Aesthetic Minimalism and Technical Minimalism

Published: 2016-04-19

A recent submission to Hacker News was a website called Brutalist Websites, a showcase of other websites with a graphic style that one could define, well, ugly (by today's standards). Most of them also display some characteristics of this decade's design trend, namely minimalism.

What actually distinguishes them from the plethora of so-called minimalistic websites, is that they are not only aesthetically minimalist. Most of them are also lightweight in terms of data transfer.

Take, for example, Tom Cavill's website. It consists of just the webpage itself and a small CSS file, clocking in at 4.23 kilobytes. My browser (Firefox 38.7, I'm on ESR because reasons) took a whopping 0.82 seconds to download the website and render the whole page (on a second generation i5 with 8 GB of RAM). Guaranteed, it's not the most beautiful design ever witnessed, but it carries the point across, it's not (too) painful to read.

Another nice example is Seth Thompson's website, that weights 153.07 kilobytes, including a 107.70 kilobytes image. Download and rendering time: 0.76 seconds. This, too, won't win a beauty contest, and the skewed text makes it a bit painful to read.

But the cake goes, obviously, to the famous Motherfucking website, 4.98 kilobytes of pure html, 1.72 seconds to download and render (weirdly enough, the worst of the three) and the best of the pack in terms of readability.

Compare this to the iPad page on Apple's website. The design can be considered minimalist by any modern sense of the word. But guess what? That page downloads 5,745 kilobytes of stuff, requiring 7.30 seconds to completely display on screen. The html itself is just above 6 kilobytes.

So let's get to the gist of what I meant to say, keeping in mind that I'm neither a designer nor a UX person. There's obviously a difference between aesthetic minimalism and what I'm calling (for ignorance and lack of a better term) technical minimalism. While examples of the former are certainly more pleasing to the eyes and, probably, more usable, I'd venture that there is value in the latter group too.

Consider the loading time of the aforementioned iPad page. I'm waiting 7 seconds to basically view a brochure. In those 7 seconds a single core of my computer could have done roughly 17.5 BILLION operations. So why are we wasting so much computing power to view brochures?

Of course, I'm not saying every website should look like this (246.30 kilobytes and 1.27 seconds to download and render, by the way), but I'm pretty sure we could better use our bandwidth and processing power, even just to not have to throw away old computers just because they struggle with the basic task of web browsing.

But it's not just the web that is increasingly resource-angry. I'm currently running XFCE, Thunderbird, Firefox (with just one tab open, displaying a text-only page), GVim (for writing this article) and st (a terminal emulator) running tmux with two windows (one idle, the other running top) and the RAM usage (net of buffering) is just shy of 700 MB. The web browser and the email client by themselves are taking more than half of that. I get it, they are huge programs that do a lot of stuff. And that's kind of the point. While I love using both of them, I'm pretty sure I could do the same stuff with less resource usage.

I see some good stuff coming out of the Suckless project. Their ideas are a bit extreme and most of their software sacrifice features I consider mandatory (or, at least, very useful). For example st doesn't support scrolling, neither with the keyboard, nor with the mouse/trackpad. So I hope I can find a middle ground between the bloat that is so common with current software and the asceticism of Suckless.

Oh, and if you were wondering, if you are reading this article on its own page, you have downloaded approximately 59 KB of data :-)