Minimalist Design: A Brief History and Practical Tips




Minimalist design is one of the most significant design movements of the 20th century and early 21st century. It isn’t the flashiest, or the most popular, but it arguably penetrated more fields than almost any other art or design trend. Everything from user interfaces, to hardware designs, to cars, to films and games, to the web and visual designs of today – all those fields and more were influenced by minimalism.


(Image by Jason Garber)

Your friends might not know what minimalism is, but chances are they’re currently using or viewing a minimalist design: a modern phone, a clean web or application interface, looking at a slick brochure or other graphically-presented information, sitting in a simple living space on a sleek sofa, and so forth.

The reason why minimalism penetrated so many fields yet is less known than, say, pop art or something, is because it’s more of a principle than a visual style. And since it is only a principle and direction of designing, designers outside of architecture and industrial design can apply and improve their designs as well – including many web and visual designers of today.

Okay, so minimalism is great and important and all. It’s not flashy but is more influential and widespread. Got it. So what the heck is minimalist design? Let’s find out, along with its roots and key figures. This article will give you a brief history of minimalist design, then offer some practical tips for use in your web and visual designs, and then showcase some examples of minimalist web design.

1. What Is Minimalist Design?

Minimalism is a design trend that started in the 20th century and continues today, most prominently through companies like Apple and various graphic and visual designers. A minimalist design is a design stripped down to only its essential elements.

The unofficial mission statement for minimalist design came from architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe:

Less is more.

Another motto was from designer Buckminster Fuller:

Doing more with less.

There’s not much else to add to that, other than reiterating that minimalist design is more of a principle than visual design. It doesn’t matter if you’re designing a website, a flyer, a user interface, a piece of hardware, a house, or anything else – you remove the unnecessary (ie. can the design still function at a 100% level without it?) and keep only the essential elements.

2. Roots of Minimalist Design

Like with anything in life, minimalist design was influenced by certain things that came before it. Specifically, what influenced minimalist design was:

  1. The De Stijl art movement
  2. Architects like Van Der Rohe
  3. Traditional Japanese design

I. De Stijl


(Image by Tom Rolfe)

De Stijl was an artistic movement in the Netherlands that started in 1917 and lasted till roughly the early 1930s. “De Stijl” is Dutch for “The Style”. The movement included painters, sculptors, architects, and designers.

De Stijl pushed for simplicity and abstraction by reducing designs only to its essential form and color, sticking to only:

  • Horizontal and vertical lines
  • Rectangular forms
  • Primary values white, black, and grey
  • Primary colors blue, red, and yellow

In addition to that, many of the elements or layers don’t intersect, letting each of them to be independent and not covered or interfered by other elements.

It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to figure out how De Stijl influenced minimalist design.

II. Van Der Rohe


(Image by seier+seier)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a German architect who’s considered a pioneer of modern architecture, and his architectural style during post-World War I laid the groundwork for minimalist design. He has designed many landmark buildings, including Chicago’s Crown Hall and New York’s Seagram Building.

Van der Rohe strived for simplicity and clarity in his architectural designs by:

  • Using modern materials like steel and plates of glass
  • Having a minimal structural framework
  • Including lots of open space

He is the one who popularized the term “less is more”, which as mentioned earlier, is one of the unofficial mission statements for minimalist design.

Like with De Stijl, the connection between Van Der Rohe and minimalist design is clear.

III. Traditional Japanese design


(Image by Tanaka Juuyoh)

Adding only what’s needed and removing the rest has always been a focus in traditional Japanese design. If you look at old Japanese architecture and interior design, you’ll see that there were very few flourishes, simple color and design choices, and clean lines and forms.

There is a connection between Japanese design and Japanese culture. Japanese culture is infused with Zen and simplicity. Everything from how food is prepared, to how it’s presented, to how it’s ate, to things like tea ceremonies and stone gardens – all place a focus on simplicity and focus to the activity at hand. Anything that isn’t essential to the activity is not included. Even traditional Japanese clothing like the kimono exude simplicity. There are practically no flourishes and decorations. Every element of the garment is designed with essential functionality in mind: freedom of movement, natural cooling, comfort, durability, and ease of putting on and off.

Naturally, minimalist designers would be influenced by traditional Japanese design; usually more so than much of traditional Western design such as Gothic or Victorian.

3. Brief History of Minimalist Design

Minimalist started in the early 20th century with architecture, roughly around the 1920s. Post-World War I architect Van der Rohe was one of the first prominent architects who used principles in his designs that came to exemplify minimalist design. The reason minimalist architecture started taking off was the availability of modern materials: glass, concrete, steel. Also, standardized ways of building were forming, which helped to more effectively design and build minimalist buildings. The trend continued through the mid-20th century, with notable designer and architect Buckminster Fuller (more on him below) designing domes using simple geometric shapes that still stand and look modern today.

