I think most designers these days are sick and tired of the term ‘Flat’ design, and yet it seems like everybody is talking about it. So when I was contacted by a journalist from Wired.com a few weeks back to give an interview on the subject I was a little hesitant. I was on vacation and this journalist needed the answers to her questions within 48 hours.
But I thought, hey, maybe I might be able to change the perception of the term or at least give a designers point of view. So I spend a few hours answering her questions to the best of my ability. Unfortunately I never heard back from her.
I worked on Haze which could be considered a very ‘flat’ design
A few days later the article she was working on went live on Wired.com. It was called “If Your OS Isn’t Flat Yet, It’s in for a Radical Redesign”. It had none of my answers in them. Now that’s fine, I know how it goes and sometimes a piece might take a different direction or the editor will have the final say. However I was sad to see that the angle was the same as every other article I’ve read on the subject from mainstream tech media. This idea of flat design being the natural evolution of interfaces, and therefore superior. The very reason why I did the interview was to combat this one-sided notion.
I see now why my answers to the interview wasn’t compatible with the story Wired was trying to tell. I thought it might be interesting to post my interview here, if for no other reason than to show you what the media are *not* interested in pursuing. Below is the unedited interview:
Also designed Thermo which could be considered a very ‘Themed’ design
In your words as a designer, what is flat design?
Flat design has become a popular way to describe designs that strip away details and embellishments in favor of a cleaner 2-dimensional look.
Is flat design “making a comeback” like everyone has been saying? Why now? Or, has it be around all along?
Flat design has been around for a long time and can be tracked back to early printmaking and through the “Swiss Style” design aesthetics of people like Paul Rand. But I think one of the big reasons why it’s becoming increasingly popular now, is because of the amount and complexity of information we need to display and digest. With more advanced interfaces and a larger volume of content comes the desire to “clean up” the interface. There’s several build-in advantages to this style that web designers have utilized for ages, which is (among other things) easier responsive implementation and a more multi platform friendly construction.
From your perspective, does flat design equate minimalism?
There’s certainly something ‘minimalistic’ about stripping away details, but I don’t believe that flat design inherently equates minimalism. There’s plenty of cluttered ‘flat’ interfaces and people need to be wary that this style isn’t mistaken for a silver bullet.
Why do you think companies like Google have started switching to flat design OS/UI?
The flat design ties in wonderfully with some of the trends currently going on. Increasingly advanced interfaces, a larger volume of content, the need for responsiveness and multi platform support. All of this driven by the touch-based mobile devices makes it a solid direction for a company like google.
What does a flat UI/OS design need to be successful?
In my opinion a great flat design is a clear visual hierarchy with a minimum amount of clutter. In mobile interfaces it’s important that a flat design understands the restrictions it’s working under and compensates correctly. One example is that with no “depth” available, contrast between elements, especially controls, needs to be given the right amount of attention and it becomes more of a challenge to communicate what you can interact with and what you can’t.
Will the battle between skeuomorphism and flat design ever end? Does it need to end, or should the struggle continue because it forces people to reinvent and produce better designs? And as a designer, are you sick of the battle?
There probably couldn’t be a more misconstrued word in the current design terminology than ‘skeuomorphism’. I could write a long rant about the so called ‘battle’ but better writers than me have already done so.
This idea that skeuomorphism is the opposite of flat design has chalked up the lines in this bizarre and (in my opinion) completely misunderstood struggle. It has somehow slipped into the general tech consciousness that any sort of theme, skin or use of texture, depth or lighting in an interface should be considered ‘skeuomorphism’. The delusion is furthered by believing that the absence of these things should be considered flat, creating this odd one dimensional terminology scale where something is either skeu (as the cool kids call it) or flat.
I think I speak for a sizable amount of the design community when I say that we’re all a bit tired of this debate. One isn’t better than the other, no more than a hammer is better than a screwdriver. A flat minimalistic design, and a rich ‘themed’ design are both tools in a designers toolbox. They are different approaches and they each come with their own pros and cons. Both can work fantastically in the right context. We need to stop thinking about these styles as an evolution of one another and start thinking about what gives the best experience for the user in the specific use case we’re creating. Design would be a very boring discipline if that answer was the same every time.
Does flat design create apps/UIs/Oss that are inherently easier to understand (because they tend to not have as many embellishments as other designs)?
I don’t think so. One of the things you loose when you strip away details from a design is context. Most of the cutting edge flat design iOS apps like Clear or Haze needs to rely on welcome tutorials that describe how to use the app. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and one could argue that it’s simply the cost of trying out something new – but it does highlight the challenge that designers face when designing these kinds of experiences. Removing details does not necessarily imply that something is easier to understand.
What would you like to see from the new flat designed UIs/Oss? What could make flat design better?
I’m not sure there’s one thing that would make flat design ‘better’. It is in itself a direction taken to the extreme.
I’m absolutely sure, however, that we’ll be seeing variations that will make the existing terminology outdated. What are we going to call a design that places itself in between flat and ‘themed’? A subtle design? Hopefully we’ll be able to end this silly dichotomy of interface design and appreciate the various approaches for their strengths and weaknesses.
How is the switch to flat design affecting, or how will it affect, UI/OS design in the future?
I think partly what we’re seeing now is a counter-reaction to the very ‘themed’ early days of mobile interface design. There’s certainly a rush to clean up and minimize the footprint of the interface. That being said, I don’t see flat design as the end-all direction. Design is a pendulum that has been swinging to the tune of society for a long time and I hope that we’ll continue to explore new ways of delighting users.
There you have it. I tried contacting the journalist a few times, but still haven’t heard back, so rather than letting it go to waste I figured I might as well post it here. The media doesn’t seem to be interested in this angle, and I completely understand why: Reporting on a trend of the evolved interface is an appealing story and using simplified terminology (flat vs. skeu) makes it easy to understand – it’s just that I don’t know a lot of designers that feel like it’s the world they work in. Anyways, maybe this will just be another article in the sea of flat-design or maybe it’ll inspire some conversation. Let me know how you feel about all this on twitter @flarup.