Interview

Minimalism is tricky

Minimalism Doesn’t Always Work in Design — Here’s Why

March 24, 2021
Interview
March 24, 2021

Minimalism is tricky

Minimalism Doesn’t Always Work in Design — Here’s Why

Simplicity is considered a winning card nowadays. But does this approach suit every business when it comes to UX/UI?

Four senior designers explain why minimalism is not always a practical solution and share some tips to be both trendy and effective.

Chunhan Chen, Product Designer at Quora, Multimedia Technologies, and Photographer

She uses her creativity to connect people to new ideas

The Beauty of Simplicity

I usually come up with various design solutions, some extremely minimalist, some with rich, full details. Specifically, this includes functionalities, UI elements, decoration pieces, and visual treatments.

Modern design leans towards simplicity. Starting from the last century, typography has been evolving in this direction. We are seeing sans-serif fonts everywhere. Hardware looks more and more simple. This trend is philosophically beautiful.

I do admire minimalism in general. It brings modularity and flexibility. It forces us to list out hierarchies, cut off any unnecessary decorations, and invest in the highest ROI options. However, it requires pragmatism. Minimalism is not the ultimate goal. The actual objective is defined by our current strategy in design.

Minimalism vs. Maximalism

If I had to choose, I would vote for minimalism. Truly, LESS IS MORE. Fewer elements on the interface mean less confusion. I can't deny that well-organized maximal functionalities can also be clear and even enjoyable, but in terms of scalability, a minimalist design would reserve more space for future iterations.

A Couple of Popular Trends

  1. Material design
    Google did a great job popularizing Material design with a powerful, robust design engineering system, putting a huge emphasis on the different states of UI components and transitions between them.
  2. Neumorphism
    There's also a new UI trend among designers called Neumorphism. The name comes from New + Skeuomorphism. The style is very visual — not a lot of UX or logic is taken into consideration. It's basically about making UI shadows or borders feel ‘softer.’

More about top design trends you can read in interview with Luka Marr & Alex Shatov

Minimalist Design Use

Being concise when designing digital interfaces doesn't equal being minimal, but it does help designers, product managers, and other specialists to surface up vital ideas. A simpler design also leads to a clearer code structure and less user confusion.

As for businesses that can benefit from using minimalism, it depends on the company and its resources. For a smaller startup, it would be helpful if each role focused on the MVP (minimum viable product) and the deadlines. However, if the company can afford exploration, trying a different, unique style could help against the competition.

Pursuing minimalism might not benefit more traditional industries or businesses that serve specific groups. This style might not work as well for creating personalized branding

Challenges of Laconic Design

For me, the main difficulty is the balance between minimalism and exploration. If designers always shoot for minimalism from the very beginning, it impedes more creative, innovative ideas. Brainstorming takes extra time, and the return might be lower. Yet, we need to treat those other ideas without bias.

When it comes to looking for inspiration, I’d recommend paying attention to international brands:

  • I just love looking at room ideas from IKEA.
  • MUJI is another brand that always catches my eye.

As for the graphic design aspect, typography theory would be a great starting point to cultivate a sense of hierarchy.

Regina Smirnova, Senior Product Designer at Bumble

Regina is a Russian multidisciplinary designer based in sunny London. Being a Senior Product Designer at Bumble, one of the world's largest dating apps, she helps millions of people find their love. She believes that good design should be both user-centered and aesthetic.

Design Keeps Users Focused

If I had to choose between minimalism and maximalism, I’d choose the former. As a designer, I work on consumer-facing products, so minimalism is my choice. I create simple and easy-to-follow flows that help users achieve their goals.

The choice of style depends on the project goal and the problem we're trying to solve. We need to give the user all the necessary information for decision-making

Sometimes, it's better to split the flow into logical steps and focus the user's attention on a single action at a time. For example, in onboarding flows, it's common to ask the name, age, then goals, instead of asking the user to provide all their personal information on one screen. Also, it’s a great idea to give users information about their progress by using a progress bar.

