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Creating minimalist design is not as easy as it may seem. There is more under the surface of simplicity of minimalism we often don’t see. The paradox of minimalist design is that it isn’t easier just because it’s simpler. In a fact it is rather the opposite. You have fewer elements to work with. You have to provide the same level of usability with much less interface. This means that you have to know how to balance functionality with aesthetics. Also, you have to know to use space, bold typography, colors and visuals. You will learn all this and more in this article.
Fundamentals no.4-6 are in part 2.
Fundamental no.1: Focus on white or negative space
Let’s start with the most important element of minimalist design. If you want to master this style of design this is where you should start. You have to learn how to work with whitespace or negative space. What is negative space? We use the term negative space to denote everything in the layout that’s not filled with something. Imagine that you have a very simple layout. It consists of three or four paragraphs surrounded by empty space. There is also margins between paragraphs.
All this empty space is called white or negative space. It includes margins around elements and also padding. This negative space is, I think, the most important element in minimalist design. It is also the element people most often associate with minimalism. What will you think about if I ask you to think about example of minimalist design? You will probably think about design with only a few elements and a lot of negative space. However, minimal design isn’t just about using few visual elements surrounded by abundance of white.
Negative space and colors
Negative space doesn’t have to be only white. In a fact, negative space can use any color the designer wants to use. The most common used background colors are probably white and black. Designers also like to use very dark colors of almost any shades. However, this is not where minimalist design ends. Some designers like to use brighter and more vivid color backgrounds instead. As you can see, the options are almost endless. What matters is that you stick to only few colors.
One, less popular option are textures. There is no rule that says you can’t use textures in your design. Therefore, if you want, you can use some decent textures. This can help you add some spice to your design. However, texture are not used as often.
What’s the purpose of negative space
One could easily think that negative space is just a waste of space. Why would you want to have an empty space in the layout? Space is valuable. What’s more, you may have a lot of content you have to put somewhere. So, why should you embrace negative space and use it as much as you can? The reason is that negative space has its own specific purpose. You can use negative space in to manipulate the user’s attention and visual flow. It is well tested fact that the more negative space around an element, the more the eye is drawn to it.
When you want to emphasize something you don’t have to use more color or bolder fonts. Instead, you can use negative space. Try to surround the element you want to emphasize with decent amount of space. As a result, you will see how the element will immediately stand out. It will attract your attention like a magnet. Negative space can be a powerful tool in a minimalist design. You just have to know how to use it in the right way.
Negative space, gestalt principles and information overflow
There is another benefit of embracing negative space. Negative space allows you to organize elements without using any “visible” grid, borders or guides. You can use it to group certain elements together by placing them close to each other. Or, you can add more space between those elements. This will indicate users that they are not related. This visual effect is called effect of proximity and it is one of Gestalt principles developed in the 1920s.
Negative space can also help you prevent the design from overwhelming the user. Imagine a layout with dozens of elements without any visible structure. This can quickly overwhelm users and encourage them to leave the website or app. One of the best examples will probably be forms administrative forms. I don’t know anyone who would like to fill out these forms. You probably neither. For many people, just looking at these forms can cause headache.
The problem is that these forms contain a lot of information on limited amount of space. Quite often, the content is literally squeezed on the page. What if you have three, four or more of these pages? Now imagine what would happen if you added some negative space. Sure, it would probably result in even more pages. However, the content of the form would be more digestible and less overwhelming. You could also group related inputs so the form would make more sense.
How negative space impacts impression and attention
The last benefit of using generous negative space is creating a sense of luxury. Take a look at some of the most beautiful and luxurious websites on the web. What will you see is significant use of negative space. This is not true only for website following minimalist design style. Some of the e-commerce websites may not be completely minimalist. Gucci can be one example we can use. Still, these websites are using negative space in a way that helps them achieve two goals.
First, the website looks more sophisticated. There is no doubt that anough negative space helps create sense of cleanness and freedom. Second, the abundance of negative space allows products to lead the stage. Smaller amount of elements in the layout means that there is more attention of our users we can work with. We can then dedicate all this attention to the primary content of the design. I think that this should be the main goal of negative space.
Our goal should be to draw more attention to the content itself. Design shouldn’t be the main actor. We should let the content lead the stage. This is also something called content-first design. This is the core of the minimalist philosophy. In other words, remember that it is the content or function (in case of products) that is the most important. We like to think that the aesthetic side what matters. However, aesthetics are just a mean to achieving the end.
The types of negative space
Using negative space is a skill. If you want to get good in minimalist design, your will have to learn and master it. We can distinguish between three main types of negative space. These types are compositional, visual and textual negative space. Compositional negative space relates to margins, padding and general composition. Visual negative space relates to icons, graphics and various form elements. Textual negative space is a space between headers, paragraphs and lines of text.
