Skip to content
This day’s portion

What is website minimalism?

Carl asks several interesting questions about minimalism.

As with all these discussions (cf brutalism on the web) we need to establish what we’re actually talking about. So the question I want to consider is At what point does minimalism become detrimental to a brand or user experience?, because that assumes minimalism is about user experience.

Consider these website navigation menus:

Ben Werdmüller header with two items. This Day’s Portion header with six items.

These two website headers take a different approach to navigation on narrow screens.

I’m in no way criticising Ben’s site (it’s interesting – you should subscribe!) – I just happened to have it open and it uses a very common navigation pattern when the screen shrinks to a certain width: the menu disappears and is replaced by a hamburger widget, which, when clicked or tapped, reveals the full navigation menu.

Which is the more minimal?

If we were judging solely by appearance we’d perhaps argue it’s Ben’s because it contains fewer elements: a title and a hamburger button, whereas mine contains a logo, title and four links.

This visual judgement is clouded slightly if we take ornamentation into account. Ben’s header has a drop shadow, a serif and a background colour; mine, nothing at all and a sans (albeit one with plenty of character).

But let’s look at this from a different angle. Which is the most minimal in terms of how much effort a user has to expend to perform a task, such as finding a list of posts?

From this perspective my site is possibly more minimal. You just click the posts link. On Ben’s site you’d have to:

  1. Understand that the hamburger is a button that hides a navigation menu.
  2. Tap or click the button.
  3. Tap or click the archive link.

My site is also more minimal from a development point of view. A hamburger requires javascript and some relatively complex CSS to handle hiding the navigation menu at certain screen widths. Mine just moves the navigation menu to the right of the logo and site title at a certain screen width.

So, if we feel (website) minimalism is about making user experiences as simple as possible, or is at least more than about looking a certain way, or even how design choices relate to efficiency, I’d answer Carl’s question like this:

Minimalism becomes detrimental to a brand or user experience when it makes the user do more in order to make things look more minimal.

This doesn’t define what website minimalism is. Perhaps the ornamentation in Ben’s header – or even the logo in mine – provides a clue. I’d go for:

Website minimalism eschews decorative ornamentation and extraneous features to provide the simplest experience for users.

Again, this is not to say the drop shadow in Ben’s header is purely ornamental – it could help separate page elements for users in a direct, efficient way, thereby making their experience clearer. But if it’s there to provide “texture” or “visual interest”, then I’d argue it wouldn’t be “minimal” in the strictest sense.

Anyway, I think it’s always interesting to explore what we mean by terms such as “minimalism” and how they relate to making websites; after all, they’re used a lot. I’m not sure I’ve answered Carl’s question, though 🤷‍♂️.