We should also take into account the cognitive load that users have when they interact with the product. According to the famous Hick's Law, the more choices you provide, the more time and cognitive effort it will take users to make a decision. So a designer needs to highlight the most important information.

I like minimalism when it doesn't reduce product functionality. One of the principles of good design by Dieter Rams is ‘Good design is as little design as possible.’ Only keep the essential functionality and always consider the context: Who are the users of your product and where are they in their user journey? What are their surroundings? What kind of device are they using to interact with the product?

A good minimalist design requires some experience and visual taste. I suggest three starting points:

  1. Keep all the relevant information.
  2. Create a self-explanatory visual hierarchy.
  3. Work on UX copy to add relevant context.

Who Can Win from Applying Minimalism?

There are different audiences out there, and digital products should be tailored to their needs and tastes. Always test your designs with real people and adjust them based on the insights you get from research.

Of course, being brief and concise is not a universal rule that should be applied to all products. Some professional or SaaS products require users to work with high loads of information, and too many components should be shown on the screen. If the designer decides to hide some of them for the sake of minimalism, it might lead to a decrease in usability or even mistakes in the final decision regarding the product.

However, the interface shouldn’t be cluttered. It’s very important to maintain order and simplicity.

Behavioral Design — a Growing Concept

More and more designers use behavioral design — a concept based on behavioral economics. Modern digital products are created in a highly competitive environment. Understanding users and their behavior is the key to success. I would like to point out that it's essential to stay ethical with these tools and use them to improve UX without creating dark patterns.

Several Ideas For Inspiration

  • Muzli, a Chrome extension. You can customize it for your needs and see the latest design news and inspiration ideas from different sources every time you open a new tab.
  • Landbook. A curated collection of cool landing pages from all over the world, with a good filtering system.
  • Studio Feixen. An independent Swiss design studio with amazing typography-based projects. I often visit their Instagram profile to get the inspiration for my #oneposteraday project that I started this year.
  • Growth Design. If you want to learn more about behavioral design, that's a good starting point.

Jo Vongphachan, Visual Designer at FreshBooks

Jo is a visual designer who is interested in how people feel when they experience meaningful design. “I’m not complicated, I just want to bring a little joy, and I do that through design.”

Clean Design = Clear Messages

I love minimalism. When I look at something, I want it to be as simple and straightforward as possible, whether it’s clothing, design, or lifestyle.

I often create laconic designs in my work. I tell my clients that less is more and I don’t want to bombard them with overly complicated logos or foggy user experiences. I try to keep it clean and make sure their message is always clear and top-of-mind. 

At FreshBooks, I create easy-to-follow emails by removing any unnecessary and distracting design elements and focusing on the value prompts we want to share with our customers.

Balance Between Minimalism and Confusion

One of the main challenges of creating minimalist designs is to avoid being overly minimal to the point where your design is downright plain and flat. 

Make sure there is still contrast. Keep in mind that you want to be user-friendly when simplifying and removing distracting elements. If you clear away too much, it becomes a usability issue. For example, when you get rid of shadows on buttons, you are confusing your audience into thinking you can’t actually click on the button.

When Minimalism Helps and Harms

As a brand, you should always be aware of what’s going on. Pay close attention to your audience! Change is good and, just like a person evolves throughout their life, so do companies and brands!

I think minimalism could harm high-end fashion brands

These fashion pioneers don’t want to appear bland or boring, and choose to showcase individualism and creativity. At the same time, there are a lot of modern brands that started in the early 2000s, which are defined as basic brands (e.g. COS, Frank and Oak). These brands do a great job producing simple, high-quality, clean, and timeless pieces with minimal branding.

Minimalism or Maximalism?

I prefer the former as I’m the type of person who gets excited when she turns on her guides and grids.

