The new old minimalists

The earliest websites were minimal in the extreme, but without the style and flair to make a virtue of their simplicity. 37signals and Kottke pioneered the combination of simplicity with deft design sense. Cardigan made it art.

Although it is never popular, never the dominant trend, rarely wins design awards, and almost never earns acclaim from designers, design stripped down to its essentials is always a good idea, and especially on the web, where every byte counts. We salute the old and new practitioners of minimalist web design, and solicit your thoughts on pioneers or present practitioners who combine a minimalist aesthetic with significant design chops.

[tags]design, webdesign, minimalism, history, web design history[/tags]

76 thoughts on “The new old minimalists”

  1. I really loved when 37signals used to send out plain text email newsletters. I would read them in full. Now with their new graphically enhanced newsletters I delete them before opening.

  2. I can’t dig up any classic sites, but I do have a kick ass LAUNCH magazine CD-ROM that rocked my world in 1999 (the amount of flashy design was amazing at the time, but not yet practical for a web page).

  3. As well as the Neutica theme, I love the subtraction.com website you listed, especially with the B&W images. For some reason minimalism seems to have fallen out of use a bit recently. I do hope it’s on it’s way back.
    Also thanks for the Hat tip.

  4. The first 37signals site was so influential in my web design upbringing. The tone of the text, the elegance of simplicity in their writing mirrors the design. It’s beautiful, simple and effective. I read every page on the site dozens of times over.

    Great post JZ!

    Another minimal endeavor I loved; the 5k contest!

  5. good list and i would suggest my website as a long shot.
    I have tried to give it a minimal look what do you all think.

    http://codedefinition.com

    the minimal style will kick all of this web 2.0 glossy style that become a trend.
    Me being a new in the business was taught web design and photoshop and all we learn was to design web 2.0 looking websites because was the hottest thing in the market.
    My philosophy as a designer without much experience is: get your own ideas on the table and go for it.

    nice blog master zeldman.

  6. We redesigned and rebuilt Polychrome.com last year to try to tackle a few points: Can a pure HTML/CSS site look great enough for a design company? Can a design firms site actually look good on an iPhone (means no Flash)? Can we take advantage of special Safari rendering tricks to make the type look even better than in FF? All in all, was well worth it.

  7. my answer to to fire was middling. As Lawrence of Arabia once spewed, ‘ it does not matter if it hurts, it matters if you mind the hurt.” Anyhows…,

  8. still searching for those yellow stickers i used to hand out to interns at jazzradio in the early day; stemmed from the Czech, but had links to hell.com and a bunch of others in those early hurly burly days. will report back. over.

  9. Joe Clark’s blog at http://fawny.org is very deliberately minimalist.
    Deceptively simple. The column width could not be more optimal for online reading. The font stack leaves me, as primarily a Windows user, with Cambria as the body font which also helps. The articles are centered, as well – no shifting around required.
    Joe has said that he’s systematically tried to remove anything that would be perceived as “design”.
    A good model, by my lights.

  10. Thank you Gerald.

    I was looking for A Working Library when I first read this post, but lost it in my browser history. On that site, I particularly like this page: Beginnings.

    The drop cap and the overall design really kick it.

  11. Thanks for the great examples, especially from the comments. I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned the ultimate minimalist site: google.com

    Some of the examples are not only minimalist, but marginally competent: I was puzzled by the lonely GO button on Subtraction.com until I realized that it went with the Google search box.

  12. Yes I’m aware it comes across as a shameless plug, but in redesigning my own site my goal was to hew to a minimalist approach in terms of color, typography, and layout. Quite a bit of inspiration came from a few of the sites already noted above.

    A not totally unrelated aside: anybody else find themselves unable to resist looking at the code behind those early minimalist sites Mr. Zeldman listed? Not so minimal. What a difference a decade of web standards promotion makes! (thanks!)

    http://www.webmodia.com

  13. LOVE the new design, LOVE the orange! I’ve been trying to embrace the minimalist movement for quite some time, I’m just not sure of how well of a job I am doing…

  14. Cardigan Industries is awesome! Just looking at that page and scanning the text makes me wish it was still around.

  15. Cardigan Industries is awesome! Just looking at that page and scanning the text makes me wish it was still around.

    It was a great loss to writing and design on the web when Dean Allen decided to stop blogging, move to France, and romp with dogs. (While in semi-retirement, he gave us a publishing platform, and has since relaunched Textism and created FAVRD.)

  16. I believe what I have successively removed from my blog default CSS is anything extraneous. I think I have been too successful in some respects, as with permalinks and category names.

    Kooky fun fact? No version of IE renders my post titles in a cursive font despite elaborate CSS specifying same. Chris Wilson has suggested every other browser is wrong, which they aren’t.

  17. I’ve liked watching Astheria over the last couple years. It was one of the first blogs I saw a non ‘web safe’ font on (I think it was Palatino). Though he’s changed the design now, it’s still nice.

    I’ve also loved iA.jp, not only for the minimalist design, but for their preaching of such an aesthetic with their articles.

  18. I always loved the micro-animations of the original Pixel:Industries.
    Sadly not much in the Wayback, and nothing from 1995-1998, but a few working samples are:
    http://web.archive.org/web/20020103200118/corp.pixel-industries.com/index2.html
    http://web.archive.org/web/20010428030928/www.pixel-industries.com/index2.html
    http://web.archive.org/web/20011222100648/store.pixel-industries.com/intro/images/bt_launch_of.gif
    http://web.archive.org/web/20010906072006/pixel-industries.com/entrance/preload_02/images/bt1_login_of.gif

    digital steampunk? The original was ornate minimalism.

    I wish they had a good archived copy available… :(

  19. I am a pureist minimalalist web designer. I think web designers should have no shame in having their own style instead of complying to a general fashion. One day, maybe when you are dead, you will be famous for your art style, just like all the famous artists…

  20. The minimalism tag on Delicious yields some superb results. A trio of compilations:

    http://www.minimalsites.com/
    http://minimalexhibit.com/
    http://www.webdesignerwall.com/trends/50-minimal-sites/

    My favourite minimal site at present is Information Architects, within which my favourite article is this gem.

    Going back in time, I thought Yahoo circa 1997-98 were trailblazers when it came to minimalism. Where did it all go wrong?

    Doug Bowman’s Minima Blogger template is also a classic.

    But all this reminds me, we really need a decent web museum with proper curation. The Wayback Machine is cool an’ all, but it doesn’t have the curatorial precision of a good museum.

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