When we talk about negative space, we can also talk about two main categories. These categories are macro negative space and micro negative space. The difference between these two categories is in how you look at the layout. If you take a look at the whole design, you will see negative space on the macro level. For example, space between large sections of the website. You can also think about it as the bigger picture. You can see negative space on the micro level when you take a look at the details. For example, take a look at the space (margins, padding) between elements.
How to work with negative space
Unfortunately, there are no rules you should follow to work with negative space in the right way. Yet, I can give a number of tips that may help you in your work. First, get familiar with the structure of the layout. You have to explore it and understand it. Then, you will be able to work with the negative space intuitively. Second, find examples of similar designs. Take a look at how other designers work with negative space in their designs.
Third, understand how negative space impacts relationships between the elements of the content. Experiment and see what will happen. For example, add more space between headings and paragraphs. This can create more breathing room. However, it can also “disconnect” elements that are related. You can also try to reduce the amount of space. This can, on the other hand, reduce the breathing room. It can also help you create connection between elements.
Do you remember when we talked about gestalt principles and proximity? This is the same thing. Simply said, proximity helps you either create or break connection between elements. It is a good idea to add some space between blocks of unrelated content. It will suggest that the block are not connected in any way. If you want to group elements together, do the opposite. Reduce the space between these elements and increase the space around the whole group. This will evoke users that there is some relationship between these elements.
Some additional tips for working with negative space
How can you get the most of negative space? You can combine negative space with other design practices. These practices doesn’t have to be directly related to minimalist design. For example, do you want to make some parts of the layout and elements more visible? Then, you can use different amount of negative space for certain elements. Some areas of the layout may need less negative space than others. Again, there is no specific rule or number.
In some cases, rule of thirds or golden ratio may work great. In other cases, you will have to trust your intuition and go with your gut. Give it a try and experiment with variety of ideas. Keep in mind that variety can be a good thing. What is another way to improve your work with negative space and minimalist design? Forget about aesthetics, focus on legibility and readability. Legibility means you can discern the letters and words. Readability means you can scan the content.
When you start your design process, put together the content you will use in the layout. Next, use this content to create your first sketches and wireframes. This will help you find out how much space do you need to keep the content readable and legible. You can also use different font sizes, asymmetry and contrasting colors to spice up the layout. Last advice? Remember that negative space plays important role in layout composition, but it may not work well in all projects.
Fundamental no.2: Establish visual hierarchy
The second key you need to master minimalist design is knowing how to work with visual hierarchy and harmony. Designers use hierarchy to create a structure and flow in the content. Let me give you one simple example. Imagine a landing page with a number of sections. Each section contains some content. This content is composed of H1, H2 and H3 heading and several paragraphs of text. Each of the elements I described have certain rank in hierarchy.
It is also necessary that each of these elements have specific styling. Now imagine what would happen if we ignored this hierarchy. Imagine that we would use only H1 headings for headings in the layout. The structure of your content would quickly fade away. As a result, it would be more difficult for users to distinguish which information is more important. This is why establishing clear visual hierarchy in design is so important.
Visual hierarchy and distance
Using different visual styles is only one of the ways to establish hierarchy. Another one is smart use of distance between elements in the layout. Work with distance is a good way to work with users’ attention. The question is, how much distance should we use? A good rule of thumb is to always add more negative space rather than less. There is a huge amount of websites trying to squeeze all content on the smallest amount of space. The result is usually pretty bad.
Unfortunately, this rule is usable only to some degree. What is the danger of using excessive amount of negative space? You can weaken or break relationships between related elements. This is why you have to approach every design individually. You will find out that while one layout will benefit from more negative space, another one will suffer. This means that you have to find the right balance. The best way to achieve this is by studying existing designs and experimenting.
One example of minimalist design and great work with visual hierarchy is Apple website. The website uses relatively large heading with very small block of text. Everything else is left for large photos of Apple products. If you take a look at other pages, you will notice the same pattern repeating over and over again. Short and big heading with small block of text. I should also mention that everything is readable, even from a bigger distance.
How to work with visual hierarchy
One way to create visual hierarchy is by using contrast and asymmetry. Contrast is usually used in relation to colors. However, contrast can also refer to different amount of space, size and also position in the layout. For example, let’s say you put two circles into the layout. The first circle will be quite big. On the other hand, the second circle will be very small. This will create two contrasting sizes. The result is that bigger circle will draw more attention than the smaller one.
The same principle is also applied to typography virtually everywhere. Primary heading is always bigger than secondary heading. Secondary heading is always bigger than body copy. Small text is always smaller than body copy. These rules are another example of using contrast and asymmetry to establish visual hierarchy. What does this mean? Do you need to draw attention to something, make it bigger. The bigger the element the more important it will look.
