On the web and in apps, flat design is becoming the norm. What difference does it make to the current design philosophy?
The trend towards flat follows years of websites smothered with 3D effects, bubbles, gloss and texture – a trend that started with Web 2.0 (and our obsession with shiny buttons).
Apple has shoved everyone firmly towards a flatter World Wide Web with its iOS 7 redesign, although Microsoft arguably kick-started the flat trend on mobile with its Windows Metro icons. Whatever you think of Windows Mobile as an OS, it looks fresh and clean.
Vector illustration also has a part to play in this new direction. Now that skeuomorphism is out, design is stripped back to its basic elements: colour, shape and position.
Steve Jobs may have favoured the “real world” look for iOS, but the trend away from skeuomorphism might have revealed some uncomfortable truths about designers. With flat design, there’s nowhere to hide, and that could explain the backlash against flat interfaces.
Usability: Flat vs Real
Why did Steve Jobs favour skeuomorphic design?
Easy: just like everything else produced by Apple, the core objective is usability. Jobs believed that computers should be as usable as other household objects. Toasters, kettles, and microwaves don’t need help files – why should a computer?
Jobs’ philosophy was to make everything on screen simple, predictable and intuitive. If it’s a button, and you want people to push that button, make it look like a button. Flat design, in contrast, doesn’t offer the same visual clues.
At least, that’s one side of the argument
In contrast, some designers claim that flat design is inherently easier to navigate because everything is simple. With an uncluttered layout, everything becomes more accessible, and the designer is forced to think structurally. Positioning and alignment matters. Flow becomes an issue. Designers have to really think about the way users will progress through the page.
When you have to go back to basics, your design skills are tested on multiple levels, so say flat enthusiasts. It’s not just about designing something to look pretty; it’s about designing the structure of the page for maximum conversions, too.
Accessibility is Key
Regardless of your own feelings on flat design, one thing’s clear: a flat interface is far, far easier to use on a mobile device. As we all move towards responsive design for our websites, flat design is more welcoming to tablet and smartphone users, mainly because they need broader margins of error for each tap. Flat design makes buttons pop out and allows designers to incorporate white space around them. It’s also friendlier to users with visual impairments.
Just as Google strives to make information easy to locate via search, flat design makes the web easier on the eye, particularly on small screens. But with the gloss, texture, and sheen stripped away, the designer has nowhere to hide.
One thing holds true, though; regardless of the way your website is laid out, your users should still find it intuitive. If they don’t, you may have a problem with your designer – not your website.