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Is flat design a passing trend or something more?

By Rob Bowen | Web Design | Nov 19, 2013

Recently while perusing some of the discussions that are currently happening throughout the web design community, I happened across an active dialog going on in the comments of a Tuts+ article, All About Trends in Web Design. The write-up itself, plus the lively convo in the comment section got me to thinking about “flat design”, and the nature of trends in the community. Furthermore, it got me asking whether this technique was actually a trend ready to pass in the wake of our attentions turning elsewhere, or something more?

We all know the nature of trends in the industry, and unfortunately, that tends to equate to something of a short shelf life for any one particular technique. But what if “flat design” wasn’t just a trend, but in fact, a return to a cleaner, simpler aesthetic in the wake of minimalism’s popularity and an evoloving web? What if it is in fact, an retrograde evolution in the field’s tendency toward flatness? Reaching back to a time before designers so embraced the depth creating embellishments and accents that have ruled the field for years.

It was these questions that got me up and back onto the laptop to contemplate and consider this post. Because at its core, “flat design” is really about getting back to design basics whilst simultaneously pushing forward and allowing room for working within responsive frameworks. The Ultimate Guide to Flat Design is a great place to get more information about this style, but we will press on examining why this design route could just be the resetting of our compasses back to a focus on basics, functionality, and a simple aesthetic flexibility.

 

Pleasing aesthetics

One of design’s very foundations is the aesthetic qualities we can craft into a project to sell an idea, and start a virtual, highly visual conversation with those it interacts with. Flat design has a tight focus on aesthetics, that are easy on the eyes and welcoming as it presents its visual palette. This technique is clean and minimal with a focus on great typography, color schemes and simple icons. Quite the equation for delivering the pleasing aesthetics clients and users expect.

Given that this style plays so heavy on the softer aesthetic edge, it allows the design to effortlessly shift the focus from the design itself over to the content. Which is another must for design to work its magic correctly. It must exist as an impacting carrier, never stealing the attention away from the content it drives. It should compliment it. Flat design’s light touch does just that, as we show in the examples below.

Fitbit

fitbit 

 

Adam Rudzki

adamrudzki 

 

Mark Simonson

marksimonson 

 

Easily made responsive

Another aspect of this technique where its simplicity really shines, is in how well its flat aesthetics translate so strongly on smaller screens (handhelds and mobile devices) without losing any of the impact they deliver. This is one way that it becomes so flexible. The focus on 2D environments and shying away from depth, help with the scaling down onto the screens that tend to hold the web for so many users these days. And one of the basics of design is that we remain flexible, so it is only fitting that our output for the clients would too.

While the tendency of flat design to focus on blocks of information as far as delivery styling makes it easy to rearrange the content on the page for responsive environments. And with a continuing push for responsiveness, scaled down visual presentations are certainly appealing. They meet a number of clients’ needs and wishes at the same time. Complimenting designer intent with client desire all in an easily responsive package. Just check out the sites we included below that prove the flexibility of this approach.

Made by FIBB

madebyfibb 

 

2013 XOXO Festival

xoxofest 

 

January Creative

januarycreative 

 

Fast load times

Another principle focus of web design is to present the design as quickly as possible. Especially in an ever-increasing mobile market where mobility (on the go browsing) tends to place a high value on fast delivery of the goods. Which means having a site that is as lightweight. Flat design easily meets this benchmark of success. Because of the focus on plain color fields for buttons and blocks, icons and simple imagery, the design stays light and the load times stay low.

As mentioned before, flat design also contains a lack of drop shadows, noticeable gradients, and other realistic dimensional effects, so the simpler environments overall render with a quickness. Generally, if you build it quicker, they will come faster and not bounce before the load completes because their attention span has shifted them onto other endeavors. A few examples await you that demonstrate the speed with which flat designs can bring it.

Triplagent

triplagent 

 

Inky

inky 

 

Daniele Petrarolo

petrarolo 

 

Enhanced usability and functionality

Finally we come to the most basic of design rules, the design has to be functional, and user friendly. It should be easy to follow and be concise in presentation so as to not confuse or mislead the users. It is easy to see where some designers go astray, focusing too heavily on trying to recreate a 3D environment that they sacrifice fashion for function. Flat design’s clear, minimal layouts make it ideal for guiding the eye and helping users navigate the page with ease.

This allows for the focus of the website to shift to the needs of the user rather than the design of the site. Which is how we get to find the user-friendly route expected and needed to make more than an impression, but a conversion. Furthermore, the basic importance of content presentation is never lost in an arena that strives towards reducing unnecessary clutter on the screen. This is the perfect breeding ground for sites with enhanced usability and functionality as the examples below highlight.

Minimal Monkey

minimalmonkey 

 

TheIssland

theissland 

 

2012 Build Conference

buildconf 

 

To conclude

While it is true that even trends can alter the usual aesthetic output in the design field, an evolution that shifts us back into a purely basics approach for a cleaner new age of the web seems to be more what we are seeing with flat design.

