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 you should understand what it means 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’re not the same. Minimalist lives at the end of the spectrum, 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. In order to call a design minimalist, it needs to have the highest possible signal-to-noise ratio.

Signal-to-Noise Ratio Comparison

minimalist-tables

Too Minimalist is Not Ideal

There’s a danger when your design is too minimalist. The image below shows the spectrum of aesthetic and minimalist navigation bars. As the navigation bar gets more minimalist, it starts to look less like buttons and more like page text. This can cause users to confuse the button labels with page text.

minimalist-spectrum

The ideal amount of minimalism is one that’s balanced with aesthetics. Users need to be able to identify buttons and links from text. Too much aesthetic and you could create too much noise. But when you find the right balance, you could create the perfect design.


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Author and editor-in-chief of UX Movement. Finds beauty in clear, efficient design and loves fighting for users.

14 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.

  3. 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

      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 with it visually, if there are other links on the page they may compete with it and reduce its signal.

    • Diego

      Aug 31st, 2011

      Agree with you 100%

  4. Maksim Shaihalov

    Sep 8th, 2010

    Great article! Thx!

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. Ramenos

    Apr 27th, 2011

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

  8. octavi

    May 12th, 2011

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

  9. Khalid Majid Ali

    Aug 31st, 2011

    A Minimalist article, simple and to the point… Thanks

  10. 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.

  11. Rafael Rinaldi

    Sep 1st, 2011

    Nice explanation.

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