The Rise of Minimalism in App Design / by Gavin Lau

Over the last year, the new design trend coming from forward thinking innovators in the App design space has been to take ‘minimal design’ to a whole new level. And based on where their design came from these pioneers have aimed for the stratosphere.

The design team at Facebook applied this new praxis to the visual overhaul of Instagram; everything from the app’s icon to its interface has been stripped back. Not to be left behind, Apple have also followed suit with their new Music products by drastically minimising their design.

Swarm NY — the award winning digital agency responsible for CBS’s very first Apple TV app — have even dubbed this new modus operandi in App design ‘Complexion Reduction’. They state this new trend is “beyond flat design, beyond minimal design and independent of progressive reduction.”

Personally I think this is the evolution of minimalism to allow design to take a back seat to content, which is the real reason the App engages the user in the first place. I agree with the team at Swarm, these are the main characteristics that define this new trend:

  1. Clear headlines
  2. Simple universal icons
  3. Extraction of colour
  4. Abundance of negative space

The result? These minimalist interfaces are being stripped right back to allow their content to become the focus for users. Another thing it made me acutely aware of is that this style is almost impossible to replicate in Apps that compete in the same space as users may find it difficult to distinguish between brands. For instance now that Apple Music has taken this approach it’s almost impossible for Spotify to follow suit.

  Instagram ’s Minimalist App design that allows content to become the hero.

Instagram’s Minimalist App design that allows content to become the hero.

I first became aware of the Facebook Design team’s minimalist approach to Instagram back in May ’16 when they released their redesigned UI. Most of the fanfare (whether you like it or not) was focused upon the App icon change and the shift to minimalism went predominantly unnoticed. What they did to the interface was to strip all the colour and noise away to allow user content to take centre stage. They then countered this by boosting the colour in the outer layer interface elements such as the home screen and App icon.

What we are left with is a minimalist UI that uses negative white space to allow the user content to become the focal point, users uploads and comments really shine through. It has also allowed Instagram to add new functionality like ‘Stories’ without the App become cluttered.

 The clean minimalist App design by  Airbnb

The clean minimalist App design by Airbnb


This approach reminded me a lot of the work the team at Airbnb design had released a month prior with their new minimalist redesign. While their approach didn’t get the same type of media hype that Instagram did a month later (maybe because they released their controversial App icon a year previous to their redesign instead of at the same time), it followed a very similar approach to minimalism using similar design principals.

 The pattern library for  Airbnb ’s minimalist approach to App design.

The pattern library for Airbnb’s minimalist approach to App design.


Airbnb’s App redesign introduces similar principals to Instagram. Clear & bold headlines, great use of negative white space, stripped away all unnecessary imagery, significantly reduced colour where content is utilised and and simplified the App icons to make them universally recognisable. What’s left is a predominantly white UI where the content shines and functionality is crystal clear.

 The ‘slightly’ different approach to minimalism by  Apple Music

The ‘slightly’ different approach to minimalism by Apple Music


The Apple design team are another that have become enamoured by the minimalism movement. When Apple announced the release of iOS 10, which Tim Cook dubbed, ‘The biggest iOS release ever!’ — at least since iOS 5 which was also referred to as… ‘The biggest iOS release ever!’ by Steve Jobs.

With this launch came the announcement that the’ve redesigned Apple Music from the ground up. Now while this redesign is quite the contentious topic within the design community, one thing you can’t deny is that Apple has followed this same minimalist approach. While the most important aspects of this redesign are UI updates and additional features, the aesthetic is the first thing the user notices.

Sound familiar? This approach to minimalism slightly differs from the patterns used by Instagram and Airbnb but the key elements are there: negative space, clean black + white UI but Apple have introduced a new element to the fray, larger, bolder headlines.

  Lonely Planet ’s approach to minimalism which launched at the beginning of the year.

Lonely Planet’s approach to minimalism which launched at the beginning of the year.


The last example I’ve chosen to highlight was actually the first to launch back in February ’16. Guides by Lonely Planet is another example using the same four minimalistic principals of App design. Like the other examples they’ve drastically reduced the design to allow their rich content of guides, maps and foreign language phrases to really resonate with the user. Making it a delightful and easy-to-use user experience that in many cases may be used in a foreign and confusing surrounding. This may be a coincidence of this design trend or it could be the most fantastic example of using empathy when designing for user’s unique experience.


So What Does all This Mean?

What it means is that more and more Apps will start adopting minimalistic design patterns, much the same way everyone adopted flat design when it was first introduced. When it comes down to it, users open Apps for their functionality not their personality so expect other tech companies to start jumping on the bandwagon. Whether you like it or not this monochromatic, minimalistic design fad, it is undoubtedly a sign of forward progress.

The product design industry has evolved from encouraging unnecessarily heavy design to a more holistic feel that’s truly focused on the user. This minimalistic approach may be result of many of these tech companies adopting Lean UX as a delivery model. As they become more agile and integrate a collaborative design process the lines between UX and UI designer become blurred. The role of design becomes less about specific responsibilities like making the App pretty and focuses more on the ultimate goal of creating the best experience for the user.


A Guide to Successful Creating App Minimalism

So you, like many other designers out there are now in love with this approach to minimalism and are ready to jump on the bandwagon. Good, welcome to the lighter side of life. If you follow these four simple steps you’ll have a cleaner design in no time with content becoming your App’s hero.

1. Bigger, Bolder, Clearer Headlines. You see that headline there? Bump it up about 20 to 30 pixels and make it HEAVY.
2. Simple Icons. Make your icons universal and refrain from using too much colour allowed here. And if you want bonus points order them left to right in this way: home, search, primary action, secondary action, profile.
3. More Negative Space than Outer Space. Approach App design as Alberto Campo Baeza approaches architecture. Strip everything back and allow the negative space to be abundant. Less is definitely more here, you can’t go wrong by having less.
4. It’s Better When it’s Black & White. Well not exactly, you can have one colour, but use it extremely sparingly and only to indicate an action. Everything else should be black or grey type on a white background.
5. Colour on the Outside. If you are itching to include colour in your design use it on the exterior of the App, the home screen, sign up and App icons are a great place to start. This is where you’ll allow the Apps personality and brand to shine through, so make it POP!