Most of my clients are small to midsize businesses. I tend to deal with passionate artistic people who are great at what they do, but need help translating the big scary world of technology they are forced to navigate if they are going to keep up with their competition. So, while everyone is tossing around the term “Flat Design”, I thought I might pause and define it for anyone too embarrassed to ask, “What the heck is it?”
In the last several years, weâ€™ve seen a rapid shift in interface design (i.e. “Your iPhone looks different now”), from 3-D and skeuomorphic to flat and minimal. Although this trend has become nearly ubiquitous, letâ€™s take a moment to consider how we got here and what influence itâ€™s having on interface design as a whole.
What is “Skeumorphic”? What is “Flat”?
Skeuomorphism = 3-D, Unflat; Flat = 2-D, No Gradients
In the context of web and software design, we know skeuomorphism primarily as the technique of using metaphors to induce familiarity…. like this cheerful 3-D button to the left, from my old website. Makes you want to pick it up and give it hug, doesn’t it?
For many people not completely comfortable in this computer world, the visual comfort of realistic objects helps them to “know what to do”. Steve Jobs was a huge advocate of this style, using textures and shadows to make you feel “right at home” (You either loved or hated his wooden bookshelf library).
But, as time and technology went on, we have discovered that there are some benefits to slimming and trimming design down… That means, we’ve figured out a way to make your websites faster and easier to use… theoretically. Thus, we have entered into this era of consistent color palettes, symbolic and representative design, and simpler “flat” 2-D images.
We are being TRAINED BY THE GEEKS to recognize symbols that we will soon all come to understand as one common language. Personally, I have very mixed feelings about this. Am I no longer a geek if I don’t love flat design and sneak in a taboo shadow?
What Happened? Have the Geeks finally taken over?
So, how did the collective consciousness swing from a love of all things textured, beveled and drop-shadowed to a desire for flat colors and simple typography? Many factors have fueled this transition, but here are a few that stand out.
As a constantly connected culture, we deal with a nonstop flow of information, some of it important and relevant, most of it not. We are constantly evaluating, filtering and, of course, creating content, and it all gets pretty exhausting. In addition, much of our content consumption has moved to devices with small screens, thus exacerbating that feeling of overload. Becoming overwhelmed is all too easy, and a reduction of clutter in a user interface (UI) can create a little visual zen.
Simplicity Is Golden
In a similar trend, a lot of disruptive Web apps and services are offering highly focused tools with extremely limited feature sets. Whereas traditional software developers tend to load their products with a glut of features to justify the high price tags, this shift towards focused micro-apps favors simplicity over feature set. Simpler apps mean simpler interfaces.
Content Is King, Again
As so often happens when new devices and technologies enter the market, we become fascinated by what they can do and how we can advance interactivity. This interface frenzy is usually followed by a return to a focus on content. Media consumption, whether of text, audio or video, is probably the activity we engage in most on our devices, and for that use case, we just want the interface to get out of the way.
With the proliferation of connected devices of various dimensions, UIs have had to become more fluid, and the responsive design movement has responded. While responsive design does not call for a particular aesthetic, one could certainly argue that flat UIs lend themselves to it more easily than many other styles. The other advantage of minimal design is the reduction in page weight and loading time.
What This Means for Your Website
Well, the good news is that theme designers have jumped in and provided TONS of great flat UI WordPress and eCommerce themes to play with.
The bad news is that trends would indicate we may need to give our sites facelifts more frequently than we would like. For web designers like myself, it means I will never be out of business for the rest of my days…. Aaaaaahhhhh. But, business owners may want to budget for more frequent touch ups to your sites, if you don’t feel you can manage the design on your own.
Final Tip: Don’t Freak Out Over Trends
As with anything, don’t go trend crazy. I have a feeling there will be a backlash in the next year or two. You are already starting to see “Not-so-Flat” design. Unless you can afford to renovate your house each year with the latest fashionista advice, I suggest finding a clean, simple, straight-forward website design you can be happy with for a long long time… at least one year.
Thanks goes to Missy Titus for lending the featured pig image above. She has a cool article on flat design as well, here.
Research from this article contributed by Smashing Magazine and Adrian Taylor, to make me look really really smart.