Start a conversation with any web designer today and you will no doubt find yourself entering, at least for a short time, an over-excited echo room extolling the virtues of flat design. And if you were to do a web search today of the term “flat design” you’ll see a lot more of the same. What was last year’s new hotness has essentially become this year’s de facto standard design trend for websites and mobile apps. But it’s not new. It’s not even that cool.
Flat design is essentially taking design elements down to their most basic nature. It is a method of removing and simplifying. Why use a drop shadow when you can instead use contrasting colors? Why use a gradient to give your button depth when it isn’t a literal tactile object? The core thinking, whether we realize it or not, is that every element on the screen should be authentic to its nature.
Many tech and design blogs want us to think that this whole ‘love of less’ philosophy is in response to Apple’s past sins of making pixels emulate cheap leather and dirty green felt in their iOS and OS X interface design. And I’ll admit that this may be part of it. But I believe the current trend in flatness is a response to a much deeper and wider-reaching cultural trend from the past decade.
Some of the earliest graphic design trends that speak to the hodgepodge nature of what we think of as pre-flat happened in the 17th century. Victorian design trends featured gaudy ornamentation and excessive typefaces all in the same composition. The widespread availability of printing presses and the flexibility they provided let the first professional graphic designers do, really, whatever they wanted with a design.
Jump forward 100-and-some odd years and web designers found themselves with cascading style sheets (CSS) and new effects to use on the web. When we look at web design trends from 2005 until recently, a lot has happened. Retro-future motifs, magazine layouts, photo-realistic textures and backgrounds, glossy buttons and the backlash against them. With so many options at our fingertips we took a postmodern approach to design.
And our designs got chaotic, brash, and downright messy. In adopting the symbols and signs from every period in design, whether art deco, late modern, or bauhaus, web design became a soupy mix of everything. Postmodern design trends in the 80s got an extended life in web design and the chaos demanded a response. In part, that came in what has been called skeuomorphic design.
Simulacra and Skeuomorphs
In skeuomorphic design, the designer creates images that depict real-world signs, simulating textures, lighting, shapes, and depths that are found in temporal objects. If you’ve used an Apple product in the last three years you have definitely encountered skeuomorphs. The hardest-hitting – not to mention the most reviled – show up in the Calendar and Reminders applications. The Calendar app in OS X Mountain Lion simulates a calendar from some 1990s executive’s office desktop with its torn pages and fake leather frame. In iOS, Game Center’s felt-textured backgrounds simulate a craps table in a shabby casino. The ornamentation does nothing but give the user a not-at-all subtle direction as to what the application does.
The issue here, besides ugliness, is that, in many cases, the real-world equivalents of these simulated objects and settings barely exist anymore. Until recently Apple’s podcast app on iOS featured reel-to-reel tape simulations. When was the last time you saw a reel-to-reel tape let alone a machine to play it? For most, that answer is “a long time ago,” if ever. And with users becoming ever-younger, that’s not likely to become any more commonplace.
A design language over-saturated with these sorts of simulated symbols started to rub designers the wrong way. We eventually reached a breaking point. The skeuomorphs became so extreme that the pendulum was forced to the exact opposite: hyper-minimal design.
If authenticity is the essence of flat and hyper-minimal design then skeuomorphs are a giant slap in the face. Pixels are flat, they should make flat things, they say. If the real-world has its own symbols to things like buttons and switches and indicators, shouldn’t the world inside computers?
The problem with that kind of thinking is that it disregards its roots. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Post-modern thinking and design collapses narrative and time and jams it all together so that there is no recognizable future or past in what you’re looking at. At some point the virtual – like our simulated textures and objects – replaces the real and we forget what the original thing was in the first place.
Flat design is not new, it is just distinctly different from everything our culture has been looking at for the past five years. Think of it more like a breath of fresh air than the end-all be-all of design that it sometimes feels it’s supposed to be. In reality “flat design” is probably better described as hyper-minimal design.
This design language eschews any ornamentation and takes design to its most foundational level, dealing with line, shape, and color. Buttons should be a solid color or, even better, just an outline. Drop shadows are forbidden, as are any sort of gradient that depicts depth and form.
But a hyper-minimal approach fails to convey human emotion and runs the risk of becoming overly homogeneous. Can you imagine a world where every interface you interact with is a low-contrast, blocky grid? It sounds like an ATM from the late 80s or a Soviet housing block forcing its style on everything. And that’s kind of depressing.
But there is hope. Design is a continuum. Today’s trends will never be the last word in what is visually popular. In fact, flat design is already being modified and built upon. Have you looked at Google’s Hangout toolbar icons? Long shadows are starting to popup in hyper-minimal designs, and even Google’s designers have recognized it. Hyper-minimal design was the extreme opposite response to another extreme design aesthetic. Now we are on the road to becoming balanced.
Is Being Trendy That Important?
I have always managed, somehow, to be ahead of the trend. I was designing flat interfaces five years ago, like many other people, and I’ve learned that it’s important to keep pushing the boundaries of popular design. This is the very reason why Apple’s iOS 7 elements make use of soft diagonal gradients and outlines. It’s why Microsoft’s Windows 8 Metro interface felt so refreshing when it was first introduced. It’s why graphic designers are already building on top of the flat design aesthetic. And it’s why we can have hope that we won’t be stuck with bland and uniform design rules forever.
So don’t feel like your designs have to be completely flat. Make interfaces and layouts that look good to you and keep experimenting. Our experimentation is how new styles get introduced to the world. Our curiosity as people who either create or simply appreciate the designs around us is what spurs on new trends. That progression is what drives professional designers to continue creating new techniques and motifs, and I hope that we won’t get hung up on any one trend.
Joel G Goodman is a jack-of-all-trades marketer, designer, and front-end developer at his creative media agency, Bravery Transmedia. He has been designing and developing websites for bands, universities, bakeries, bloggers, professionals, and startups since 2007 and holds a master of arts degree in Media Studies from The New School for Public Engagement. Joel lives in Austin, TX where the sun shines warmly and the tacos never run out.