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Flat Design. Past, Present and Future?

Web user-interface designers just can’t get enough of the ongoing flat design trend that has kicked into high gear. Besides its gorgeous visual appeal, the trend itself has purposeful value that places an emphasis on usability rather than plain old beauty. Lets dissect this trend and consider where it’s headed.

Doesn’t flat design mean boring?

The short answer is: no. The flat design style often mimics minimalism in user interface design where the designer incorporates simple iconography, clean typographical layout and flat colors into an execution. This approach steers clear of using over-the-top stylistic elements such as drop shadows, bevels, overused gradients and textures simply because these characteristics of design are not necessary elements pivotal to user interaction. In doing so, user interfaces scale well across multiple resolutions and significantly decrease page-loading times. While it may sound as if visual eye candy is being stripped out, quite the opposite is true and if done well, this style can be quite appealing. Just take a look at an example below:

Future of Flat Design | Trigger

SCREENSHOT: fitbit.com

Not too long ago, Skeumorphism was held in high regard and this concept dealt with visually representing an element to mirror its physical counterpart. Flat design practices considered this visual fluff that didn’t really serve any purpose. A good example of this is the visual progression of the iBooks app on iOS.

Trigger - iBook Interface Design - Then vs. Now

COMPOSITE: Gradly / 9to5mac / Apple / afterios7icon

There came a need to simplify our visual cues so that additional elements such as bevels, textures, gradients, and patterns are rendered irrelevant in the face of usability. The need to make digital elements look like their physical counterparts became obsolete and rightly so! From the visuals above we can clearly see that even Apple’s move away from skeumorphism didn’t result in a boring visual aesthetic. On the contrary, this approach got rid of the wooden shelf-like space and replaced it with negative space increasing the focus on the beautiful book covers themselves.

Flat roots

Flat design isn’t anything new – although the mediums of applicability may have been different in the past. The Swiss style of design is often identified as serving the inspiration for the flat trend we see online today. This style originated in the 1940s and 1950s in Switzerland often utilizing a combination of large minimal typography, grids, and photos to create striking visual hierarchy that was easy to navigate in the print realm. In hindsight, one could say that even back then, the ease of use, in terms of clarity and readability of content, was at the forefront of purposeful creative execution.

Swiss Design- The Origin of Flat Design | Trigger

IMAGE: Sebastien Hayez

Let the trend…trend

The move for big players like Apple and Windows to revamp their operating systems following flat design principles confirms the flat philosophy’s arrival. This back-to-the-basics approach strips away unnecessary content that might otherwise stand in the way of good user experience and replaces it with only the necessities of user interface interaction.

In an information-heavy age that is amplified by content consumption on multiple devices, user interfaces continue to declutter so that information is concisely laid out, interacted with, and absorbed as efficiently as possible. The flat trend has also aided the rise of responsive design that strips away unnecessary visual fluff that would otherwise impact page weight, loading time, scalability and mobile design inconsistencies. The result is a quick and seamless experience that bodes well across multiple touch points of interaction on numerous devices. 

The pitfalls

Some pitfalls of the trend are important to outline at this stage. Not every design execution following the flat design principles is applicable to every single context. Designers need to show some restraint and carefully consider the project requirements before overloading their executions with flat characteristics that may not fit the brand guidelines or the creative context. Simply jumping on the bandwagon to keep up with a trend should never be used as a justification to integrate new design principles. Overusing flat design principles can also hamper the user experience. If an interface design is to be very simple, chances are, it may not be if the user is stumped and has no idea how to interact with it.

A Flat Future?

So what’s in store for the future? Perhaps skeumorphism will find its way back into user interfaces – but that’s an assumption at best. What we are currently seeing, however, are touches of depth that are forcing flat aesthetics to go the extra mile in striking a visual chord. Flat shadows that otherwise give the illusion of their real counterparts, or minimal photography coupled with layer-based elements are just some examples of flat trend’s evolution over the years. What designers should keep in mind, however, is that to swim against the current is perfectly alright. Sometimes, the context of a given project sparks a creative approach that should be embraced rather than brushed aside for the sake of trends. But then again, isn’t that how trends are started?

Trigger - Flat Design - Is It Boring?

COMPOSITE: Suleiman Leadbitter, Slava Beskrovniy