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Has flat design made our sites too simple?

By Kendra Gaines | Web Design | Jun 17, 2013

When I was first introduced to graphic design, I was extremely young and a member of a pretty popular message board. Posters showed respect for other members by presenting them with these things called “sigs” — they were little rectangular graphics that fit in the reserved area for a person’s signature. If you’re familiar with message boards and forums, you know exactly what I mean. If not, it was just an image that showed up at the bottom of someone’s message. This wasn’t an exclusive concept for these message boards, as many did use this feature.

Back then, I downloaded either Adobe Photoshop 4 or 5 (it was so long ago, I can’t recall the version). I went to work and eventually taught myself how to do many of the things these other designers were doing.

The designs we made were elaborate and colorful. They were fantastical and made people feel like they were mystical creatures hidden by the cloud of reality. These sigs were nothing but decoration and the more fun you had, the more the receiving member loved it.

 

This is now

Fast forward to now and if I showed you all some of the graphics I made during this time, you’d critique me harshly and probably continue by laughing at some of the choices I made. I would (and have) too.

We’ve strayed away from formerly learned concepts and there’s two reasons why: 1) Design doesn’t rest upon the favor of decorations and unnecessary aesthetics and 2) It’s just not cool anymore. 

Times change and trends do as well. In 2013, what we seem to value is flat design.

As we progress, so do our trends and our taste in creative things. That’s an understandable concept, but it’s gotten to the point where we just don’t do lots of designing at all. We don’t rarely make any of our design elements design heavy, even when they can be tasteful. We tend to opt for the flat, minimalist look. But when is enough enough?

 

Predictability and creativity

Lots of us preach creativity and urge others to think outside the box. I’m one of those people, but every so often it seems like we forget this concept and create graphics that are the norm or that are the trend. Sure, some of the things we do now just happen to work, but where’s the creativity? Isn’t there a way to use a trend but make it work for a certain person or brand. Have we become a little too predictable?

A while back, I touched on the idea that minimalism could be killing creativity after I saw redesigns for USA Today and eBay logos. There are obviously standards in design, whether it be logo design or web design, but everything seems to be so…regular. These logos weren’t bad logos, but there were very simple and the rest of the branding seemed to fall into that category. There wasn’t much character (especially with eBay) or style and I’m pretty sure I could open Photoshop or Illustrator now and make exact replicas of these two logos.

It seems that we’ve decided that the cleaner our graphics are, then the better they are. And this makes some sense — we are designing now for people to use things. The less clutter it has, the easier it is to use, but there’s a very fine line between simple and plain. There’s certainly an air of beauty that comes from simplicity, but we’ve got to do a better job of learning when that’s necessary and when that’s not.

Again, I like to think of the eBay logo as a prime example. The former logo stood for fun, but that idea has kind of been taken away. Simplicity is not just stripping the character of an element, but about taking away what doesn’t need to be there, it’s a very fine line. But distinguishing the line shouldn’t be rocket science. What needs to be there and what doesn’t? Not just from an aesthetics point of view but also from a branding point of view as well.

 

What we do with Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop is still the standard for web design. If you think about this, it’s somewhat baffling because Photoshop was created to be an image editing application for photographers. As we continue to make it the go-to app for everything else, Adobe expands our capabilities and what we can actually create with Photoshop.

Unlike any other programs in Creative Cloud, Photoshop really allows you to do some extremely creative things. We can change and add the lighting in a photograph, add motion and different types of blurs, create glowing edges, warp shapes and so much more. It’s great for graphical elements as well as light and heavy adjustments to photographs. You can literally create a new world and new feel just by messing with images and filters in Photoshop.

All these filters and all this ability to be extremely creative in Photoshop (and other programs), begs the question of why or why don’t we utilize these effects more? Why are we so fond of solid color backgrounds and flat design? Why don’t we create these new worlds for our audiences when they visit us online? Why don’t we do more creatively?

 

Images and excuses

It’s common to keep our designs fairly simple in print because not all printers and all colors are created equal. We try to control this with Pantone colors, but even still, bad things can happen after you ship a job off to print. This is a concept many who are familiar with print design are familiar with and understand: don’t do a lot of gradients, fine details or crazy colors in print because you may end up very disappointed when your print is in your hand. It seems as if this mentality has crept into our website designs.

We know what Photoshop is capable of. And we know we can see the fine details, wonderous gradients, blurs and bright colors online. All screens aren’t created equal (thanks to developments in retina screens and the like) but there’s a standard that makes so many things viewable, so what’s the excuse?

Many will point to image loading times as more complex designs will typically load slower than usual. And this is definitely the most valid concern, but there are various solutions. In Photoshop, we’re able to splice large images and put them together with code. We can also find different ways and formats to save images so they don’t take as long. There are hacks in web development that help sites load faster and so many other solutions to help out.

