For the past three years, the world of interface design has gotten flatter and flatter. Bevels, drop shadows, gradients and photo textures have gotten dumped in favor of bold colors and clean lines. For good or ill, this is a trend that is not going anywhere soon.
Where did flat come from
When people’s attention first drifted from the physical world to digital approximations, it was seen as comforting to reflect the look and feel of actual objects. Graphical PCs had desktops, calendars had circled dates and curled edges and deleted files were dumped into cartoon trashcans. This is called ‘skeumorphism’ (try that one at your next cocktail party), and the concept controlled interface design for decades.
Today’s users don’t need these obvious metaphors. They know their files are located inside directories without pixelated manila folders. This has led to cleaner designs, simpler iconography and a more streamlined way of looking at the online world.
Made widely known by Windows 8’s Metro interface and later iterations of iOS, flat design is easily the most dominant trend online. But its simplicity itself has its drawbacks.
Usability. As symbols and shapes overtake literal interpretations, it becomes harder to determine the function of more abstract elements. Squares, circles and various arrow shapes mean different things on different sites, and it is often hard to determine what is a button in some circumstances. Color becomes a much more important indicator of function, and if not used wisely it can serve to distract more than inform.
Personality. Another concern with simplified, flat design is an increasing sameness across the web. Your simplified symbol in a colored square is only so different from your competitor’s. And even those full-bleed photos that your colored boxes appear on top of start to look the same after a while.
Details and interactions become more important as things get simpler, and your brand’s personality needs to be brought out in more subtle ways.
Standing out in flat
Since this design trend is not going anywhere (and often provides us with clean, useful interfaces across many platforms), it is important to find ways to make it work for you.
Type. Years of web designs may have led you to believe that there are few choices in online typography. Now, there are many ways of embedding vast numbers to type choices in your design (far beyond comic sans). Clean distinctive type can be a great way to personalize your flat design and stand out from the pack.
Transitions. With fewer, simpler elements, how they work together becomes more important. Interface elements can expand and contract, choices slide in and out, and smooth transitions from item to item help the user connect with your design.
Choices. I suppose it goes without saying, but with fewer choices each one becomes more important. Is your color scheme bright or monochromatic, modern or retro? If you are using photos, do they educate or stimulate emotions? There is little room for decoration in flat design, so thoughtful decision-making becomes more important than ever.
Is flat design here to stay or is it just latest trend? How do use it to create your own voice, or have you moved on to the next big thing? Let us know!