Understanding the Trend In Minimalism
There have been more and more sparse, sleek designs cropping up on the web; some like the new look, but others miss the skuemorphic familiarity of older, more tactile sites. If you’re not familiar with the term, skueomorphism is the practice of incorporating the look of an object that was made in another material. An example that’s often used is Apple’s Newsstand app, which is made to look like a bookshelf populated by miniature newspapers and magazines. Other examples include folders on your desktop that are shaped like a folder in the physical world, or a digital calendar or address book that look like an actual booklet.
UI design is full of skueomorphism, because it can confer a sense of comfort and familiarity that can be very useful to less advanced users. However, we’ve been getting to the point where people are more comfortable with encountering new types of interfaces, and capable of handling something that isn’t immediately recognizable.
The reaction against this trend has been what we call minimalism; and not only does it reject designs that look falsely familiar, it also often does away with such staples as beveling, gradients, and drop shadows, stripping all the small textures and details away from web design and leaving it bare, crisp, and simple.
What it Means to Be A Minimalist
Minimalist design doesn’t mean that you can’t add interest with beautiful stock photos or other illustrational elements. Rdio uses photography to add depth and color, but apart from that, it’s almost completely flat. Buttons and icons on their homepage have no 3D effects whatsoever, and sections have been divided into level planes of blue and grey.
Illustrations can also be used to great effect in minimalist design; in fact, the simplicity of the type and shape treatments lets the bolder elements stand out in a very striking way. Your Neighbors has the same clean, aesthetic as the example above, but it’s even more flat. Yet the lack of depth doesn’t detract from its appeal.
A more extreme example of the flat aesthetic can be seen with Elevn, a design portfolio site that uses only black and white and extremely simple shapes to convey its message. In fact, it’s pared down so much that the navigational elements are a bit mystifying; you can barely decipher the meaning behind the cryptic titles of “notes” or “11.” This aspect of the site is an example of how minimalism can be taken too far, to the point where it becomes difficult to understand.
When it comes to web design, a textural and “realistic” style can be just as compelling as a minimalist look: what matters is the consistency and beauty of the project as a whole. Although skueomorphism has been getting some negative press of late, that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad practice as a whole. Rather, it means that people are starting to tire of its overuse and beginning to look for ways to break out from its constraints. Soon, perhaps, we might tire of minimalism and go baroque, but for now there are some great lessons to be learned in looking at this functional and interesting style.