You can also apply this principle to buttons on your website. Button that is more important should be bigger. Or, you can simply use different colors with different contrast. More important button will use bolder and more visible color. The less important button? You know. You can also use different positioning. Meaning, place the primary button as first and secondary only after it.
What’s another way to create visual hierarchy in textual content? You can use different shades of the same color. You can use the darkest shade for the most important element. This will probably be primary heading. Then, you will increase the lightness of this color as you go down in the hierarchy. In other words, secondary heading will be less dark. Body copy will be the lightest. Last tip? Experiment a lot and trust your intuition.
Fundamental no.3: Focus on typography
The third fundamental of minimalist design is focus on typography. Just take a look at some examples of minimalist websites. Today, many websites are using large hero images with short block of text as overlay. In this case, designer has to know how to use bold typography that will stand out. Yet, the typography shouldn’t completely suppress the image in the background. The reason is that image is also part of the message the designer wants to convey.
If too strong typography can suppress other elements, why are we using it? I think that it is because beautiful and sharp typography can be a perfect focal point. It is great way to grab attention with least effort when you have limited resources. If something is true about minimalist design, it is this. So, we shouldn’t be afraid of bold and sharp typography. We just have to learn how to use it properly without damaging the content. Then, you can use typography to bring focus to the words and content of the design.
Let’ say you don’t want to use bold styles or custom letterforms. Even then typography will be still important element of minimalist design. The reason is that text will probably make up the most of the layout. Therefore, you need to know how to work with it. You also need to know how to work with relationships between typography elements. Let’s discuss and answer all these question. Let’s also take a look at how can you use bold styles and interesting letterforms in the right way.
How to create relationships in typography
The first element related to typography are headings. This element is also often hard to perfect because there are no clear guidelines. Some websites are using quite large headings. On the other hand, some website are using headings that are almost too small. Sometimes, headings can be even smaller than body copy. The problem is that both of these examples work. The conclusion? In case of headings, size may not matter. Let me say it in another way. Size of headings is relative.
The relationship between headings and the rest of the content and its styles is what you should focus on. Imagine that you have container with one heading, one subheading and short paragraph text. Let’s assume that headings and subheadings are about the same size as paragraph text. What is the easiest way to create relationships between these elements without change their font size? Well, you can use the tips we discuss in the previous section.
First, you can use different font weight for each element. You can make primary heading bold (700), subheading semi-bold (600) and paragraph text regular (400) or light (300). Or, you can also use different shades of colors. Heading will be the darkest, subheading semi-dark and paragraph text the lightest. Lastly, you can use different amount of negative space between heading, subheading and text. Or, you can try all these approaches at once. This way, it will be clear what is heading, subheading and body text.
If you decide to use space to indicate the relationships between elements, remember this. First, the space between paragraphs and headings defines which paragraph belongs to which heading. Second, insert more space between primary heading and subheading than subheading and paragraphs. In other words, keep the subheadings closer to paragraphs than primary headings.
Using grouping in typography
When you use the same shade of color or contrast for the same elements, you can create groups of content. You can often see this applied to links in the footer of the website. Let’s say use you want to build minimalist website with a lot of internal pages. Kind of paradox, but not impossible. Let’s also say that you want to include all these links in site’s footer. For example, let’s say you have navigation links, links to social media, links for legal content and links for contact. In that case, you can use different shades to spit these links into four groups.
You will need four headings to indicate the category of links. These headings can use the most contrasting color. For example, pure white on back background or pure black on white background. Well, I don’t like to use pure black, but this is not subject of this article. What about the links? All of them will use the same color that has lower contrast than color you used for headings. Then, you can divide the footer into four columns with one group in each. As a result, your layout will stay consistent and you will achieve clear hierarchy.
Closing thoughts on minimalist design
Now you know the first three fundamentals you need to create great minimalist design. I hope these three fundamentals will help you get started. In the second part, we will take a look at the remaining fundamentals. Then, you will have solid foundation to create the designs you want. Will this be everything you need to master this style of design? No. Minimalist design is quite hard to master. You will have to practice and experiment, a lot.
Practice and experimentation is the best way to find your own style. It may require some time. Fortunately, minimalism is becoming more and more popular style today. So, don’t worry it will fade away soon. As always, let’s do a quick recap. For now, just remember these couple things. First, focus on negative space and embrace it. Keep in mind how it can impact impression and attention. Second, establishing visual hierarchy in the layout.
This can be done in many ways. You can use distance between elements. This will also allow you to use grouping. You can also use different shades of colors and levels of contrast. Third, focus on legible and readable typography. Again, practice with colors, sizes and weights how to create relationships between elements. That’s, I think, all I have for you today.
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