Text-Based Minimalism in Web Publication Design
Slow down the internet. Like
Don’t be evil for Google, this was our guiding slogan. To be clear, we didn’t coin it out of nostalgia for the modem blips of the dial-up era...we were speaking as readers. Our initial conviction that online publishing differed from print was practically physiological: quite simply, our eyes moved differently over screens. Some of that saccadic strain was the unavoidable consequence of the technological support, but widespread tendencies in web design were equally culpable. The entire internet seemed convulsed by horror vacui, with surfaces cluttered and margins covered...Repeatedly, reading deteriorated into skimming...To slow down the internet, we wanted to reproduce the absorptive experience that print still afforded us, while also incorporating the web’s capacity for interactivity and multiple media. The trick was to achieve this mix in a manner somehow centripetal, so that diverse elements mutually reinforced the reader’s focus instead of scattering it.
I am interested in how publication is being done online; how web design answers the challenge of creating an online reading experience which is as immersive as the printed page while still taking advantage of the possibilities of the web as a medium. Triple Canopy does this as well as any site I've seen. Their manifesto-esque article published in Art Journal (see above) captures the tension between trying to make web-texts which read like print without ignoring the possibilites of the new medium.
The idea of
Slowing down the Internet is basically a minimalist approach: to create a hyper-space for reading which doesn't
make readers hyper-active. This is a different interpretation of minimalist design than the one identified by Cloninger,
which takes its design inspiration from the simplicity of HTML. (An interesting possible of example of this is Naomi Punk's website, a contemporary site
which intentionally uses deprecated HTML to produce a
Primitive Internet aesthetic.)
Instead, my plan is to examine sites for online publications which incorporate minimalist design to
Slow down the Internet,
judging them on their ability to create space for immersive and careful reading without ignoring the possibilities of the web
as a medium.
The incorporation of a Minimalist design philosophy, combined with a utilization of the
capabilities of the Web as a medium for text, can create space which
Slows down the Internet,
facilitating a careful, immersive, and enjoyable reading experience for readers of a web publication.
List of Examples
To design in a text-based minimalist style is to design with an emphatic focus on the column of text. The convention is to read down the column. Many sites break up the column into multiple page, but will often allow the reader to change to a single page view. With good typography and limited clutter, the single column is an excellent way to design an engaging and immersive reading experience. Readability can be hindered by (among other things) clutter, distracting advertisements, an overuse of social media buttons, or poorly set type.
Aeon Magazine is a good example of a site which uses a traditional vertical column to produce a clean, minimalist page with a focus on text and creating an immersive reading experience. While there are social media buttons, comment features, they are subtly designed and are kept at the top and bottom of the page. Once you get into the body of an article, everything falls away but the column of text, which is set in a large, clear serif. This is one of the largest-set sites I've seen online, but I personally like big body text and find it very readable.
Triple Canopy uses a more experimental and innovative design to produce an immersive reading experience. The literary journal uses a vertical-scrolling page which breaks the column into chunks through which the reader scrolls at his or her own pace. It sounds like it might be hard to get used to, but once you start moving through an article, you find it to be an immersive and enjoyable reading experience. The typography and design demonstrates a strong Swiss Style influence, evident in the modernist layout elements and the use of Helvetica Neue. The font size of the text type is a bit small for my taste, but still falls within the range of readable text.
I really like the way Triple Canopy deals with the problem of re-creating the immersive quality of the printed page while making full use of the web as a new medium with new capabilities. Originally, you couldn't print the articles out even if you wanted to: this is clearly a publication meant to be read online. It may be too iconic and unique of a design to become a new standard, and I'm not sure if I actually prefer it to the single column for long, sustained reads, but Triple Canopy's text-design is an exciting example of the possibilities the web offers for new forms of publication.
An interesting application of this style can be seen in websites and tools that transform cluttered text into minimalist, readable text. Sites like Readability and Instapaper allow readers to create accounts and use bookmarklets to transform web pages into minimalist text pages for reading.
The website for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab has a built in tool to perform this function
Zen Mode. For example, this article on
the reading habits of young-adult readers, which could already be used as an example of text-based minimalist web design,
can be viewed in Zen mode by clicking the button in the right-hand column. Just below the Zen button is the
The Latest from Nieman Lab panel,
itself a feature exemplary of this style of web design. Once the reader scrolls down past the panel, it fades out until it is
moused over, so as not to distract from the reading experience.
The pages I have examined demonstrate web design with a clear focus on presenting an immersive, engaging reading experience in
the web format. I have called this style/philosophy
Text-Based Minimalism, or design oriented toward clean minimalist pages with
the focus on presenting columns of readable text.
As a devoted bookworm who also grew up online, I find it particularly important and interesting to see how the transition from print to online publishing is taking place. I cherish the immersive experience of reading the printed page and will likely never give up books, but I also spend a large percentage of my day reading pixels on the screen, and it is clear to me that beautiful, readable typographic web design is essential to the future of publication.