Another excuse is the ease of converting a flat design into a responsive site; but whoever said that easy was good?

When are we going to get back to being a bit more creative?

 

We are minimalist

We’ve been there before, that one website that has so much going on you don’t know where to go or what to do. But that’s not what needs to come back. No one is saying you have to design every piece of your web site, but perhaps create a more intricate background or other elements for your design.

Making everything so clean and simple is nice and it works many times. But we have to think of different ways to be creative and to utilize all the capabilities possible in our applications to really bring forth our creativity.

We aren’t artists, but we are designers, and it’s truly okay to design a little more.

 

Has the pursuit of flat design stifled our creativity? Is minimalism dull? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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  • Rik Hopkinson

    I think a mixture of digital painting, image manipulation and almost flat design techniques should be used where applicable…(or when you can get away with it!) Minimal black and white design with lots of white space has always been around, born from Swiss design, and it’s cool when used in simple grids; flat design has just introduced a new colour palette and it’s easy to work with for responsive sites – I think once the tech is there for responsive imagery and such like the trend will evolve and again get more creative… for now, i agree with you, it’s getting a little dominant and IS getting a little boring! Push the limits people!

  • Jeremy

    Nice article (probably because I agree) the flat design is mostly dull/copied and I think it comes forth because all those print designers switched to web without really understanding the possibilities on a screen.

  • Justin Hoskins

    There is no substitute for hard work. When you work hard on a design, image, or anything else in life, I find it more rewarding in the end.

  • CooperB

    I think that flat design is just the “flavor of the week” right now. What usually happens with flavors is that many designers go all-in and run a look into the ground instead of taking the parts that might work good for their projects.

  • drinchev

    Nice question. I love the best of both worlds, so I did something unusual. A flat design switch in my portfolio

    • Morgan Taylor

      That’s a great idea drinchev! Shows your flexibility and design prowess ;)

  • Morgan Taylor

    What’s the fun of designing a site if you can pop anyone’s logo into the header and no one knows the difference? We ask our client’s all the time,” What makes you stand out from your competitor?” Your website should be able to answer the same question!

  • toifel_de

    It’s a hype and now that iOS picked up flat-design we’ll probably see it being overused in the near future.
    The lack of creativity is a valid point, but you completely missed the impact of clients on designs. I bet most designers here got briefings like “make it look like apple” – so it’s not just the designers missing creativity, but also clients who want their designs to look like a cheap copy of something that was inventive 5 years ago.

  • Morgan S. Bailey

    Interesting article. However, I would never think of minimalism and creativity as two clashing concepts. I like flat design and I constantly wish the spirit will move on to tv ads as well. I see information overload (not just in design, of course) as the plague of our age. Plus, I’m tired of useless elements surrounding the product. I wanna know what the product is and does, and that’s it. It’s not just a matter of personal taste, it’s also a matter of market ethics and respect for the consumer. Concepts lost ages ago.

  • bgbs

    This article reiterates my thinking on this. I don’t mind flat design as a trend for website layout, but flat design has gone rogue affecting how we design logos and print. Flat design started as a solution for responsive design. Most responsive designs can be seen from a mile away. Responsive coupled with flat design makes all the site look the same.

    Flat design also strips away character. The ebay logo and also the new Microsoft logo, are good examples of that. Where is the identity? Where is the character? The symbolic meaning is still there perhaps, but the character has been completely stripped. If you also look at some of the website redesigns, the same thing has happened. One prime example is the new Mashable redesign. Yes it looks nice, trendy, and cutting edge, but it has completely lost its character. When you come in, the content just jumps out at you. It makes the site look overloaded with nothing but content. There is absolutely no where for your eyes to rest. Look, I understand that content is king and all, but this time the king has no clothes. The old Mashable design had character, it had some clothes, the new design has completely lost it.

  • bgbs

    No. I dumped Photoshop for Illustrator.

  • Russett Design

    If a flat design solution is appropriate for the design problem, then use it – if not, then don’t. Words to live by: Always use a concept when designing-not a trend. Bam!

  • SDorinPXM

    I used Illustrator for web design but, I had to go back to Photoshop because my clients are used to .psd files and the layering system, although I think that Illustrator is the perfect tool for flat design because is easier and faster to work with shapes.

    Still it’s hard to say that I mind working with Photoshop.

    • http://about.me/evanjacobs Evan Jacobs

      I hear you. I generally make comps in Illustrator and just send them annotated PDFs.

  • Richard Lyth

    I’m so glad to see designers, looking at this article and its comments (as well as some others I’ve read lately) questioning and thinking for themselves on this.

