Why Flat Design is Spreading Faster than a Zombie Plague.

Flat is the new 3D

The latest update to Apple’s iOS software brought the biggest graphical change to their user interface in years! Apple went Flat. The move towards flat has been a growing trend in the mobile computing world recently(Android and Windows Phone both use the concept extensively),and it has also become prevalent as a general graphic design concept as well.  Even Google has recently rolled out a flatter version of their iconic logo.

iOS6 is on the left and the new iteration, iOS7 is on the right.

photo courtesy of extremetech.com
photo courtesy of extremetech.com

If you aren’t familiar already, you can probably guess what flat design is. Flat, in a basic sense, refers to a design style that gets rid of attempts to create the illusion of depth and perspective.

These pictures of the Windows Phone home screen are a stereotypical example of flat design.

windowsph8-start-screens_2 2
photo courtesy of winbeta.org

As you can see, no beveled edges, no drop shadows, no attempts at creating the feel of depth at all.  A clean, simple interface that is … Flat!


Why Flat?

Skeuomorphism: what it is and why we’ve outgrown it. 

One of the major reasons that flat design has become popular is because it seems fresh compared to the tacky, and obsolete skeuomorphic designs of the past. Though you’ve probably never heard of it , you’ve interacted with skeuomorphic design at one point or another in your life.

Skeuomorphic design is the idea of designing something digitally to imitate the appearance of a real world object.  For example, Apple has been a huge proponent of this style. The iPhone alone, at least before this latest update, includes many examples. The notes app looks like  a legal pad, the games app features a green felt background, even the fact that the keyboard keys appear to have depth is an example of skeuomorphism.

photo from macrumors.com
photo from macrumors.com

Skeuomorphism was a popular design aesthetic for Apple and many other technology companies because it served as a transition from the real world to the virtual one. In the early days of computing it was nice for people to have digital analogies of the real world. The desktop, folders,  and recycle bin were easy concepts to grasp. Even though skeuomorphism was not functionally necessary, it added a layer of comfort to the experience of working with a virtual interface.

Today, when most of the world interacts with some type of computer on a regular basis, skeuomorphic design only serves to add clutter. Flat design looks clean because it is. It cuts out unnecessary clutter.


Back to Basics

Another reason for flat design’s popularity was that it was a “back to basics”  response to over complexity in design. As our tools became more powerful, designers felt like they had to use them. Pretty soon everyone was using drop-shadows, gradients, beveled edges, reflections and so on… Though these tools were effective, they were certainly overused.

Take Skype’s old logo for example. Notice the 3D beveled edges, use of gradient (blue goes from lighter to dark) as well as a drop shadow.






In contrast, Skype’s new, flatter logo gets rid of all that. The result being a clean, flat logo.






Another example of a formerly overused technique is reflection. The effect of a company’s logo appearing like it was sitting on a plane of reflective glass was one of the hallmarks of “Web 2.0” and was used by every tech company. Today however, it just looks cliche.






Here is Linked-in’s new logo.It’s much easier on the eyes, and fits in well with website copy.





Another reason for flat design’s popularity that we can’t ignore is that it looks much better on mobile displays. Simple looks better when it’s compressed into a small space! Detailed logos lose a lot of their appeal when those details are crammed into a small display and are difficult to discern.


Is Flat here to Stay?

Flat is not a major innovation in design that will change the way we look at graphics and user interfaces forever. It is simply a trend. Flat design was around long before  beveled edges, reflections and drop shadows. Like all design trends eventually flat too will become overused, boring, and out of style. 

Before its inevitable demised however, flat will evolve.  It’s likely that designers will settle on a middle ground, an “almost flat” design. The key to success for this style, will be for designers and companies to utilize the unique advantages that both 3D design and flat have to offer.

Apple actually did a great job in their OS redesign by hitting this compromise. Using a featured called “parallax” to make their flat icons appear to float over the background, Apple used the benefits of advanced rendering technology to compliment the beauty of minimal flat design. Not to sound too Apple biased, but Windows Phone on the other hand may have gone too far in the opposite direction, just compare their home screen and iPhone’s!

Moral of the story, like most things in design, and life for that matter it’s hard to go wrong with the motto: All things in Moderation.


But who cares what we think? What do you think about the future of graphic design? Leave us a comment and give us your thoughts as to why Windows Phone is prettier than iOS!

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