets mesh very well with the constraints of modern UI and UX design, especially on mobile devices.

A (Very Brief) History of Minimalist Design

Minimalism traces its origins back to the early twentieth century. Though we tend to associate it with media and design now, its origins lie in fields as diverse as architecture and painting. Here are a few early influences on the minimalist style:

  1. De Stijl. Dutch for “the style,” De Stijl was an artistic movement that celebrated simple, abstract shapes, bold primary colors, and straight lines. Piet Mondrian’s city grid-inspired paintings are a perfect encapsulation of De Stijl.
  2. Constructivism. The Constructivist style came out of early Soviet revolutionary art. Its goal was to create a new style of art that could create social change, rejecting the idea of “art for art’s sake.” The result was an aesthetic that communicated using a combination of strong, dramatic shapes, black-and-white photography, and bold typography.
  3. Bauhaus. The Bauhaus movement emerged from Germany in the 1920s and early 30s. It jettisoned styles associated with earlier eras in favor of practical, functional aesthetics. “Form follows function” is a maxim often associated with the Bauhaus, one that inspired the designs of visionaries like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.
  4. Zen simplicity. A final source of inspiration for minimalist design is in traditional Japanese aesthetics. Based on the tenets of Zen Buddhism, this style emphasizes clean forms stripped of flourishes and an emphasis on harmony, order, and balance. The stylized arrangements and attention to detail found in zen rock gardens captures the essence of Zen minimalism that countless designers have worked to emulate.

You can find traces of these different styles all over the modern web. As you’ve probably noticed, what ties all these styles together is a desire to remove extraneous elements, stripping everything down to its essential elements. If there’s an aphorism that best summarizes minimalism, it’s “Less is more,” from the architect Mies van der Rohe.

The Essential Elements

There’s no single definition of minimalist web design. It’s less a meticulously defined set of guidelines than a set of general principles that can be applied to any situation. That said, there are a number of features that are frequently (though not always) found across minimalist designs.

  1. The use of typography as a central element. While minimalism is often associated with iconic sans serif typefaces like Helvetica, Futura, and Univers, plenty of apps and sites also use more traditional serif typefaces to great effect. The key is that the type itself is as central to the look of a composition as shape and color.
  2. Deliberate use of white space. Rather than think of white (or negative) space as the lack of something, minimalism treats it as an element unto itself.
  3. Imagery reduced to geometric shapes. Strong iconography is a hallmark of minimalism, reducing a concept (like using a pictogram of a house for “home screen” or a trash can for “delete”) to the simplest and most evocative form possible. While modern design makes more allowances for representational graphics, it still often relies on geometric shapes for guidance, as in Twitter’s logo redesign.
  4. Relying on high-contrast color palettes. Inspired by De Stijl’s primary colors, minimalism often favors clear, solid blocks of color rather than shadows and gradients.
  5. Using photography for contrast. Large, often full-color photographs are often a key element in minimalist design, providing a pleasant contrast to the simplicity of type, shape, and bold color.
  6. An emphasis on cleverness and playfulness. Breaking down a composition to its barest elements also gives minimalist designers the chance to take liberties they might not with a more maximalist or traditional style. This especially comes through in logos and wordmarks.
  7. The use of symmetry and grid layouts. Here you can most clearly see the influence of traditional Japanese design, which emphasizes the harmonious relationship between different elements.

The Hamburger Nav: A Cautionary Tale

Many minimalist designers are inspired by the words of the author and pilot Antoine de Saint Exupery, who said: “Perfection is achieved not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” That said, judging what is safe to take away isn’t always obvious. Take the case of the hamburger nav, for example.

A common design challenge on both web and mobile is how and where to put navigation elements. The hamburger nav emerged in the early 2010s as a way to save space on mobile devices. The idea was to create a recognizable icon where common menu items could be kept so that they’re not constantly taking up precious real estate. After it was adopted by Apple and Facebook, the hamburger nav became a ubiquitous (and frequently frustrating) feature of modern app and web design.

There was only one problem: what apps gained in simplicity they often lost in functionality. Multiple studies found that hamburger navs caused user engagement to plummet. Fortunately, most apps and websites have found other ways to keep navigational elements, including tabs, collapsible menus, and scrolling menus. But the case of the hamburger nav serves as a good illustration of what can happen when designers favor aesthetics over functionality.

Trends in Minimalist App and Web Design

We’ve gone over some of the basics of minimalist web design, and you can find countless examples of this style all over the web. Now we’re going to look at a few distinct but related trends in minimalist design you may see on the web and in apps.

“Complexion Reduction”

Over the last few years, you may have noticed a distinct trend among certain apps. From Instagram to AirBnB to Apple Music, major apps are stripping away color and ornamentation to create stark, simple, visually neutral UIs that put the focus squarely on their content.

In addition to draining interfaces of color, complexion reduction relies on large, bold typography to direct and orient users. Think of complexion reduction as the white gallery wall on which the app’s photos, music, videos, and copy can be arranged. It lends itself naturally to the idea of a scrolling feed that lets users explore at their own pace.

Complexion reduction lends itself most to apps with lots of visual content and relatively simple feature sets. That may make it great for certain apps, but wholly unsuitable for others that require a more active hand in guiding users. Additionally, the starkness and simplicity of complexion reduction can make it hard to stand out visually. Without colors or illustrations, it can be hard to establish a strong visual identity, leaving you to either rely on your typeface choices or embrace the neutral look.

Flat Design

Originally developed by Microsoft in the early 2000s, flat design isn’t a new trend, though its use has exploded in recent years. In contrast to what’s often called “rich design,” flat design is known for its simple geometric shapes, open space, solid colors, and conspicuous lack of shadows, highlights, textures, and other features meant to suggest 3D space. Using a combination of typography, icons, and colors, it creates a clean, efficient, modern-looking interface.

Flat design shares many of its characteristics with the Bauhaus style, especially its desire to create a design style that feels native to digital displays, rather than relying on imagery ported over from the physical world. Removing design embellishments can translate into quicker load times and better performance, especially when developing responsive websites or mobile apps that will need to work on a wide range of devices.

That said, flat design comes with its own risks. While designers may celebrate the lack of clutter and sleekness of flat design, many users find it unintuitive and confusing. For example, the lack of drop shadows and highlights can make it hard for some users to distinguish a clickable button from a simple label against a block of color. Some studies have shown that flat design can impair usability.

Material Design

Related to flat design, material design is a design language and set of guidelines developed by Google. Like flat design, material design avoids trying to imitate physical objects. That said, material design doesn’t completely do away with depth. Instead, it relies on subtle use of drop shadows to create the impression of many flat panels layered over top one another. In essence, it adds just a little bit of real-life back into digital design for the sake of usability.

Also unlike classic minimalism, material design uses much less white space and photography. With its solid colors and rectangular panes, material design compositions often look like pieces of colored construction paper layered atop one another.

The advantage of material design is that it can address some of the usability concerns that plague flat design. Because it comes with a detailed set of guidelines, it can also speed up the design process, since it leaves very little to the individual designer’s discretion. The other side of that coin, of course, is that material design runs the risk of looking pretty generic and distinctly Google-esque. So if your visual identity is meant to stand out, material design may not be for you.

Looking for a UI or UX Designer?

Applying minimalist design principles is about more than the appearance of your website or app. It’s about solving design challenges by identifying and emphasizing critical information and functionality. When looking for a UI or UX designer, make sure to pay attention to their portfolio, and ask them about their design process to make sure they have a good sense of how they approach the kinds of problems you’ll be asking them to solve.