WordCamp Europe recently took place in Vienna, Austria, June 24th-26th. It was an energizing and busy weekend of fun, learning, networking and sharing. As I sat outside and enjoyed the sun in the MuseumsQuartier district in the heart of the city, I eavesdropped on an interesting conversation that two nearby attendees were having.
A man asked the WordPress attendee next to him this:
So what do you think of this minimalism trend that's so popular right now?
His friend made a face and groaned slightly.
Well, I like it but only because my clients like it. It means lots of website redesign and works for me, so sure, why not?
The questioner laughed and agreed.
I was intrigued. It had never really occurred to me that people and WordPress professionals might feel so strongly about the minimalist web design trend. Compared to the web design trends that we lived through in the 90s (hello music auto-play, scrolling text, and bad animated Gif’s like "the dancing baby"), minimalism seemed like a perfectly mild trend to me, and an important step forward from bad website design that assaulted your senses. Nevertheless, while not everyone is enthused with the new minimalistic web design, we'll have to see how the history of web design will judge us, and if minimalism will be one of (if not the) defining trend for the 2010s.
What is minimalist web design?
Guided by the less is more principal, minimalism strives to strip away the unnecessary elements of web design by putting the focus almost exclusively on the content. While some people mistakenly imagine minimalism is easier and quicker to design than traditional sites, this couldn't be farther from the truth! With this simplistic design, every detail has significance, and if you should be so unlucky as to make a mistake, that mistake would be magnified with this design feature.
Minimalist design and WordPress
You have only to visit some of the popular, highly trafficked websites of 2016 to see the impact that minimalist web design has had. WordPress is no exception. When you search for popular themes for example in WordPress, chances are that you will stumble across themes promising, "clean and stunning minimalist designs". Here's some of them.
Examples of minimalist WordPress designs
- Less - The ultimate in simplistic, very minimal WordPress themes.
Origin - A stunning grid-based theme that tells a story through imagery.
Amadeus - Neat modern look, and lots of customization options.
Drag & Drop Themes
- Divi - Divi is another extraordinarily popular multi-purpose theme that promised users will experience the joy of a clean, elegant and minimal website. This theme strives to be uncluttered and modern, with an aesthetic that is “clean and pristine, stylistically minimal and very well structured.”
Avada - One of the current best-selling themes from Theme forest, and used by 225,000 people, Avada incorporates a minimalist header layout with a fly out menu and search feature.
Uncode - Multi-use theme with attention to details and performance.
Elegant - The Elegant theme is a simple yet elegant, multipurpose theme that removes all the fancy animations and graphic effects, and instead focuses more on your content.
- Simply Pro - A beautiful Genesis Child theme created by Bloom Blog Shop. Simple, minimal style.
Artisinal - Genesis child theme for the discriminating foodie blogger who cares about style and simplicity.
Pierce - Pierce is an HTML5 and mobile responsive theme for Genesis Framework. Pierce was created as an ultra-modern minimalist theme with corporate or creative agency type uses in mind.
Need a minimalist, clean and responsive WordPress theme? Tell us more about it and have one our top developer create that for you!
The Pillars of minimalism
These minimalist themes and websites are often defined as much by what isn’t on the page as what is there. This design style isn’t shy about featuring large swaths of white, colored or textured space. However, negative space isn’t just visual effect. It actually serves an incredibly useful purpose, which is to guide the user's visual flow. The more white space that surrounds an element, the more a user's eye is drawn to it.
A strong minimalist layout is often condensed down into a few powerful elements.
For designers who may feel that minimalism is too emotionally distant and boring, there is a solution. Bold, inspiring and dramatic hero images and headers have been taking the web by storm. The images are often of stunning scenery and evoke an emotional reaction or connection from the user. At the same time, they still retain a simplistic interface of a minimalistic design. For example, instead of using busy, distracting photos, the minimalist designs always use simplistic photos that often have lots of white space, and are easy to comprehend in a single glance.
Going along with the vivid photography style above, we are now seeing added importance to typography, with bold, sharp and custom designs serving as a focal point within a minimal framework. Typography adds importance to the words and content on the page while at the same time formulating a larger and intriguing visual.
Flat Design and Material Design
This is another design trend and visual aesthetic that emphasizes the use of stylistic elements that give the illusion of 3 dimensions (for example, drop shadows, gradients or textures) along with a minimalist use of simple elements, typography, and bright colors. While some people use flat design and minimalism interchangeably, it is important to note that they are separate concepts: flat design is a specific visual style that changes how the interface looks, whereas minimalism can be thought of as more of a philosophy (with underlying principles). In other words:
The difference between flat and minimal might best be summed up, like many things in life, with a food comparison. If flat design is a trendy new ingredient used in all the hippest restaurants, then minimalism is the classic cookbook that the very best chefs all consult when coming up with new ideas for dishes.
While flat design used to not mesh well with minimalism, due to its bright flash colors, it has since evolved and the newer, toned down version is very compatible with minimalism.
Material design is another new design trend that complements minimalism. While it is similar to flat design, it is "richer" and more realistic through the use of more depth and shadow. Material design aims to create clean, modern designs that focus on UX.
Super Simple Navigation
The hamburger menu, while hugely controversial, has widespread use and is now easily recognizable to most users. Hamburger menus however can result in less discoverability of navigation items and can be less clear to users over 44 years-old as Linn Vizard of Usability Matters points out).
