Fl*t design trend

I’m about to apply a mute filter to the word “flat” on Twitter. That or start unfollowing a lot of people.

What’s flat?

There’s an aesthetic “trend” that’s been around for a while. It involves fewer gradients and textures and has thus been described as “flat” design. It’s often described as the opposite of “skeuomorphism,” (which is an equally irritating word when used in this way.) It was popularised by Windows Metro and, being an aesthetic associated with fewer images, and thus better performance and more flexibility in the development of interfaces, has been a feature of many designs in both apps and on the web.

Design described as an aesthetic summary

Aesthetics are just one facet of design. Something may be pretty, but a horrible user experience. Something may be pretty, but completely inappropriate for the audience or the business. Every decision made in the process of creating a product is by design. There is so much complexity to design, and to judge an interactive design purely on an aesthetic basis is simply superficial.

Trends

Trends are fine, and inevitable. Designers are inspired by each other, particularly the more effective solutions to common problems, and consequently some work ends up looking much like other work. However, to dismiss work that is aesthetically similar as part of a trend is often insulting to the role of a designer.

Yes, many (charlatan) designers will simply reapply an aesthetic to the content they’ve been given and call it “design” without questioning whether it’s appropriate for the content or easy to use in its behaviour. But true designers do not just assign aesthetic styles to content.

There will be a decision and a reason behind choosing that aesthetic. It will be used as a design language to communicate to the user how to interact with the product. It will be affected by, and have implications for, the use of the product and the build process. A million tiny decisions will have been made to come to that aesthetic conclusion.

And I’m sure that decisions made by 99.99% of designers will not have been “I’ll use the flat design trend.”


Notes:

This post was inspired by the many people on Twitter criticising Apple for “following the flat design trend” (and the many variants on that comment) with their iOS7 interface design. I’m trying not to be snotty when I say this, but I’m reserving judgement until I’ve had a device running iOS7 in my hands for a few days.

Aral wrote a very good post on “Design is not veneer” which explores this topic in more depth and is well-worth a read.

12 comments

  1. I’ve found the whole debacle really funny. Dribbble seems to house many designers that believe their opinion is higher than that of Apple themselves. Give it a few months and they’ll be knocking out icons just like Mr Ive whilst sipping on their skinny latte.

    Bugger them all, I just plan to do stuff my way.

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  2. My initial reaction is that I don’t like the icons or the colour palette. However, Im also aware I’m looking at the design ‘blind’ and that this direction has been taken due the UX and new features that have been put in.

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  3. I get more irritated by the fact Apple’s website still isn’t responsive, because, you know pinch and zoom is all you need …

    Anyway come October there will no doubt be lots of praise for the new iOS7 shiny.

    Funny how people love the new but hate change.

    Ho hum

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  4. It is nice to see designers putting things in context like you are doing here.
    Somewhere along the line the idea that flat is better or even the correct way to design established a critical mass. Many designers seem to be adopting it without much questioning.
    Careful, do not drink the Kool-Aid.

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  5. I guess the world that revolves around Dribbble has kind of spoiled me when it comes to design. I see all these great works — many of which do follow trends, but also great unique ones — so I expect something mind-blowing from Apple. While the fl*t design in the apps look nice, those home screen icons (mainly Safari and Mail) simply look rushed and condensed. Their design gives the impression that they were changing the look for the sake of “de-Forstall-ing” iOS and getting it ready in time for WWDC, not because it’s truly a better experience.

    Honestly (and I’ll probably be shunned for saying this), the new Weather app is a great example of an excellent design with a pleasant experience. It’s simple, can be used easily, makes sense, and just begs to be used for its visuals. And those backgrounds make them not entirely fl*t in design! ;)

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  6. It’s a tough one, Responsive Design is probably in the same sort of category, I’ve written in the past about how “responsive design” is made up of so many little micro design decisions that vary between implementations that it is ok to use the term even though it isn’t always used the way a purist may want it to be used (completely fluid layouts). In this light flat design has to be seen not as a comment on a design style but a set of design practices that culminate in an end product that resides in the aesthetic group we would call “flat design”.

    I guess the problem with the prevalence of the “flat design” trend as a meme (which, let’s face it, is really what this is…right?) is that it creates an atmosphere that draws an illusionary line between modern professional practice and out dated or unprofessional practice.

    The use of the term flat design throughout our literature, magazines are big culprits when it comes to this, actually causes our industry harm. Even if people don’t think they’re doing it, there is a whole ethos that a certain “type” of design is the way things must look, otherwise you are just “not doing it right”.

    I don’t mind people using the term flat design so much as *how* or *why* they use it, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

    The whole nonsense with iOS7 is quite funny in this respect because despite any of my personal opinions about it, if Metro was what spawned flat design then iOS7 is by no means a “flat design” solution. The UI world is not either skeumorphic or flat, as you say! If we want to attach a label then one that has been used among plenty of 3rd party android developers over the last couple of years for their UI apps seems more apt and semantically accurate… minimalistic design.

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  7. Talking in very general terms, I prefer an uncluttered interface that uses design elements (gradients, drop-shadow, text-shadow) sparingly.

    Just because you have the ability to do something, doesn’t mean you have to. Design in its simplest form (usually) lends itself to uncomplicated user interfaces that are easy to use. Using simple blocks of tonal colour (like your site) looks nice, its simplistic but it lends itself to faster loading times, which always helps.

    I’ve seen the iOS 7 interface and icons and whilst I like some aspects of the update I really don’t like some of their new icons. I think Apple lost their innovation with the death of Steve Jobs and now they’re copying what others are doing – and that will only end in Apple losing everything that made them great.

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  8. Michael Hastrich

    Yes! You are totally right.
    We have absolutely no idea how the designers at Apple got to their design decisions, so to simply dismiss this to following a trend is wrong is so many ways.

    It’s also one of the things I dislike about show-pretty-picture-sites like Dribbble.
    Often we get no background information on the why and how for a design. No idea about the client it’s made for (if any client is involved in the first place), the brief or what so ever.

    Like Aral wrote in his post, we can’t stress enough that design isn’t about pretty pictures. It’s about all things involved in a service or product.

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  9. I think Flat is a bullshit term. It’s not a new thing, and I’m sick of it being seen as such. Metro is typography based, but inspired by the use of Type and Grids by the Swiss (if you’re a designer and have no idea on the Swiss Style, you REALLY need to be educated about this stuff), which was simple, and minimal. Flat is nothing more than that. The fact it has that word as if it’s a new thing really annoys me.

    If you’re going flat minimal, at least do it well, and put it good practice. I’m tired of everything “needing” to be flat, let alone the atheistic being more important than the objective. Fuck the flat police.

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  10. A great post, Laura, and one that I have been considering myself, and for the same reasons.

    Far too many think that a few minutes of subjection to videos of a user interface (of iOS7) qualifies them to over rule many months of painstaking design decisions that Apple have made over the last year or so, most of which will probably go totally un-noticed. Frankly it’s embarrassing to hear these people call themselves designers.

    Everyone’s a critic when it comes to the visual elements of design but, as you mention above, that is only one small part of the whole.

    Thanks for sharing, Laura.

    Steve

    Reply

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