Everything you need to know about minimalism, as applied to the design of photography websites: what minimalism is and isn’t, benefits and best practices of going minimalist, plus a lot of examples for your inspiration. And, of course, it wouldn’t be complete without the quote from Einstein :-)
Intro: What is minimalism?
The over-population of the Internet demands clarity and simplicity.
Minimalism is the practice of restraint, of reducing a design or art form to the bare essentials, in keeping with the goals you have.
Minimalism can have some extraordinary results on your work:
- It helps you prioritize and remove the superfluous.
- It facilitates information accessibility.
- It helps users focus and navigate the site with as little “friction” as possible.
- It eliminates extraneous (design) elements to emphasize the content.
- It can be the means to clarify and reach your goals.
Despite all these benefits, minimalism also got a bad reputation.
Cleaning up minimalism’s reputation
Upon hearing the word “minimalism”, some people have wrong expectations, they go to the extreme and think about unattractive, overly-simplified designs. Let’s debunk some of the myths and set things straight:
Minimalism is not just a come-and-go fashion trend.
Web-design trends come and go like fashion (though probably at a slower rate). Yes, minimalism has the power to stay for a long time, because it’s a timeless concept that can be applied to many aspects of your work and lives.
Minimalism is not (necessarily) flat design.
Sure, they go great together, but flat design is indeed just a visual esthetic. You can still have a flat but cluttered website, without influencing its structure or content in any way. (You can also have a minimalist but very ugly/inelegant design.)
For photography sites, a flat design can help reduce distractions (allowing the images to shine), but minimalism goes beyond that, helping you focus on the essentials and create a smoother browsing experience.
Minimalism doesn’t enforce solid colors.
There are plenty of minimalism websites with (discreet) background patterns or gradients, without over-doing it.
With photo websites though, this needs to be carefully thought over: background patterns or semi-transparent images can indeed detract value from your actual photos, depending how various design decisions were made.
Minimalism is not just “whitespace”.
But whitespace usually does help tremendously.
Minimalism is not about arranging elements on a grid.
If you have some experience in web-design, you’re probably aware of the recent popularity of grid systems. They are indeed great at organizing elements on a page and creating an eye-pleasing order of things. But it’s not a necessity. For example, the ForegroundWeb website embodies many minimalist principles and pays attention to various alignments between elements, but intentionally doesn’t use a grid system (to keep things more flexible).
Minimalism is not “a lot of white” or just shades of gray.
Simplicity has a strong relationship with grayscale colors, but she‘s allowed to see other people (colors). In fact, minimalist websites are known for using bold colors to emphasize certain page elements, to create contrast and guide the user’s attention.
Minimalism is not “over-simplification”.
It’s just simplification with clear goals in mind. A well-thought out minimalist site makes browsing easy and helps increase conversions.
Minimalism is not cutting everything down in half just for the sake of it.
Instead, it’s a purposeful reduction of design elements, until nothing else can be further simplified, without affecting the main goals you’ve set.
Don’t confuse minimalism with simply removing elements from the site. Removing site stuff is easy, achieving minimalism is not.
Minimalism is not big typography.
This is indeed a trend in web-design, but it’s not really necessary for achieving a minimalist design. This is especially true for photography sites: empowering the written word (using large font sizes) can have a detrimental effect on the visual impact of your photos.
Minimalism doesn’t necessarily lead to a great design.
But it usually increases your chances of getting there.
Minimalism is not boring.
Not if you don’t let it.
Minimalism is not the same as simplicity.
It does include some features of simplicity, but it’s a different concept: it’s a difficult practice done by/for people who fully understand the rules and reasons behind the website.
Minimalism is not easy to achieve.
Most designers will tell you that a minimalist website/illustration/artwork usually takes a lot more time to build. Simplicity has a lot of work behind it.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Benefits of a minimalist website
1. Helps you prioritize
Minimalism introduces a set of design limitations, forcing you to thoughtfully figure out your business goals and choose the elements on your website. Limitations are good.
