Keep it simple (an oldie but goodie!)


Riiight. Because if I didn’t see these books physically placed on a wooden shelf, I never would have figured out that I can click an icon to read a book. Gotcha.

It started a few years ago and took over seemingly overnight… the transition away from skeuomorphic design and rich, textured graphics for UI design in applications, mobile and desktop operating systems towards the simplistic, line art and flat colours… it even spilled over to print design! What?

Although minimalist design can be traced back to the 1940s and 50s, its recent popularity can be attributed to  Microsoft with their introduction of the ‘Metro’ UI, an important visual and usability change in the Windows 8 OS. Ironically, it was Microsoft that led the design trend for a change with Apple and Android playing catch-up and following their lead. It didn’t take long for the style to become the standard ‘go-to’ look for UIs and today it’s the primary visual language designers apply when kicking off new projects.

Ok… but why?

“C’mon, man, all the cool kids are doing it! Don’t you want to be cool?

  • The rise of mobile computing in the form of smartphones and tablets drastically made the form factor of the design canvas unpredictable, keeping things simple was key to staying sane as a designer and providing some consistency to the user experience.
  • The popularity of responsive design introduced a need to have elements that adapted to screens that ranged from tiny all the way to desktop monitors two feet wide.
  • The average user is now way more tech-savvy than they were 15-20 years ago when they were first exposed to technology. They don’t need to be handheld through a UI that emulates real-world tactile experiences and physical objects to make a connection.
  • Let’s not also forget the power of fashion and herd mentality. When something hits critical mass everybody gets on the bandwagon without questioning whether it’s a good idea or not. Cough, cough, I’m looking at you plaid shirts and lumberjack beards. Clients are as much to blame for this as designers.

Have we reached peak flat design?

A skeuomorphic illustration that emulates a physical book that’s showcasing flat design. Sooo meta!

The pendulum is now starting to swing back the other way with a lot of design teams questioning whether this oversimplification of design elements has stifled creativity and artistic expression. Would having a bit of a gradient or a texture really be that bad? When do we start getting tired of the ‘same old’? Is it possible to do something fresh and have it work nowadays? The answer lies somewhere in between.

  • Will the design and UI compete with the objectives of the user? Ultimately, the user interacts with a device to accomplish a task. If the UI hinders that task, it should be re-evaluated and optimized.
  • There are also technical requirements such as high resolution displays, bandwidth, device and browser support that must be considered.
  • Animation is frequently used these days and flat, vector based objects and CSS elements are waaaay easier to animate than bitmap graphics.
  • When something is totally wrong but somehow becomes the norm and embedded into peoples’ subconscious, it’s actually more disruptive to correct it than to just leave it alone. The example is the classic 90s vertical navigation on the left side of the page. Ergonomically, it didn’t make sense but once it became the norm, moving it to the right triggered a reflex in people who felt that something was wrong with the page. This is not new, it’s a UX classic case:

15 Years Later and this info from Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox is still relevant!

If 80% or more of the big sites do things in a single way, then this is the de-facto standard and you have to comply. Only deviate from a design standard if your alternative design has at least 100% higher measured usability.

If 50-79% of the big sites do things in a single way, then this is a strong convention and you should comply unless your alternative design has at least 50% higher measured usability.

If less than 50% of the big sites do things in a single way, then there are no dominant conventions yet and you are free to design in an alternative way. Even so, if there are a few options, each of which are used by at least 20% of big sites, you should limit yourself to choosing one of these reasonably well-known designs unless your alternative design has at least 25% higher measured usability than the best of the choices used by the big sites.

Personally, I think that Google’s ‘Material Design’ is a step in the right direction. It still uses the principles of flat design but has introduced some subtle design elements to emulate the notion of a 3rd dimension (z-axis).

Here’s what some other industry experts think about all this.

Experts Weigh In: Is Flat Design Making The Web Boring?

Not sure which way to go with your next design? Here’s a handy cheat sheet to help guide your decision.

Infographic: Flat design vs. skeuomorphism