Flat UI design: trend or turning point


Over the past few years, we've watched as digital design moved from the gradients and drop shadows of Web 2.0 to the skeuomorphism epitomised by Apple's fake leather and stitches interfaces. More recently there has been an upsurge of 'flat' interface design that favours minimalism over the aesthetics of "make it look clickable".

Hotmail used to be cluttered and unfocused.

Hotmail used to be cluttered and unfocused.

Outlook, Hotmail's recent replacement, is much simpler.

Outlook, Hotmail's recent replacement, is much simpler.

Flat design is the Withnail and I of design aesthetics

There is so much reductionism in flat design that it seems almost like an escape to the country to get away from the hustle-and-bustle that has built up in interfaces and websites, crowding them with information, calls-to-action and ads. Flat design is the Withnail and I of design aesthetics - a reprieve from the stresses of a crowded city and messy living spaces.

Is flat design a a trend? 

I would say that the superficial elements of it are. Bold colours, simple shapes, sans typography. These are visual design trends, and trends come and go. But what lies behind these visual choices is a historical turning point - the shift of responsibility for usable technology from the user to the designers and smart systems that operate invisibly on the user's behalf. This shift is one of digital experiences becoming simpler.

Simplicity through technology

Big data, social APIs and ubiquitous smartphones are plugging data into digital experiences to offer interfaces simplified based on predictions and personalised preferences.

Mobile devices are forcing designers to make better use of smaller screens, while accommodating larger monitors too. Simpler designs makes this easier to do.

Simplicity from lessons learned

There is a sense that the digital experience industry is maturing - the wisdom of past lessons offering more considered approaches to interfaces.

The crowded interfaces of yesteryear have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many consumers. So it makes sense that digital products are trying to move away from that.

Simplicity from necessity

Programming frameworks, developer communities and hackathons are broadening the base for what's possible with digital experiences. Barriers to creating new technologies are lower than ever. This influx of talent and energy means new ideas, apps and technologies are coming hard and fast. With this speed, simplicity is a necessity - focusing creators on doing few things well.

Simplicity is at the heart of flat design, but simplicity will outlive it.

As for the future — the work shall grow more truly simple, more expressive with fewer lines, fewer forms; more articulate with less labor; more plastic; more fluent, although more coherent; more organic. It shall grow not only to fit more perfectly the methods and processes that are called upon to produce it, but shall further find whatever is lovely or of good repute in method or process, and idealize it with the cleanest, most virile stroke I can imagine.
— Frank Lloyd Wright, 1908
Posted on August 24, 2013 .