Letting go of clutter, you’re forced to prioritize, and this can be a tremendously good thing. It’s again a matter of quality over quantity.
2. Better conversion rate
Presented with simple options, visitors will be able to find/use content easier, resulting in less confusion, lower bounce rates, higher engagement & trust.
3. Better user experience
Given fewer but more clear choices, visitors have a more pleasant browsing experience. Minimalism in web-design conveys a sense of confidence that users pick up on: you’re courageous in stating your message clearly and discarding the less important things.
4. Keeps the content fresh
New content should no longer add the to the design clutter, but should instead take the place of some existing content. This keeps websites from becoming “stale”, keeping things fresh (something that both users and search engines love).
5. Faster page load times
Fewer page elements and a simpler design both lead to a faster user experience. The user’s browser doesn’t need to download various textures/graphics or render shadows and other visual effects, all for a snappier web interface.
6. Easier maintenance
Without too many elements piling up, it’s a lot easier to do an objective review of the site and clean it up from time to time. Slimmer websites simply have fewer upkeep costs.
How to achieve minimalism
1. Limit visitor’s choices
The main purpose of your site is to let visitors view your images (or reach your main conversion goal: contact you, purchase prints/products, subscribe to a workshop etc.)
Crowding their view with too many choices only distracts them. Offering fewer choices is minimalism at its core: make the browsing decisions as easy as possible, guide the way they navigate the site.
You might have already heard of the multiple-choice experiment done with supermarket varieties of jam. Why not apply the same mindset to the number of (featured) galleries on your homepage? Or to the number of products you advertise?
And when you reach a place where the design doesn’t feel quite right, don’t fall into the trap of adding more elements to fix it. You should instead remove unnecessary ones after a thoughtful review.
2. Simplify your navigation
Studies have shown that people are usually able to keep only 5-7 items at a time in their short-term memory, so you should ideally keep the number of menu items as low as that. Adding more than that only makes them less prominent, losing importance.
It’s not just about the number of menu items, but also about the position of the navigation, consistency throughout the site, avoiding dropdowns whenever possible, using common labels, setting items in the right order etc. The guide I’ve written contains great examples and strategies you can use to simplify your website navigation, be sure to check it out.
3. Simplify graphics & embrace flat design
Flat design became popular recently and replaced skeuomorphism (the use of gradients, textures, drop shadows and realistic 3D effects). It now got deeply embedded into apps and operating systems we spend a lot of time with (iOS, Windows 8, many web apps), and usually comes with solid colors.
4. Add Whitespace
Negative space can help the design of a site tremendously.
But how can an empty space be useful? It lets the other (important) elements breathe, it guides the eyes on the page. Adding too much stuff on a page (just for the sake of adding more & more functionality) only confuses people and hurts the browsing experience. Whitespace can help add legibility to your text-based content and convey a more elegant look.
Interested in mastering whitespace? This article from “A List Apart” is a great place to start: http://alistapart.com/article/whitespace
5. Avoid over-use of color
A minimalist website is usually built upon a main background color (usually white works well for photography sites) and one or two accent colors. Small patches of color are great to guide the user’s attention, to tell them what’s important on the page.
Too many splashes of color turn into clutter, try to keep things simple. With fewer elements on the page, the color usage becomes very important. The color palette you use, and the quantity you use it in, can help or harm your website.
6. Simplify your typography
Using modern easy-to-read fonts and setting an adequate line height are common best practices for web-design. What minimalism adds to the equation is the need to limit your font choices: avoid using more than 2-3 font faces and styles on a page, it usually looks messy.
7. Edit down your images
- Reduce the number of slideshow images to 10-15 max (and put them in the right sequence)
- Limit the number and size of galleries (unless you’re selling stock photography of course, where quantity also matters)
- Edit your texts down to the essentials. It’s OK to leave room for your personality, but try to remove the superfluous.
