Commandment #3 — Minimalism for minimalism’s sake alone is bad for your users

Adit Kohli
4 min readMay 17, 2020

A web-design movement called minimalism influences many of today’s “modern” websites and apps. It advocates prioritizing content over chrome and removing secondary features to simplify core tasks with as little distraction as possible. Some of the characteristics commonly associated with minimalism and ubiquitously used by designers and design students all around the world include:

· Flat rather than skeuomorphic look-n-feel

· Large background images or videos

· Monochromatic or limited color palette

· Hidden global navigation

· Dramatic use of typography

· Maximized negative space

· Grid layout

Pioneered by companies like Google, minimalism became popular in the 2010’s as a reaction to “maximalist” UI design featuring bloated layouts, crammed features, and gratuitous Flash animations of the 1990 to 2010 era. But decades before it became a trend in web design, minimalism was heavily influenced in the 1960s by the famous German art movement Bauhaus that focused on simple yet functional design. There’s no more popular advocate of this than the legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams famous for his iconic work at German brand Braun, featuring clean lines, simplicity, and sparing use of color.

“Less is more”

The motto of famous 20th century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became the unofficial mantra of minimalism in web design

In the 2010s, the shift towards minimalism was popularized by major redesigns carried out by two giants: Microsoft’s Modern design in 2011, and Apple’s release of iOS7 in 2013 (who till the point had controversially favored skeuomorphic patterns in their interfaces). Around the time the emergence of smartphones and responsive web design (RWD) primed the wider web to appreciate a minimalist approach.

Today, this trend remains as strong as ever with popular DIY website-design tools like Squarespace and Wix providing templates that are almost entirely minimalist designs because it’s what their typical customer wants — small business owner who wants to set up his restaurant or wedding photography sites without having to touch Photoshop or write a line of HTML.

Designers love minimalism and there’s nothing wrong in that except that many professionals confuse it with simplicity. According to Tim Brown, the CEO of premium design firm Ideo, minimalistic look is a style and is only skin-deep. Whereas simplicity is achieved from the understanding of the whole, complex experience.

Obfuscation ≠ Simplification

Designers frequently confuse obfuscation with simplification. Simply hiding features seems like you’re creating a “cleaner” and more easy-to-use interface. Sure, your new UI may pass the squint test but you’re not dealing with hidden complexity. Reducing a design to its most basic elements by religiously following the “remove till it breaks” mantra without meaningful consideration of user tasks is not the end goal of true minimalism. Many designers who misinterpret minimalism as a purely visual-design strategy, cut or hide important content or functions in turn increasing complexity rather than reducing it. While it’s hard to understand a cluttered design overflowing with extraneous features, it’s even harder to understand a design that doesn’t provide sufficient scaffolding to explain its features or structure.

In pursuit of a clean, modern, minimalist interface, designers often fail to communicate to users, which functions are available or which elements are clickable. Less buttons and options do not make something simple. Icons without text labels are difficult to understand, non-standard gestures provide no obvious affordance and severely reduced global navigation elements prevent critical tasks to be instantly discoverable. Overflow menus seem like the perfect solution to “take away” complexity and leave a clean looking user interface. But you didn’t actually take anything away. Users are forced to move from recognition to exploration when they cannot differentiate (at first glance) between an editable text field, a static text, or a button, unless they click or hover over them. Many applications are almost unusable due to this insistence on removing buttons or having light grey text that is almost impossible to see. For people that are partially or totally color-blind, the monochromatic color palette in the UI becomes a big hindrance, as being advocated by ADA accessibility regulations.

The crux of the issue is that obfuscation like this let designers, engineers, and product people off the hook from making tough choices. Instead of prioritizing, we just sweep complexity under the rug and pretend that it doesn’t exist. And while exploratory interface might be fun in certain applications, it generally kills productivity, forcing a user to use his recall skills by learning the quirks of an application over time.

Above all, consider that as much as we want to design something we ourselves love, it’s more important whether or not the target audience we’re designing for loves it. If you’re making an app for only other designers, then it’s not a problem if your mom can’t figure out how to use it. But if you’re making an app with the idea that lots of people in the world will use it, consider that there are way more users around the world that are more offended by not being able to find a feature than by bad kerning. Putting your product in the hands of regular people and watching them struggle through the interface you designed is the ultimate ego check. Your “clean” user interface likely confuses the hell out of your users.

In conclusion, I strongly advise a balanced approach and giving users the experience that they truly deserve. A minimalist design strategy can be a powerful tool, but only when it’s framed by the needs of your users and incorporates a well-thought out diversity. We should all strive for simplicity, but we must make sure not to oversimplify for the sake of minimalism.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Albert Einstein