Other kinds of hidden navigation menus are also becoming increasingly popular. They save screen space and simplify the menu option. While the hamburger menu can have a jarring transition when the navigation drawer becomes visible, other hidden menus use animation to gently reveal the menu when you click on a specific button.
Menus are also pared down to highlight the most important elements. For example, HelpScout's menu has just 5 elements - Product, pricing, customers, content, get help. Everything else (like the about page) is tucked away neatly under More.
If you were to combine all of the elements above, you would certainly have a minimalist inspired website design. However, to be an excellent minimalist design, it would need to have a solid backbone, which includes a strong grid, visual balance and close attention to alignment.
Even websites that appear to mix and match alignment styles adhere to strict guidelines to maintain visual harmony. Because the content is so simple and streamlined, web designers actually enjoy using opposite pairings (such as large and small) or creative symmetries (such as radial symmetry) to engage the viewer and create a website that is both aesthetically balanced and interesting.
Responsiveness is way easier with a minimalistic web design and framework. Mobile truly highlights the less is more experience - you just can’t permit yourself too much clutter on a small screen.
There are also some great, but perhaps unintended benefits of minimalist websites since there are fewer resources, and less required server space and thus faster downloads. There is also less required maintenance for minimalist websites, because again, there are fewer resources. Strong proponents of minimalism would also argue that this design will provide better conversion (because there is less clutter), provides a better user experience with “breathable” white space, easier navigation, and overall elegance and sophistication on your site.
Why do clients love Minimal WordPress designs and themes?
Zackary Allnutt, developer at Codeable notes that:
Minimalist design is more important than just the next trend. It’s about creating great user experiences and professional looking websites. It tends to go hand in glove, minimal designs, and minimalist options. Unfortunately, the tendency at moment is that customers are choosing minimalist designs but with tons of options. Now more corporate customers are going for that sort of look based on big companies going for the flat, clean, minimalist look. One big draw of minimalist is the speed aspect. Often the sites are mostly CSS and non-bloated options mean they load very fast and are easier to use. Another reason is they look more professional and that's good for customer trust.
Zackary has been doing clean, minimalist themes since before they became "trendy" (really)! You can hire him here.
Alex Belov, another of our experts at Codeable is also very passionate about minimalism in web development and design:
I really believe that space around your content can tell more than the content itself. It's so important to give your content to breath. Minimalism is a win-win for me AND my clients because minimal code is always faster than bloated one such in pre-made WordPress themes. Our main goal as developers and designers is to deliver a successful product for our clients that can bring them many more visitors and clients. Minimalist development and design, when well done, is way that you can achieve that goal.
Want to see how you can get more clients and visitors with a minimalist theme or framework? Work with Alex Belov on your website now!
What are some other ways that "minimalism" is manifesting itself in WordPress?
Arunas Liuiza, a Codeable WordPress expert, feels passionate about simplifying plugin development and maintaining "minimalist plugins", to avoid bloat. He says:
I feel that a lot of popular plugins nowadays are trying to pack too many features into a single package. Jetpack has more than 40 different modules, most of them are not really related to each other, except that they are all made by Automattic. And others are following suit. Whenever you activate a popular plugin, you'll get a huge amount of options, settings, menu items, etc. And most of the time, 90% of that will not be used on that particular site, ever. The user will be confused by all the settings and leave most of them at defaults anyway.
Automattic also has another plugin, that is a much, much better example to follow, in my opinion. That's Akismet - you install it, activate it and then you have something like 2-3 options to set up (though the defaults will work for most sites). And then you forget it exists - it just quietly sits there, doing its job. I'd love to see more plugins like that. The experience should be you deactivate a plugin - you deactivate a feature. Not you deactivate a plugin - you turn off half of your site.
Another one of our experts, Giulio Daprela, says
I'm a plugin developer, and strong supporter of the 'one plugin-one function' principle. A plugin should do one thing, and do that well. When you add for example login control to a firewall plugin you are not doing you user's interest. If I don't like how you approach the login control and I have a better solution but I still want your firewall I will have to keep some unused code on my website that takes disk space and can represent a security threat.
Is minimalism a good fit for any type of website?
Minimalism relies fairly heavily on the assumption that users can successfully navigate the site with a simplified navigation menu (hamburger menu for instance) and use a website on a fundamental level. However, depending on the user group, this is not always the case. For example, a development firm was really surprised when they conducted user testing on a large-scale project, only to find that the users didn’t scroll down from the hero image, not realizing there was further information on the page.
The bottom line is that minimalism has significantly affected the usability of the interfaces that use it. Minimalism should never lose sight of the primary goal - helping users accomplish tasks.
Wrapping up: Minimalism, minimal benefits or better websites?
Minimalism, when used correctly, can have some great payoffs, like increased responsiveness, minimal maintenance, and a "simpler" more elegant website. However, when used incorrectly or without appropriate user testing, it can confuse some users and hinder usability. Is it popular because it's great? Or because it's gimmicky?
What's your take? Is minimalism a classic design trend that is here to stay, or a trend that will eventually fade out? Do you have elements of minimalism that you use on your websites? What do you think about the closely related trends of flat and material design?