I do not believe that this, like trends do, will become a flavor of the week kind of technique we are looking back on one day with fondness. Instead, I think it is going to be shaping things to come in the field for some time.

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  • Adrian

    Flat design is not a passing trend, for sure. Just take look to Google Trends – http://www.google.com/trends/explore?q=flat+design#q=flat%20design&cmpt=q

    Flat design is not just a trend, is a part of design concept/community/style that now people can choose. Evolution of flat design is absolutely inevitable, why? – All the points are in this good article.

    Adrian, Designmodo :)

    • Heywood

      You say it’s not a trend, and then go on to cite Google trends. Everything is a trend. The current flat design is overly dull and while I’m sure some elements will survive longer than others, this trend will eventually fade away for some other latest and greatest design style, which will no doubt be a re-hash or mashup of some other style that was once popular. What was once old is new again…

      • James

        LOL Swish.

        Of course flat design is a trend. It’s just people often find it hard to indentify a trend when they are in the middle of it.

        The same was said of web 2.0 once upon a time. Now we vomit in terror at the thought.

        Like all previous trends, this one WILL be mashed and developed into something “better” and “newer” – soon becoming a style to fit particular purposes, rather than a cover-all solution.

      • myradon

        @DesignModo:disqus and @James. totally agreeing with you guys. Haha James also immediately thought about web2.0 everybody and anywhere there were the reflections, gradients and mirrored elements. “It must be web2.0!”. What’s left of it? Hmmmmmm….. nothing. Everything is a trend even few years ago a website should use jQuery. And they did: over the top. Now jQuery is mainstream. Now you see top-notch website implementing CSS3, it reminds me of the Flash-days with a lot of visual eyecandy.

        It’s like fasion, things come and things go. Skinny jeans will also disappear (don’t cry). One could say well skinny jeans take less fabric, you can put more in a box, so transport more in a container, so it’s good for CO2-emisions; it’s green! We’ll never going back! Skinny jeans are a revolution. The inventor of skinny jeans for president!

      • http://designmodo.com/ Adrian

        I said “is not a passing trend” and “Flat design is not JUST a trend”. So, is a trend :)

  • http://www.pencilscoop.com/ Joseph Howard

    Nice article.

    As Adrian pointed out flat design will evolve. However, It’s probably already started to morph into what I would consider “Layered Desing”. Read more here http://www.pencilscoop.com/2013/09/why-flat-design-is-already-out-dated-layered-design-is-next/

    Flat design emerged out of mobile UI and into web design,it seems layered design will do the same with iOS7 being the kick-start.

  • misslaidlaw

    Great article and exactly what I have been thinking.

  • Dave

    The problem I have with the flat style is that it was supposed to be a response to the excesses of skeuomorphic design and everything starting to look the same. So now we have flat design and…. everything looks the same. I’m not really a fan of trends in design unless they lead to a more positive way of doing things. I think there’s a lot of bandwagon jumping going on here.

    • bgbs

      You know I’ve thought about this question for some time now and I came to a conclusion that when it comes to web/app design, we should all embrace the trend. Web design is not like designing a poster or a logo that remains timeless after its conception. The academic methods and theories that worked well before the internet do not work very well for web design because it is one medium that is constantly evolving. Tech becomes outdated every 5-7 years, and even if you strived to achieve a non-trendy design, your site just like a trendy site will look old because a website is interactive, when someone make the first click on your site they will know if your site is made up of old or new design parts. A website is never timeless, it does not have any kind of “aura” connected to it. Trend in web design is valuable because it keeps your site fresh, on cutting edge, and will need to be redesigned after a few years anyways.

  • Alessandro Quartz

    I am glad its starting to die out. I am also glad that the long shadow trend didnt last long at all..one of the most useless design practices ever to trend.

  • http://www.spinxdigital.com/ Stephen Moyers

    Great article. Definitely flat design is a part of design concept and style. As explained in the article flat design also contains a lack of drop shadows, noticeable gradients, and other realistic dimensional effects hence reduce load time which is really good.

  • vsync

    Flat design = “let’s not waste time making things beautiful but just put 3 colors and call it a day.” = bulllllllshit. it might be good for apps such as GMAIL, but it’s being over-abused all over the internet. makes me sick.

    • Tres Bigdeal

      I agree. To me, FLAT design is an easy way to not have to be creative. I started working in web design in 2000 and every time we designed anything back then, you bet the world had not seen it yet. now days dudes come out of a 6 month program, design a flat blog style site, twirl the side of their hipster moustache and call themselves breaking edge visual designers. Flat design is as generic, safe, lazy and untalented as the people that use it.
      What happens when a client wants a childish theme to their site or a sports or feminine theme? you going to go straight for your free FLAT UI downloads and pull out a bunch of elements, arrange them them with massive space around everything, chop down the text to one line per 200px and align it all centred ?

      good luck when the trend changes to something that requires, skill, colour theory, art direction, experience and talent.