    The trend has seemingly become overused due to nothing more than hype and buzzwords and responsive blah blah blah… I think we should take whats good about ‘flat design’ and move on already!

    Its the responsibility of us as designers to be creative and try new things, how do you think these ‘trends’ start in the first place?

  • Jamie McCormack

    Flat design can’t just be chalked up to being another fad (having stuff follow your mouse around the screen was a fad). Like anything, it has it’s pros and cons and as a design tool, it might seem dull and lazy to some, but we’re only limited by our skills and imagination. I remember when drop shadows and glassy buttons were in every corner of the web, but then designers started to refine their usage and the cringe-factor faded. I see the same happening with flat design… it’ll get done to death, and many sites will just follow suit, but we’ll get clever with it and it’ll become a happy addition to many designers’ tool belts.
    Flat design is a relevant method of designing and building sites that focus on quickly delivering clean and clear content to a world of digital users, where (let’s face it) many still limp along on dial-up or weak broadband speeds. It’s also possible to be creative with it.

  • kylemac6

    To each project what is best suited for it. Flat has it’s place. As an artist, I do feel like I’m being lazy and have a hard time in my head submitting something that doesn’t look like it took long to do, but it sometimes is the best option. I prefer more complex photoshop-type work because i find it more fun to do and feel better about how long it takes to do it, but that’s not a good reason to disregard flat design as an option when it is well-suited.

    Good design is good design. There’s plenty of flat designers that I just don’t think quite capture the right feel, while there’s other flat designers that understand it and create some truly sublime work. On the other side of things, I remember when people discovered the plastic wrap filter and used it like crazy. You can definitely over design something.

    The new Ebay logo may be simpler and look like anyone could create it without even trying to, but it is better than what they had before. Their old logo was always awful. Always.

  • http://www.testshoot.com/ TestShoot

    Well, there are limitations in printing processes are there are limitations in browsers. So we front-end engineers prefer to use hex colors and browser based styling more than design elements like images because we understand the medium stinks. The more complex the design, the longer the load time of a page, the more questions about devices and screens come up. I don’t think David Carson would have made such an impact as a web designer as he did in print with an “f” it attitude. So much of that would just simply fail or be scaled down to work online.

    Makes me think flat design is just doing what fashion has done all along. Black and white and boring with a really slick font. :/

  • SDorinPXM

    Well a lot of people (users especially) complain about flat design and many think is a step backwards in design since the release of win8 branding & Ui. Apple did it all wrong combining flat colors with gradients “Revloutionary”. Still what is my point here? With the release of IOS7 inspect more and more flat designs in the new apps that will be released this year, not only that but this is a confirmation that this trend will not leave us any time soon.

  • http://www.believestudio.co.uk/ Robert Smith

    Minimalism is perfect – when it’s relevant. Just as skeuomorphic design is also perfect – when it’s relevant. Flat design is also perfect – when it’s relevant. The problem here is not any of these styles of design, but rather the way that their trendiness or how stylish they are at any given time, determines how useful they are as a design solution. I feel that’s a very backward design philosophy.

    As a professional who produces highly subjective work (design) one of the tools in your tool box should be your ability be objective. Use your brain and develop the ability to see when certain styles of design are suitable for certain clients/projects, and when some are not, regardless of whether they are trendy or not. If you are designing everything to look ‘flat’ then you are not being open minded and stifling your abilities to create something original.

    Be timeless. Don’t follow trends. Work with your client’s to create your own version of cool instead of pushing a certain style of design on them that is going to get you kudos in the design community.

    Peace

  • Alex Camp

    Nice article. It reinforces my thoughts and gives me hope that the completely-flat trend will pass by more sooner than later. I don’t like skeuomorphism, and I don’t like completely-flat. I think the hybrid of the two will stand the test of time. Meaning… generally flat and clean aesthetics, but with subtle gradients and shadowing. I recently designed and coded two personal sites that use these principles if you’re interested. http://www.skyconcepts.co and http://www.acamp.me

  • James McKenzie

    One way designers are starting to inject some character into flat design is through subtle animations and satisfying sound effects (primarily in apps). The Luminosity and Dots apps for iOS are very flat, but really nice to use. They feel very much alive and full of character. It’s tougher for websites to achieve this, but as CSS3 transitions and Canvas animation become more widely adopted technologies, there’s a lot of opportunity there for creative flair. Plus there’s nothing stopping a flat design from featuring beautiful photography or illustrations as designed pieces of content.

  • Andrew Hersh

    There’s that “we aren’t artists” thing again… Where in the world is that coming from?

    If you aren’t an artist, what in the world are you doing creating visual media at all?

    That kind of attitude is the reason trends are such a problem. I can’t help but think the problem can be traced to college advisors telling every undecided who knows how to click a mouse, “There are lots of jobs in graphic design… the computer does all the work for you!”

