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HTMinimaLism Style: Part 1

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New Web designers tend to admire flashy, graphic-intensive designs, but HTMinimaLism design is both a challenge and a thrill. Curt Cloninger shows how the satisfaction of creating usable, clean, scalable sites out of just HTML is its own reward.
This article is derived from the book Fresh Styles for Web Designers: Eye Candy from the Underground (New Riders, 2001), by Curt Cloninger.
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"To see a World as a Grain of sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour."
—William Blake

In the beginning was the word. Before there was Flash, before there was RealAudio, before there were GIFs and JPGs, there was text. Plain HTML text. Early text-based browsers such as Lynx weren't too concerned with elegant typesetting because the Web had just been created to serve a loose collection of physicists exchanging research papers.

With the introduction of the <font> tag and its face attribute, Web designers were finally able to break free from the browser's default fonts (predominantly Times and Courier). Furthermore, the <font> tag's size attribute allowed designers more control of their font sizes than ever before. Although the <font> tag was a great improvement over the <h1>, <h2> series of tags, it still left much to be desired. HTML font sizes still varied noticeably from operating system to operating system. And if you wanted to modify your site's basefont size, you had to modify that piece of code on every single page of your site.

Finally, with the introduction of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), designers are able to control their font sizes down to the pixel. With CSS, even leading (controlling the amount of space between lines of text) is possible.

This type of cross-platform, cross-browser font control has ushered in a new wave of HTML purists. Inspired in part by the usability rantings of Jakob Nielsen, with his speedy download mantras and his least-common-denominator design approach, these new HTMinimaLists are proceeding to make beauty from code and very little else. HTMinimaLists use their skills to transform "simple" from boring to bold. And as always, the goal is effective communication—clear and uncluttered.

The 5k design competition is a sort of HTMinimaList design Olympics. No entry site can be over 5K. All but the most rudimentary pixelated GIFs are out of the question. Patterns, movement, shapes, and interactivity must all be achieved via the hodgepodge of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript known as dynamic HTML. The 5k design competition is held in the spirit of the early MIT hacker wars—the person who can solve the problem with the least amount of code wins.

5k's winners astound on the force of their sheer ingenuity. One of my favorites pieces is Alex Barber's "The World's Smallest Art Museum" (see Figure 1), which features a mini-Mondrian, a mini-Albers, and a mini-Rothko, all generated by pure code. Comic strip guru Scott McCloud observes, "The mastery of any medium using minimal elements has long been considered a noble aspiration." The 5k design competition takes that assertion to some freaky extremes.

Figure 1 The 5k organization.

Fortunately, none of you will ever be asked to design a sub-5K site for a client. Nevertheless, HTMinimaLism seems applicable to the majority of commercial Web projects. With its clean, uncluttered look, its quick-loading GIFs, and its "no-nonsense" attitude, this style is perfect for the company that wants to convey, "We mean business." Ironically, there are currently few corporate example of HTMinimaLism in its pure form. Why companies and design firms aren't flocking to this style in droves is a mystery. Perhaps companies want to feel that they've gotten their money's worth. If something isn't beeping or whirling or swooshing, they feel shortchanged. Whatever the case, HTMinimaLism is a good style to mix with almost any other style, simply because fast download times and readable text can't be bad.

Case Studies

HTMimimaLism is the right choice for any site that has large areas of plain text. This includes online newspapers, journals, trade publications, tutorials, and so on. It's also the perfect choice for e-commerce sites or any "catalog" site wanting to display a large database of products.

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