  • MiroVB

    Yes, flat design, please pass by.

  • Nauman Hameed

    Great… Its same what I have been working on…

  • chasen54

    It’s a transition away from “maximilism”. The Swiss Style of design is a venture into taking only what is absolutely necessary to conveying a message. Shiny buttons, realistic textures all have their place, but I for one welcome this trend that should last a long time stateside and worldwide.

  • Bob

    Its not a trend, its evolution of design. We are coming back to simplicity because it WORKS. As we advance as a community, things should simplify over time and developer into something perfect. We realize fancy crap is just not needed, its all optional.

  • Catherine Young

    Thanks for including Inky here. We find that flat design suits email well and helps improve speed. http://www.inky.com.

  • Bianca Board

    I’d say that flat design is a passing trend, just like every other design influence that came before it. That doesn’t mean elements of flat design will just magically disappear… elements of it will live on in future designs as well.

  • orange county web designer

    Interesting article here. I love flat design and I hope flat design isn’t a fad. Thanks for sharing good article.

  • eyko

    not sure how it help usability, I’ve seen a lot of the opposite where people don’t know what is click-able and what isn’t, due to the lack of affordance on the CTAs, this might work in some situations where most things are clickable, like Windows phone, but not for most websites.
    While I like the visual simplicity of good flat design, ‘almost flat’ design allows for this simplicity while providing the visual affordance for the CTAs.

  • Michael Meininger

    I think the methodology will remain in tact but I think some designs are getting too flat leading to confusion and a boring aesthetic. I think the future will be an odd flat/ skeoumorphic hybrid (as oxymoronic as that may sound).

    I think some of the best flat designs have true skeoumorphic elements like shadows, texture, and depth.

  • Rohan

    Flat design is a trend. What’s not a trend is creating something with the perfect amount of visual interaction that doesn’t detract from the product/service/message. I think thats design, and flat design is pulling people towards the traditional role of design, but it’s not ground breaking, it’s reacquainting a generation of designers with what it is to design.

  • Approachnet

    Great examples you have btw. As a graphics designer at first i saw this flat trend as just something to more accommodate mobile users, but the more I design flat and see flat I do like it a lot. I don’t think it’ll last more then a few years, but we shall see.

  • bgbs

    a flat button is usually a colored rectangle with a pinch of rounded corners and with a word inside it such as: subscribe, go, learn more, sign in, register. Unless someone is pulling a prank on you, a button is extremely hard to miss in flat design.

  • http://wojtek.im/ Wojtek W.

    What bgbs said. It’s not iOS 7. Buttons are usually huge and have an eye-catching color.

  • http://flashalexander.com/ Flash Buddy

    You like ‘Flat’? Just wait, Flat 2.0 is coming!

  • Matt_Automaton

    I’m a little surprised designers and developers tend to ignore art history. When analyzing “trends” in design why is there no mention of movements in art? Flat design as everyone has been calling it is not a new approach, it is actually a re-emergence of Modernism as ushered in by the Bauhaus School in Germany. Minimal design is a commentary on decadence and generally comes at a time of rapid production. Look at the tech boom happening and you can see why simplicity is so critical. The life cycle of any given product online has decreased due to rapid production and demand. I think a better way to understand the trends in design is to look at the history of art and compare it to different factors happening in society and the economy. Russian Constructivism came at a time of growth and social revolution. All of the modern movements tend to oscillate between periods of economic stability (or excess) and decline.

    • Seb Neerman

      I don’t think they ignore it. It’s simply ignorance. And yes, of course flat design is a trend. Daft.

  • JeromeR

    Here’s a related post about “Modernism” and “flat design” that complements this post nicely by explaining more about why the big players have gone Modernist, how to do it successfully, and—when it fails—why flat design can fail. http://fivesketches.com/modernist-design-beyond-flat-and-simple/

  • PSD to Responsive

    I feel that flat design is the next logical step in the evolution of design. This post talks about how and why the transition between skeuomorphism and flat design happened. http://www.psdtoresponsivehtml5.com/transition-skeuomorphic-flat-design-happened/

  • http://www.operion.com.my/ Jim Watsonk

    Interesting collection of unique design styles. Effective way to express and communicate a brand. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.boston-technology.com/ Suparna Rao

    Flat design is a refreshing change from the bells and whistles that came with skeuomorphism. I don’t think we need visual clues anymore while making our way through smartphone functionality.

  • Rick Kreuk

    No way flat design is here to stay. One day people will realize realism in applications worked, while flat design doesn’t.

  • Webarkitekt

    I will simply say, look how the print design is done, this is the future of the web.