    • Benjie

      We categorically aren’t artists, at least not in our day jobs. You might consider us artisans, or craftsmen & craftswomen, but not artists.

      An artist’s work is self-initiated. A designer’s work is a response to a brief.

      Art is by its nature self-indulgent, design is by its nature commercial. Which is why commercial minded art is as rubbish as self-indulgent design.

      When you go home, and knock something together for fun, and upload it to Behance/Dribbble/Wherever then you’re being an artist. When you sit at work, designing for a client you’re a designer.

      Both roles are equally valid and equally admirable, there’s plenty of crossover, but they’re not interchangeable.

      • Andrew Hersh

        I don’t entirely agree with your definition of “artist” and “designer”.

        Michelangelo was contracted to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it wasn’t self-initiated. Does that mean he merely designed it, and it isn’t art… or that he wasn’t acting as an artist?

      • Benjie

        Well, using Michelangelo as an example is a little unfair, because our definition of ‘artist’ and ‘designer’ has been largely defined by the twentieth century.

        However, if he were to be commissioned to paint it now, you would have to say that whilst many of the details were artis*tic*, he was actually acting as an interior designer. (Particularly as he was more of a project manager for most of it.)

        If you were to take a contemporary piece of art that has been commissioned, the difference between that and a design, is that a piece of art would be an integral part of an artist’s practice, and in most cases already a proposed piece before it was commissioned.

        Broadly speaking, art asks questions; design answers them.

  • samlinville

    I have to say, I love the flat design aesthetic. The point that we seem to be ignoring here is that the purpose of a minimal/flat design is to make the most of the content that we *do* choose to display. I’d rather have a clean design that allows me to focus on the article I’m reading (much like Web Designer Depot, I might add…) than a design heavy in visual effects. Design, in 2013 at least, isn’t necessarily aimed at making things visually “appealing” in an artistic sort of way, but rather making products on the web that are intuitive and functional.

  • http://www.lastres0rt.com Rachel Keslensky – Last Res0rt

    It’s a little of everything — designers used to do remarkable things with flash and everything else, and as we’ve had to retool our work to accomodate new devices with different requirements (i.e. responsive design), we’ve had to rethink our approaches and limit ourselves to what is easily accomplished with just HTML5 and CSS3.

    It is one thing when we can design with a set canvas in mind, but when we have to design our work with the key limitation of “we can’t control what size they’ll see it at”, it tends to favor the simpler, flatter designs.

  • http://www.zula.ws/ Cihangir

    I don’t think flat design makes our websites too simple at all. ( and I just can’t understand whats wrong with simple websites but that’d be another discussion). In my opinion, Flat design became popular not just because it’s another web design style soon to be faded just like glossy buttons, it was an answer for a design problem after mobile internet / Smartphone boom. Flat design is still best solution for responsive design for those who don’t want to spend their time/resources on multiple UI designs for web and mobile. Unlike previous trends, I believe we’ll be seeing flat design for a long time.

    • Nenad Nikolic

      Agree.
      “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
      Steve Jobs

  • Yesha Nashiym

    Since I do both design and functionality for both web sites and mobile technology, I feel both sides of the coin. I liked what one commenter said about offering a heavily designed site and a flat design. I just get a lot of client requests for flat and simple. While I understand it for mobile tech, I don’t like it for desktop view. Simply because it took me all day to learn the tips and techniques for catching the eye, only to be shunned for using design. Structure can be a problem though when designing for a wide range of viewers and devices, so people get frustrated and stick to simple. I am working on a way to make it work for mobile and desktop use/high bandwidth, so I can get the best of both worlds. I want to be creative in the end, it’s just how some of us are. I wont except a “common” mold, there’s so much capability available in the world. It’s 2013, for crying out loud, not 1989. I might as well pick up a newspaper.

  • Chris E

    Good article Kendra.
    It was a nice trend up until now but, to me, it’s really been over explained and talked about. Looking forward to just adding Flat Design as another problem solver in our design tool belt. Let’s keep it moving!

  • andyrwebman

    Dead right – horrible minimalism is taking over and ruining the beauty and fucntionality of the web – and it’s down to smartphones. People ar3e designing simple sites that work with the smartphone’s tiny screen area and low graphics capabilities.

    A paint site used to have a wonderful interactive pallete, where you could run your mouse over a rich array of colours and get lovely pictures of how it would look in your rooms.

    Now these have been replaced by big clunky graphics and the need to navigate up and down more levels – whereas before, you could see the entire pallette at a glance. Obviusly the rich PC functionality had been dumbed down to the smartphone’s level.

    Imagine if the same thing happened to TV – there would only be cartoons and low res rubbish on our huge