The focus on simplicity spilled over into painting, interior design, fashion, and music. That’s how the following were formed and are now commonplace: minimal painting, minimal music, the minimalism school of composing, and so forth. Painter Frank Stella was quoted as saying, “What you see is what you see”. Minimal art in particular especially grew in the 1960s in America. Similar to De Stijl, painters reacted against the abstract-expressionism art and used only the rudimentary geometric shapes in their works and didn’t add decorations or any other elements.

Naturally, the focus on simplicity also spilled over into consumer products, with designer Dieter Rams (also more on him below) using minimalist design in products for Braun. Ikea, the Swedish furniture company, is another example of minimalist designed consumer products. The furniture is so simple that it’s designed for everyday people to be able to assemble with ease, often without even needing instructions due to it being self-explanatory.

And of course, minimalist design carried over naturally into the digital realm, with visual and web designers applying minimalism principles into their own designs and designs for clients.

4. Influential Minimalist Designers

There were plenty of people doing minimalist designs, but like with any trend or movement, there were a few key figures that were more prominent and influential than the rest. Two key figures in minimalist design were Buckminster Fuller and Dieter Rams.

Buckminster Fuller


(Image by mksfca)

Buckminster Fuller was an American designer who’s best known for his architectural design of the geodesic dome. Born in 1895, Fuller’s futurist tendencies helped him to design minimalist geodesic domes in the middle of the 20th century which could stand on its own – and still stand today.

Dieter Rams


(Image by Ged Carroll)

To designers, Dieter Rams should be an even more familiar name. Rams is a German industrial designer who was born in 1932 and was head designer at the Braun company, where he helped design things like record players, radios, calculators, and consumer appliances.

Rams heavily pursued minimalist design, focusing on including only the essential aspects of a product so that it’s not filled with non-essentials. That resulting product would then be simple and as pure as possible. Rams’ self-described design approach is:

Less, but better.

Rams also has a ten principles to good design. He states that good design:

  1. Is innovative – uses technology to innovate
  2. Makes a product useful – emphasizes the usefulness and functionality
  3. Is aesthetic – beautiful and makes people feel good
  4. Makes a product understandable – at best, it’s self-explanatory
  5. Is unobtrusive – is neutral and lets user impose their personal style on it
  6. Is honest – doesn’t promise things the product can’t deliver
  7. Is long-lasting – is timeless
  8. Is thorough down to the last detail
  9. Is environmentally friendly – conserves resources and space, both physically and visually
  10. Is as little design as possible – gets out of the way of the product

5. The Right Practical Approach to Minimalist Design

Knowing the history and key figures of minimalist design is nice and all, but knowledge without action is useless (outside of entertainment purposes, of course). So here are some resources on the right practical approach to minimalist design.

Principles of Minimalist Web Design – a Smashing article with examples that runs through the essential principles of minimalist design and how to apply it to web design:

  • Less is more – use only elements that are necessary for your web design; the end effect is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Omit needless things – don’t include unnecessary elements in your designs; include only what’s necessary to the content and function of your website (including certain design and graphical elements that directly affect readability and usability).
  • Subtract until it breaks – remove elements until your design stops working the way it should (stops being user-friendly or stops delivering your intent experience); the point right before that is when you’ve achieved the most minimalist design possible.
  • Every detail counts – what you choose to leave in is vital, so think of the feeling you want visitors to have, then include only the details that will create that feeling (funky, modern, clean, sophisticated, and so forth).
  • Color minimally – use only the colors that interact well with each other and create the feeling you want visitors to have.
  • White space is vital – don’t try to fill every space, instead use white space to emphasize certain elements over others.

The Ins and Outs of Minimalist Design – a Design Shack article that looks at key aspects of minimalism in web design and showcases examples from designers who got it right. The key aspects it covers are:

  • Typography – choose clean, simple fonts with a high level of readability.
  • Strong grid alignments – a readable and pleasing arrangement of content; our eyes are familiar with this pattern, and we want items to line up in a predictable manner.
  • Contrast – increased contrast can drastically improve your design’s readability and user-friendliness.
  • White space – emphasize where you want viewers to look while making them feel comfortable and less claustrophobic.

6. Examples of Minimalist Web Design In Practice

Now that you know some of the history of minimalist design, it’s time to make it relevant and applicable to you, the web designer. The following links showcase examples of minimalist web design in practice. All of the principles of minimalist design applied to websites.

Over to you: are you creating minimalist designs? Why or why not? Share you reasons for why minimalism is either the greatest thing in the world or a bunch of nonsense in the comments section below.


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