8. Omit needless things
This phrase was coined by Leo Babauta of Zenhabits.net (which is the best place to learn about applying minimalism into your daily life), and can be applied to web design to great effect. It’s all about figuring out the unnecessary elements in your website and removing them.
A few ideas to get you started:
- Does your website have a ton of social media buttons and widgets? Try replacing them with discreet social media sharing buttons.
- Do you have a ton of widgets in your blog sidebar? Sidebars should offer utilities to help browse your site, without being an attention magnet.
- Eliminate any other distractions.
The idea is to simply experiment with things: try removing some elements and then check your stats (Google Analytics, sales, messages from clients etc.) to measure the effects.
Eventually, every element on a page should have a clear (measurable) purpose, otherwise it’s just “noise”, throw it out.
It’s obviously easy to go overboard with this: with little experience, you could break a design (from an esthetic or functional point of view), it’s all a subjective process. So whenever possible, try contacting professionals to handle changes in your website design.
9. Upgrade your logo/branding
Your website logo draws a lot of looks, so it obviously needs to be in sync with the rest of the site.
Make sure that your logo has enough contrast with the background color, and that it works well as a monochrome version too. If you have or need a more graphical logo, consider hiring a good designer, it should be the foundation for the rest of your website’s design.
10. Emphasize key elements
After you’ve narrowed down your priorities for a page, you need to put the main focus on at least one important item: you intro message, a featured gallery/slideshow, a recent event or product etc. Whatever’s most important for your visitors to see first.
To simplify this process, imagine you have a close deadline, it helps prioritize. If you were forced to rebuild the site in a week, what would you do? What elements would you keep?
If I simplify the design, how do I then promote all my new galleries, products, posts etc.?
A minimalist design is focused on the user, letting him/her navigate through the site easily. It’s a departure from the old “let-me-show-you-what-I’ve-got” mindset you see on many sites.
When you think about adding something new to a page (like promoting a new photography project/event), consider removing something else to make room for it, or at least think about maintaining the design aesthetic. It’s easy to keep adding stuff, it’s difficult (but also important) to remove them.
Minimalism sounds interesting, but my existing website is such a mess. Where do I start?
Re-read the entire article and get acquainted with all the principles. Awareness is half the battle.
Then simply review your site and ask yourself: does this need to be on the page? And try “deconstructing” some of the minimalist website examples above. Learn from them and see what you can incorporate into your own design (empty space, typography, ways to emphasize elements etc.)
Instead of simplifying my existing work/website, wouldn’t it be better to start with a blank slate? (editing down vs adding up)
Yes, the results are sometimes better when starting from scratch, but it’s often more difficult and time-consuming, so you have to fully commit to it.
I’m now removing things I think are useless. When do I know where to stop? Can I make it “too minimal”?
Yes, there is indeed an invisible line after which the website’s usability suffers. But there’s no simple answer, it comes down to testing, experience, and personal taste.
When deciding what to remove or not, how do I know what will work best with my visitors?
You’re probably lacking some clarity about your target audience.
This article is a great place for you to start defining your photography work and crafting your true message: How to define your target audience & elevator pitch.
Why haven’t you used the expression “less is more” throughout the article?
Nice of you to notice that :-) I don’t like that expression too much:
- It just focuses only on “reduction”. The aim is not just to remove design elements. Minimalist websites are sometimes deceptively simple, but a huge amount of time has been put into the thought process.
- Less is not always more, less is sometimes less. It depends on whether you’re doing it for the right reasons.
- The expression also implies that “more” is always better, but it’s not.
Examples / Inspiration
- [Examples] http://minimalexhibit.com/tag/photography/
- [Examples] http://www.siteinspire.com/websites?categories=109+14
Even if you don’t want to go down on the minimalist path, I hope this articles gave you some ideas on improving your website. At the very least: the mindset of focusing on the essentials and removing the extra stuff. Top photographers have mastered simplicity, and you should too.
What are you thoughts on minimalism? Have you taken any steps in simplifying your photography website?