Today, the minimalist philosophy that promotes living simply and efficiently has made its imprint on our culture. At the same time, in the web design world, the most cutting-edge websites are adopting their own sort of minimalist philosophy – color schemes of only one or two colors, fewer elements on the page, efficient uses of space – basically getting rid of “clutter.” But are the two trends related?
When it comes to their times of origination, yes, but only coincidentally. Today’s minimalist lifestyle can be interpreted as a reaction against the pre-Recession lifestyle of excess, embracing the rejection of luxuries such as unwatched cable TV channels and larger-than-needed houses. In that sense, the trends we associate with today’s minimalist lifestyle can be traced back to about 2008.
Coincidentally, minimalist web design first entered the scene at a similar time, but for different reasons. The first major smartphone, the iPhone, was released in June 2007. Before that time, most websites were filled with lots of copy, lots of design elements, and lots of what would today be considered empty space – in other words, clutter. But this has become less and less the norm over time. Since mobile web traffic accounts for roughly half of all web traffic as of this year, now more than ever, web designers are designing responsive websites with mobile display as a priority. On mobile devices with only a few square inches of screen space, spatial efficiency is highly important, and, generally speaking, there is no longer a need or desire for multiple paragraphs of text. So in that sense, as the minimalist lifestyle is a reaction against a lifestyle of plenty, minimalist web design is too a reaction against the old ways – archaic design methods that have no place in a smartphone world.
I would argue, however, that the rise of minimalist web design has less to do with any larger cultural phenomena and more to do with two harsh World Wide Web realities: 1) the “too long, didn’t read” mentality of the online community, and 2) Google rankings in an increasingly mobile world.
Anyone who has ever read through an online discussion has likely scrolled past somebody’s longwinded treatise and then seen someone who responded, “TLDR,” standing for “too long, didn’t read.” We all do this when surfing the Web, in some way. We are sometimes turned off by large blocks of text and choose not to commit the time to reading something we aren’t confident will answer our questions. We like to save time by moving on to find concise answers with helpful images. Savvy web designers know this truism and are shifting their copy and layouts accordingly to maintain their readers’ attention.
From Google’s perspective, in an increasingly mobile world, a website’s readability on mobile devices is a high priority, and it will adjust search engine rankings accordingly. Google grades a website’s mobile performance by, among others, two signals – bounce rate and page load speed. Bounce rate is defined by the percentage of users who leave a website after only viewing one page. Oftentimes, mobile users will “bounce” from a website that has not been configured for mobile devices – in other words, the “TLDR”-oriented user chooses not to take the time to zoom in on the tiny text on his/her smartphone and moves on to the next search result. Google takes notice when too many mobile users bounce, and it can downgrade the website in search rankings if it is interpreted as apparently not a top reliable source of readable content.
Likewise, page load speed, which Google says should be less than 1 second on mobile devices, can affect Google rankings. The fewer elements on the page, particularly photographs and graphics, the faster the page will load, especially on 3G-dependent mobile devices. What better first step toward improving page load speed than to get rid of excess images that lag a website’s load time.
Therefore, with our often-flighty readership encouraging minimal text on the one hand, and with our mobile Internet infrastructure encouraging minimal images on the other hand, web designers have endorsed minimalist design for very practical reasons unrelated to the spirit of the times.