Has flat design gone too far?

By Marc Schenker Posted Dec. 23, 2014 Reading time: 5 minutes

These days, it seems, you can’t turn anywhere on the web without hearing about or directly encountering flat design in some way, shape or form. What started out as a mere design trend just a couple of years ago is now clearly a mainstream design aesthetic that’s a force to be reckoned with.

You can thank, in part, big tech companies who’ve adopted this design in their new products and services. Microsoft has gone flat in a big way, as has social networking site, Twitter. Were it not for these tech darlings’ embrace of the flat aesthetic, you probably wouldn’t be hearing about it as much as you are today.

In spite of this, if you have even a bit of healthy skepticism in you, you have to be asking yourself, “Is flat design really for real, or is it somewhat overhyped?” As is the case with every trend or fad, there simply comes a time when it gets too overexposed and, thus, excessive, which creates a warranted and overdue backlash.

In this article, we’ll go against the grain and explore the drawbacks of flat design at a time when many are still singing its praises.


Problems with affordances

Affordances are extremely important in web design. Let’s define what affordances mean: Essentially, they’re the relationships between the user and an object or icon that allow for the possibility that said user can perform an action. Flat design can make it somewhat challenging for the user to consistently understand that they’re seeing things (like buttons) which they can click on to make something happen.

Of course, that was the trade-off for dropping a design aesthetic like skeuomorphism, which made affordances more noticeable due to the use of drop shadows, gradients and other effects. Nonetheless, many users began to feel that the grandiosity of skeuomorphism—with its ornamental design structure and focus on making icons and objects appear closer to how they would in real life—was too excessive. In addition, they had a whole litany of additional complaints, too:

  • Skeuomorphic designs take up more screen space;
  • Skeuomorphic designs complicate interface design standards;
  • Skeuomorphic designs fail to accurately include numeric feedback;
  • Skeuomorphic designs only worsen the cognitive load and visual noise;
  • Skeuomorphic designs limit design creativity by restricting design to the physical likeness of objects and icons.

So after the resignation of Apple’s Scott Forstall, who led the company’s software development for the iPad and iPhone in 2012, skeuomorphism officially dropped off the radar in a big way. The guy who replaced him, Jonathan Ive, was never a big fan of skeuomorphism and advocated a simpler (read: flatter) design at Apple. And that’s how flat got its start in a more mainstream way.

However, if you think about it, it can sometimes be hard to find out where to click on a button or an icon because of the affordances problem with flat design. To illustrate this point, check out Menagerie. This otherwise excellent ecommerce site features flat “add to cart” buttons that could be confusing for the first-time e-commerce shopper. You can easily see how some novice (or just inattentive) users may not understand what to do with the calls to action.



The use of color misses the mark

Flat design’s great if you enjoy looking at a broad range of colors or have the ability to look at a broad range of colors. The bold and vibrant colors that have come to typify flat design are most definitely appealing…unless you’re colorblind. While this may seem like a trivial bone to pick, it’s actually not: According to Color Blind Awareness, a community-interest company doing non-profit work, almost 10% of the world’s population is in fact colorblind. The vast majority of colorblind people are males.

While many females won’t have difficulties appreciating flat design (only about 1 in 200 women across the world are colorblind), a significant chunk of the male browsing demographic won’t even be able to appreciate the bold and striking use of color in flat design. Since this design aesthetic relies so much on color, it creates a greater problem in this regard than any other design technique.

You can see why flat design’s over-reliance on color can create huge problems for colorblind users. For one thing, color contrast is frequently used to indicate clickable areas, like calls to action, which are going to go unnoticed by those who can’t see color. For these people, the skeuomorphic technique of over-reliance on 3D indicators—like drop shadows and gradients, for instance—would be more helpful and effective.

In addition, designers going flat have to take extra precautions when designing…if they want to include colorblind people in the mix. They have to understand that some color combinations—like red and blue, yellow and blue—are usually easier for those stricken with colorblindness. As such, this will ultimately prove limiting from a design standpoint, and…how many designers would even be willing to show this consideration for only 10% of the world’s population?

More power to those few designers who would go the extra effort for the colorblind community, but when a relatively small demographic (a minority) has a problem with a particular design, then it usually will take widespread, public pressure to force changes. I don’t see that happening anytime soon for the colorblind community on the web, though.


An increasing lack of creativity

The thing about flat design is that it’s becoming so popular now that it seems like almost everyone’s website features elements of the style. When a trend gets so mainstream that many companies and even newspaper sites are copying it, that tends to stifle and ultimately kill creativity. This development is ironic because one of the biggest arguments that proponents of flat had going for them was that skeuomorphism was limiting creativity due to its style.

For instance, check out designer Paul Yeaton’s website. This flat design features include large typography, a rectangular call to action button, and a white-on-dark background contrast and color scheme.


Now look at the website of HARBR, a digital agency. It features large typography, a rectangular call to action button…and a white-on-dark background contrast and color scheme, too!


Alright, how about the website of Whole & Simply, another digital agency? Surely, this one has to be a little different. Okay, it’s got large typography, a rectangular call to action button… and a white-on-dark background contrast and color scheme. Hey, wait a second here!


As you can see, when too many companies and brands begin to rely on flat design for their websites, it gets harder and harder to really appreciate this approach to design. After all, when it’s nearly everywhere, that turns into overexposure; and when something’s overexposed, it tends to lose the appeal that originally catapulted it to popularity.


Flat design, too much?

When flat design was still fresh a couple of years ago, it was easy to believe that it was a breath of fresh air. After all, at the time, it was. It ushered in a design aesthetic that was based on minimalism and the rejection of everything that was excessive and bloated. Since it’s gotten so popular, though, it’s almost like it has become what it was supposed to get rid of.

Of course, that’s not to say that flat design is anywhere near as overdone as skeuomorphism was a few years ago. Rather, it’s approaching levels of overexposure that can create a backlash in users, some of whom were initially quite enthusiastic about flat design.

On top of that, flat design does have some functional problems, to be sure. Affordances get tricky, especially when dealing with call to action buttons and icons. That doesn’t help the user experience in some cases. Although flat also espouses the use of bright and bold colors, that’s problematic for about 10% of the people on the planet. Surely they deserve a good user experience too? Finally, there’s a lack of creativity with flat websites that’s getting too painfully obvious to ignore much longer.

Yeah, flat is large and in charge right now, but for how much longer? It’s very probable that, in a few years, we’ll all be focusing on something bigger and better that’s come along by then. Hey, that’s the cycle of trends, after all.