Design · Flat design

Flat Design: Trend or Philosophy

Andrew Coyle Product Design Lead at Flexport

June 9th, 2013

Flat Design has gotten a lot of attention in the wake of Windows 8, and with the rumors that IOS 7 will embrace a flat user interface. As a UI/UX designer I can't help but wonder if this is just a passing trend or if it is the new way of the web. I recently wrote an article on my blog about flat design, where I cover what it is, why it is important, and why I think it is here to stay. Check it out >

I believe flat design is a reaction to people becoming accustomed to using graphic interfaces, new HTML 5 abilities, and a multi-platform environment. I would like to know what the start-up community thinks.

Matt Monday Partner at STRV

June 9th, 2013

Hi Andrew,

Nice to see that you've put a lot of thought into this.  People have asked me about this a lot lately and what I've been telling them boils down to two things:

1. When presenting people with something new to learn (such as touching a glass screen to indicate intent) it may be (and in my opinion was) helpful to give them an indication that what they're about to touch will indeed have some sort of reaction.  In the early days of iOS, making it overly clear that buttons were buttons, was necessary to help them overcome the challenge of this new interface.  Skeumorphic design was a great way to do this.  Now after six years, this is no longer necessary for many people, which leads to point number 2.

2. From Deiter Rams's 10 Principles of Good Design, #10: (Good Design is:) Is as little design as possible - Less, but better - because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Jon Lawrence Tech and media do-er of things.

June 9th, 2013

Good post Andrew, thanks for sharing. I think you touch on the biggest piece of the "flat design" puzzle at the end of your post where you talk about "multiplatform," but to call it out directly, flat design is really the way we get ready for interfaces *everywhere.* Skeuomorphic design often relies lighting cues given to objects by the designers; things like highlights, bevels, etc. Anytime you start placing those elements in environments where the lighting can't be controlled or matched to that particular element, your design is going start looking out of place. With flat design, we start looking at being able to layer interaction indicators in almost anyplace, on almost anything, without having UI elements in conflict with the lighting and reflections inherent in that environment.

Michael Brill Technology startup exec focused on AI-driven products

June 10th, 2013

Hmmmm, after a couple hours playing with ios 7, I've got to say it really isn't doing much for me. There are a few things that look better, a few apps that basically look like Google apps, but in some respects it is a move backwards in intuitiveness. For instance, navbar buttons are replaced with borderless text. So instead of the universally-recognizable button border that we all read as "click me," there is now plain text which is way less intuitive. And since there is a dramatic reduction in colors, all the icons in apps look similar at first glance - you no longer can use the sort of subconscious recognition of colors/shapes to differentiate options. Overall, this feels like a knee-jerk design choice that doesn't really improve utility. 

Asaf Barkan CEO at SkyFormation

June 11th, 2013

Flat design IMHO will eventually become the way we handle our doors/windows front/landing pages and context switch but blended with simpler yet richer underline in-app design. Design is a critical enabler for app/service to stick-out. Designers should not and I guess will not for very long give up the possibilities unless fits their usability needs.  Technology barrier for such core competence domain is not a good enough of a reason.

Andrew Coyle Product Design Lead at Flexport

June 20th, 2013

I really enjoyed reading the different responses. It got me thinking...

Flat design is a reaction to people becoming accustomed to using graphic interfaces, new HTML 5 abilities, and a multi-platform environment. However, no matter what technology brings, designs main function is to communicate. Design should not merely communicate visual content, but embody the brand attributes of the thing it is serving. This can be done through interactions, graphics, colors, type, and pictures. Flat Design is great if it works for your brand (Apple, Google, Microsoft). If you aren't a minimalistic tech company it is still valuable to understand why flat design came to be, but not necessary to destroy your brand identity in the name of flatness.

Flat design is a reaction to the what, but isn't always a result of the why (unless your Google).

Love to hear what you think!

Ryan Conway Digital Strategist

June 9th, 2013

Nice post Andrew. I think that "flat" design is & isn't  a trend. I think right now it is trending, but unlike some trends I think it is here to stay. I think the days of the big glossy "web 2.0" buttons are behind us.

I also agree alot with what Matt has to say. Less is better. 

Alexander Ross Head of Business Development at Verifide

June 9th, 2013

Personally, I am a big fan of flat design and, in general, paring things down design wise.

I am concerned somewhat that it will become the new skeumorphism- rise quickly and the soon have a backlash.

I wouldn't be surprised to see articles within a few months stating how flat design has jumped the shark. Which would be a shame.

The world does seem to accelerate the rate at which thinga go from new to hyped to backlash. I guess time will tell...

Michael Brill Technology startup exec focused on AI-driven products

June 9th, 2013

I'll vote for trend. 24 months from now, today's flat designs will look as quaint as leather bookcases. I'm certainly no designer, but it seems that as we shift to a tiny screen as our primary UI (ignore voice/glass for now), we need to convey more information very fast in a small space. Dimensionality/texture seems like a good way to add information to the same limited space.

Michael Brill Technology startup exec focused on AI-driven products

June 9th, 2013

While not damning of flat design, this story does point to reality that when it comes to UX, it's not necessarily pixie dust.

Matt Monday Partner at STRV

June 9th, 2013

Michael brings up a good point, although I don't completely agree here - because I feel that given the rate in which major technological advances are occurring, 24 months is actually quite a long time.  We're only 36 months out from the iPad and people have been demanding a "game changer" for some time now.  

But the 24 months/trend issue aside, I think what's more important to realize is that the way we are going to consume information is changing drastically.  I do think we should take into consideration how much information can be displayed on Google Glass or Pebble or an iWatch, because those devices are the future.  So to me, when it comes to UI design, what's critical is information structure.  

What we'll be talking about in 12-24 months won't be flat vs. texture but the way in which information we can't visibly access at the moment is located within our mind's understanding of the "computer" that stores it and the "device" that will display it.  Because, for better or for worse, as all of our personal data is stored on our own devices less and less, people will begin to start thinking about that data in a new way.  And the way we display it on hand, and in structure, will matter far more than what it looks like.

I hope that makes sense, it's a fairly new topic for me and I don't have a ton of practice explaining myself yet :)