You’ve probably already heard about flat design — a very popular, current trend in website and user interface design. But is flat design really all it’s cracked up to be? And is it here to stay? While it started a valuable conversation about simplification, I would argue that it’s already on its way out (at least in its full form).
What is flat design and where did it come from?
Flat design is a shift toward simple, minimal interfaces. It eliminates drop shadows, beveled edges, gradients, and other 3D elements. In a lot of ways, flat design is a revolt against skeuomorphism, which is the practice of creating familiarity by making digital elements look like things in the physical world.
Skeuomorphism is often associated with Apple products, which have been incorporating it since the early 1980s. The first Apple desktops introduced icons that looked like folders and pieces of paper — objects that were familiar to audiences who now found themselves in an unfamiliar digital world. Apple’s desktop interfaces still lean toward skeuomorphism. For example, the current Apple dashboard design uses familiar 3D components such as the calculator, clock, and calendar — all of which look very much like their physical counterparts:
However, as Microsoft, Google, and hundreds of small companies have shifted away from skeuomorphism and toward flat design, even Apple has started to follow along (with the release of iOS7, for example).
Why flat design?
Why is everyone suddenly abandoning skeuomorphism in favor of flat design? Smashing Magazine suggests a couple of pretty good reasons:
- People are suffering from information overload and want less clutter in user interfaces, especially on small screens.
- Traditional, complex software is being replaced by highly focused micro-apps with limited feature sets. And simpler apps mean simpler interfaces.
- There is a renewed focus on content in marketing and design, and flat design strives to strip away visual decoration in favor of content.
- As the public becomes increasingly familiar with technology, they don’t necessarily need skeuomorphic cues anymore to help them navigate.
The unfortunate implications of flat design for UX
It’s great that designers are always coming up with new and different ways to do things. However, there’s a widely accepted belief in User Experience (UX) that major change is bad. A few small changes here and there are fine, but why are we suddenly proclaiming that all 3D elements are bad and that calendar apps shouldn’t look like calendars (when everyone is used to looking for a calendar on their screens)? We are destroying millions of hours of learned behavior!
On top of that, flat design can cause major UX issues by putting all elements on the same depth level. There are no longer any gradients or shadows to help denote what’s most important on a page or to distinguish buttons from content. In a world where people scan pages as quickly as possible, this can be a real problem. Sure, you could argue that you shouldn’t need depth to denote hierarchy or highlight actionable areas. A good designer can accomplish that even with flat design. But let’s be honest: how many concepts are applied only by people who know how to do it correctly? Plenty of designers are cutting corners and flattening their designs without thinking through information hierarchy or doing any user testing. Flat design is very unforgiving when it comes to usability.
Why I think pure flat design is dying
Flat design is a fad. Just like modern and postmodern movements have come and gone in art — so will this. As flat design becomes mainstream and every novice web developer and his mom starts using it, it’ll no longer be as modern and “cool.” Already, designers are slowly reintroducing dimensionality. Put this together with all the UX issues that continue to pop up as designers apply flat design without thinking it through — and you could say flat design is already dying.
So what’s next?
One of the greatest things about flat design is that it started a very valuable conversation within the design community about simplification. It forced people to accept that interfaces shouldn’t be cluttered with design elements and animations just for the sake of it. It made us all consider what’s important on any given screen and reminded us of an idea that’s held true for centuries:
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery
So as we slowly reintroduce elements of skeuomorphism — or come up with an entirely new design concept — the main thing to remember is to keep interfaces simple, intuitive, and understandable. If that means the occasional 3D element exists on our screens, then so be it.