Talking of Design

Flat has some depth

07/04/14 • WEB DESIGN

A post in-which I discuss the fact that flat web design is more than a passing trend, and also some reasoning as to why it perhaps isn’t taken as seriously as it should.

So we’re well into the new year. I actually planned this post for just after Christmas, but I blinked and now it is April :)

It’s around Christmas and New Year we get those rounds of design blog posts about the design trends” of the previous year, and what will be the trends” of the year to come.

Whilst I read a few with interest, the word trend” in design has never sat well with me.

The difference between a trend and progress

Now I get it when design — and the facets there-of — adjust and change based on changes in our technology and the web environment. But these aren’t trends”. This is progress. We now use different fonts because we can. We now use more white-space because we can. And so on. Progress.

Remember back around 2007 when we had what was known as the web2.0 look”? Ugh. Now that was a trend”. Nothing changed in our tools, technology or environment which enabled us to start doing this aesthetic. A few designs came on the scene that had shiny reflections and sticker like logos and buttons, and then — like an annoyingly catchy pop tune — suddenly everyone was singing along. Trend. Like having your jeans hanging down under your bum. It’s completely unjustified but it was just something new” to do.

It is also true to say that it only takes a few loud voices to say something will be a trend, to make something become a trend. Self prophesising much?

The idiotic thing about trends like these is that they don’t put the needs of the individual project first. The focus becomes about the designer trying to look current or cool. It packages a certain look and style as being an absolute” as an approach. If a website’s purpose was to sell socks, or something different like to advise on nutritional health or other, it doesn’t seem to matter — the trendy designer would add reflections on logos and all the shiny regardless of other factors.

Design? Yes, I’ll have the set menu please. Meh.

Stir in some postmodernism

The fact that we now — and forever more — live in a postmodern era makes spurious trends even more baffling. The very nature of postmodernism is that we reference the old and the past, and mix it with the new and the now. Anything goes. And we’ve been in this position for years. The next big trend for next year in design? No trends. For me it’s almost a paradox. If you follow a trend with your design work then, well, you’re not very trendy. The new trend is no trend ☺

So is flat a trend?

You see I don’t think it is. It’s a very interesting aesthetic as it brings along with it some interesting emotional and cultural baggage. Let me get all psychological on your ass:

For years Apple had been rocking the OS skeuomorphic look. We’re talking 12 years of it. They wore it well, especially when you consider the visual awfulness of the competitor OS designs. Yes windows, I’m looking at you.

But the look brought with it emotional attachment and association unrelated to it as a standalone design aesthetic. Because of who Apple marketed to, and for who and what they represented, the aesthetic became an indication of the quality of Apple. It became a part of the creative culture audience that Apple had done so well to seduce.

I am a designer. I use Apple. I use OSX. So you have Designer” very clearly linked to OSX”.

And the actual aesthetic look of the Apple OS grew around — and attached itself — to this idea of designer”. A perception of extra value by association. It became almost more than the sum of its own parts, so to speak. Don’t get me wrong, OSX is a very nice looking system that works very well. But all the associations mentioned above elevated it to an even higher level.

Now you could say that the flat” look for the web first came into the public eye through Microsoft’s Metro OS for Windows phone. Now, Microsoft had almost done the opposite to Apple with the picture they had painted in designer consciousness. They established associations in the design community with poor design and experiences, because of how awful XP and Vista looked and felt — and even how terrible the likes of IE6 and 7 were as environments to render web pages. Mud sticks.

When something decent came along in the form of Metro, the look and feel is actively rejected — perhaps at an almost unconscious level — because the rules are in place: Apple is for designers, Microsoft is not. It becomes difficult to not taint a new design based on established notions of who does the good stuff, and who doesn’t.

The uproar when iOS went a bit flat” in version 7 is still fresh in our minds. It is also notable how quickly the noise died down when people let go of their emotional attachment to a 12 year old aesthetic, and that change isn’t bad, just different. We are humans. Figuring out new stuff is what we do. We rubbed two sticks together to make fire, we’re going to be OK figuring out less skeuomorphic buttons on our UIs. Don’t make me think? OK, but don’t put me on a drip either.

Apple v Microsoft aside: The flat rationale

So we’ve kind of established why there could be a resistance to flat design within the design culture and community, and why — with the same thinking — it might also be labelled as a mere trend and fad like the web2.0 look” of 2007.

But, as the title of this post says, I think there is way more to flat than is given credit, especially when we take it at face value. Let me list why I believe flat design to be more of a sign of web design progress than a trend:

1. Flat is minimal

We can now do minimal on the web. There was a time — due to the number of fonts we had, and the resolution and colour output of screen — that it was difficult to do minimal. It was something that would look smart and sexy in print, but always quite harsh, techy and samey on screen. The medium almost dictated the aesthetic feel of the design. But now we can use lots of different fonts, and with screen resolutions and sizes increasing, and improvements in anti-aliasing and colour display, we can now achieve the unique minimalism which was previously only reserved for print output. So, in essence, flat is here to stay because it can be done, and done well. And, let’s face it, minimal is a timeless aesthetic regardless of medium.

2. Flat is confident and mature

Again, looking back to when we couldn’t achieve the subtle design nuances from print, as web designers we almost needed to rely on tricks and crutches to gain a unique feel in our designs. These crutches were often in the form of skeuomorphic touches, as we couldn’t apply subtlety quite as accurately as with print. Now, the for mentioned improvements have meant we can now achieve more with less, and so we don’t have to rely quite so much on these visual crutches. Designs can be simple yet still unique, and with that comes a confidence and maturity. Big brands want this.

3. Flat is web friendly

With the popularity of Responsive Web Design, it’s no wonder that flatter and simpler shapes are popular. They are easier to adjust and resize than those complex elements we used to design when we had fixed widths and desktop only in mind.

When you also consider that we need pages to be fast loading for mobile data display, it makes absolute justifiable sense to create elements that have smaller file sizes.

To me this suggests that flat isn’t a passing fad, it’s something that is a sign of the changing environment we work in, and a response to needing elements faster loading, scalable, clear, and more layout flexible. Flat ticks these boxes.

So there we have it. I don’t think flat should be labelled a passing fad — just because it doesn’t fit with previous web design culture ideals, and also because other approaches have come and gone before. The signs are that it is an approach that is needed, and a sign of progress.

Me, but elsewhere

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