Minimalist design makes logos instantly approachable, identifiable, memorable, and is super easy to translate from print to web. It's a modern and intuitive approach that’s attractive, with the use of clean lines, sans-serif fonts, and simple shapes. It’s straight to the point and ideal for Product Designers who want to create a feasible experience for customers. It's all about the usability that you can achieve with minimalism. 

A great example is FreshBooks — our accounting software built for owners. Our new logo has been simplified to represent a renewed commitment to our customers to stand beside them on their journey of growth.

The Rise of User-Generated Content (UGC)

I’ve recently seen brands use more well-curated User-Generated Content or stock imagery that showcases more natural, authentic takes on life. We’re in an era of Instagram and social media. There’s a huge amount of content creators out there who show what you’ve never seen in traditional media before. UGC showcases a genuine human connection. There is a sense of trust and comfort.

Where to Look for the Muse?

  • Muzli, a Chrome extension that curates design inspiration right when you open a new tab. 
  • Another useful resource we use at FreshBooks is reallygoodemails.com. We design a lot of emails and it’s always great to see what other companies are doing without having to subscribe to so many individual newsletters.

Jacob Park, Senior Product Designer at Yelp

Jacob is a Senior Product Designer at Yelp and someone who has a designer's heart and a product's brain. For over five years, he's been solving people’s problems in various design roles.

Minimalism in Product Design

To me, minimalist design is about getting rid of any excessive components and features and leaving only the most essential elements of a product. Minimalism helps product designers simplify user flows, features, and information, so that people focus on the most meaningful things:

  • It could be about focusing on key features and user flows by prioritizing user needs and opportunity size.
  • It could also be about simplifying interfaces to make them intuitive and accessible. 

As a product designer, I always work toward designing laconic but essential things. Also, I've learned about this design movement through the works of legendary designers — Dieter Rams, Massimo Vignelli, and Josef Müller-Brockmann. If you’d like to find inspiration elsewhere, I’d recommend visiting Pttrns, Mobile Patterns, One Page Love, Awwwards, and Dribbble.

Areas of Use

It is hard to say whether minimalism would be harmful or beneficial for certain industries and businesses, as it is just one of the many ways for designers to achieve their goals. It totally depends on target audiences, concepts, problem areas, and so on.

Measuring the Value of Design

There are many ways to discover this. I can outline two data perspectives that we can consider: User satisfaction and Usability.

  1. Cash is an excellent example of how minimalism plays a critical role in driving business success. The app, which allows seamless money transfers, has become a vital part of our everyday lives. Thus, their excellent user satisfaction increases the retention rate and the number of active users.
  2. Simple design helps users avoid making mistakes or misunderstanding key information. This can be seen with the help of a few usability metrics, such as success rate (whether users can perform the task at all), the time a task requires, and the error rate. 

Possible Pitfalls

Sometimes, too much minimalism makes user experience worse. The main challenge of creating a minimalist design lies in defining what is essential for a great UX. The designer should follow the Lean UX design process (Design, Build, Test, and Learn) to define what is really essential for the target users and their needs.

Minimalism vs. Other Trends

I prefer minimalism to maximalism because people can't focus on many things simultaneously. However, some cases need maximalism: e.g. products that conduct complex tasks or support professional users who simultaneously require dozens of features. Prioritization and hierarchy are important for designers to consider.

Also, I believe the User-Centered Design (UCD) approach is a stronger trend than minimalism in the tech industry. UCD helps people fulfill their needs with the most necessary features, information, and visuals easily, frictionlessly, and delightfully. If there are new trends that help designers make significant impacts, these trends will be popular with designers.

So, Should You Give It a Try?

There is no universal solution for every business. If your product may win from cutting down unnecessary information and simplifying the interface, give it a try — but always evaluate the effect. So feel free to follow the advice of Chunhan, Regina, Jo, and Jacob, and use it at work.

Would you like to share your own experience of creating simple and intuitive designs? Send your ideas to serafima@flowmapp.com with the subject 'Minimalist Design Ideas’ or comment on this interview on Facebook! ;)

Written by Tina P

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