The False Equivalence that Simple is the Same as Ugly


As a minimalist web designer, this has been an uphill battle throughout my entire career, and I’ve heard simple designs referred to in every derogatory manner imaginable: plain, bad, boring, ugly, broken, stupid, dated, unprofessional, incomplete, and on and on.

The truth is that minimalism is a philosophy, a very carefully considered methodology. Like a musician carefully chooses silence between audible notes, a minimalist designer carefully chooses the negative space between visible elements (positive space) and can even obsess about it, tweaking it over and over until it feels just “right”.

Apple’s ads are probably most notorious for taking advantage of the power of negative space to deliver a very direct message without distraction. However, some people simply cannot understand this and complain about there being too much white space, seeing that unused space as wasted, where they could cram in more text, graphics, and color.

I see a very similar parallel in other walks of life and art-forms as well. I’ve had friends who were unable to sit still in a parked car and have a conversation, almost becoming manic that we weren’t moving, going somewhere, or “doing something”. I’ve known many, perhaps most people, to be unable to appreciate slowly-paced movies that require an intellectual examination, quickly equating them to being boring or poorly-made movies because there wasn’t enough “action”.

The idea that something is “bad” because we don’t personally like it is another unfortunate human behavior. Am I saying that people aren’t entitled to their own opinions? Of course not. The problem is the weight people give to their own opinion, that the importance of their subjective view is so important, it somehow becomes the objective truth.

RemotelyHireMe — An example of my minimalist design that I’m perhaps most proud of. You, or perhaps another, might look at this and think something like “Proud of what? There isn’t anything there?” The fact of the matter is that it requires a lot of resistance. Resistance to conform, resistance to add bells and whistles, trendy, but completely superficial features like giant background videos and infinite parallax scrolling pages, etc.

It’s also about changing the priority. Most people put design first, but I put function, speed, content, quality of code, SEO, virtually everything, before design. To me, design is an accent to the structure that function has already created. It’s the idea that a bare, white wall, that’s serving its function, might already look best as what it is without the necessity of cluttering it with shelves, paintings, etc.

My favorite quote that captures the essence of this philosophy:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
— Unknown, but likely paraphrased from Clare Boothe Luce

craigslist — I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for craigslist, for remaining so simple all these years. Believe me, craigslist makes millions of dollars a year, if they wanted to make some award-winning website, they could certainly hire someone to do it. But, that’s not the point. It’s kept simple deliberately, despite all the criticism. It serves its function well, and therein, lies the beauty.

Sure, they could have a big and flashy, but ultimately superficial homepage and still provide function and value, but they don’t. They get the hell out of the way and let you get straight to the content you’re after.

At this point, I want to avoid creating a double standard, that is, that just because a website has tons of bells and whistles, flash, and fluff, that that means it has no substance. Certainly, minimalism has its place, but that’s not everywhere. Sometimes, big, textured, graphic and image-heavy sites are exactly what’s needed, especially for artistic websites for movies, bands, painters, photographers, etc.

It’s the mindset that every website should be super rich and flashy or it’s ugly or otherwise lacking, which is the ignorance that seems to affect so many that frustrates and disappoints me.