What the Word “Minimalist” Means

by on 07/24/10 at 10:08 pm

The term “minimalist” is thrown around a lot in the design world. If you’re going to use this word at least understand the meaning of it and use it correctly. The first thing you should understand is that simple does not equal minimalist. They are similar like the number 2 and 2.5 are similar, but they are not the same. Minimalist lives at the end of the continuum, where simple does not.

What Minimalist Means

A truly minimalist design would have the highest possible signal-to-noise ratio. The signal is the information that’s communicated, the noise is any extraneous information that dilutes the signal. The key in creating a minimalist design is to shoot for maximum signal and minimum noise. When you do this, you will have reduced user processing loads and established a clear focus on the meat of your information. In minimalist design, removing unnecessary elements places an emphasis on essential information, thus making the signal strong and the noise non-existent. The signal strength also increases when you highlight essential information, giving it even more emphasis and contrast relative to less essential information. Above all, to call a design minimalist it needs to have the highest possible signal-to-noise ratio.

Signal-to-Noise Ratio Comparison

Minimalist is Not Always Ideal

When should you design for minimalism?  It depends on how you define success for your design.  If success to you is a design that is highly aesthetic, then navigation bar 1 below might be the choice for you.  If you’re aiming more towards simplicity, and you just want users to spot your navigation bar and use it, then maybe navigation bar 2 or 3 would be a good choice.  But maybe you think minimalism is cool, like things unbelievably simple and love Helvetica Neue Light.  If so, navigation bar 4 would be the best fit.  It all depends on you and how you define success for your design. However you define it, just make sure that your signal is at least higher than your noise, that way whatever you’re trying to communicate will come out clearly. Minimalist is good, but sometimes simple is good enough.


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15 Responses to “What the Word “Minimalist” Means”

  1. iphone rss

    Jul 26th, 2010

    So true, but the point is , most of the time, minimalism and simplicity are paired together, so it comes out to the same result.

  2. Jacob

    Jul 26th, 2010

    I’d argue that making design simpler goes beyond the kind of styling decisions you’re talking about here. Maybe the users don’t actually need to know what the exact population numbers are — they only need the relative size — so a simpler design would include a graphical representation of population. I think designers should be thinking about what kind of data users may need and offering these kind of alternatives to their clients.

    • anthony

      Jul 28th, 2010

      A graph is not necessarily a simpler version than a table. It’s an entirely different version of representing data altogether. One is not better or simpler than the other, they are just two different perspectives in looking at data. Both are useful in their own ways. What you are getting into is information visualization, which is a separate topic from minimalism itself.

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  4. Josef Richter

    Aug 19th, 2010

    If you define “minimalist” as having highest signal/noise ratio, then in the navbar example, the first one has slightly more noise but significantly more signal – the graphic representation makes it clear these are clickable buttons. In the last one it’s not obvious at all. So I would probably say try hard to remove noise, but be careful not to remove too much signal with it…

    • anthony

      Aug 19th, 2010

      Most excellent point Josef. The nav bar might not necessarily be all noise depending on the context of the navigation. Even though there is more going on visually there compared with simple text links, if there are other text links on the page they may compete with it reducing it’s signal.

    • Diego

      Aug 31st, 2011

      Agree with you 100%

  5. Maksim Shaihalov

    Sep 8th, 2010

    Great article! Thx!

  6. Rick Pastoor

    Mar 30th, 2011

    To quote you: “Min­i­mal­ist is good, but some­times sim­ple is good enough.”, you make it sound like simple is easy, but I think it is far from it. To make things minimal or simple requires a skill very few people master well. Great (minimalistic but not simple) post!

  7. Thain Lurk

    Apr 13th, 2011

    Loved your explanation of Minimalism, if a client wants minimal I always charge double, because it has to be strategic and planned simplicity.

  8. Ramenos

    Apr 27th, 2011

    Thanks for this good and short summary. This is always good to remember differences between both.

  9. octavi

    May 12th, 2011

    Nice article Anthony! I liked the comparison between signal and noise. Sometimes the most pure can be the most beautiful.

  10. Khalid Majid Ali

    Aug 31st, 2011

    A Minimalist article, simple and to the point… Thanks

  11. Luke Connolly

    Aug 31st, 2011

    This was a fantastic read, and I think your point is well put.

    I would love to see some of the same analysis applied to UX examples… since that’s where I wish I were clearer on what people find more useful/intuitive (promoting the highest signal-to-noise ratio, to continue your metaphor).

    So for example: icons vs. text for common navigation links. Which is noisier, a page with sections that you can scroll to, or those sections on individual pages?

    Thank you for writing this. The term “minimalist” is definitely thrown around.

  12. Rafael Rinaldi

    Sep 1st, 2011

    Nice explanation.

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