Flat Design and Flat Aspirations

What fascinates me about the flat vs. skeumorphic detabe is the amount of passion attached to the concept flat design. Sure, the internet is known for heated, passionate debates. But there’s something else that makes people crazy about flat design, and I think it’s hope.

The allure of flat design is in the promise of a visual treatment that makes designs more usable, and products more successful. It’s a movement away from something we feel is holding us back. We’ve grown tired of denim pockets and wood boards and we want to see better interfaces. We want apps and websites and digital interfaces that work well, make us us happy, and showcase the best design can accomplish. But flat design isn’t a recipe for good design, it’s just a different visual approach to interfaces. One that helps avoid unnecessary clutter in one design, but over-abstracts another design into a usability problem.

In reality, either approach could ruin a product. In flat design, buttons that don’t look like buttons are confusing people. Hyperlinks that are masquerading as regular text are throwing users off. With the so-called skeumorphic approach, angry designers are protesting against unrealistic leather-bound stitching and unnecessary typewriters*. This is all true if we look at the extreme sides of the spectrum.

Many of the examples we see in the flat vs. skeumorphic debate represent the worst of both worlds. Reading these conversations and the subsequent comment threads provides a decent list of what not do when attempting good design. What’s missing in these discussions is an approach to making design good.

Good design is less about spotting trends and more about going back to basics. When we run a design critique at our studio, the question of “is this design flat enough?” never arises. We talk about what we’re trying to solve, for whom, and why our ideas work in that context. My favourite collection of design resources right now is the Hack Design series. It features a variety of articles on central design topics like typography, user experience, graphic design, and mobile.

Strong building blocks empower us to build the design that’s best suited for our situation. They help us determine when to stay away from too many gradients and when a strong visual metaphor may work best. Likewise, the look and feel should depend on the brand message and has to be well executed according to well thought-out design principles.

No design approach is right for every project. Choosing which style to use should depend on the purpose of the project and the setting in which the product will be used.

Picking sides in the grand debate of flat versus skeumorphic design is unproductive. Both approaches can make or break a product, and neither of them is ‘authentically digital.’ Screens are canvases for us to fill with purpose and meaning. And how we choose to go about this task is what matters most.

* No offence to the folks at Piffle, their apps are cool.


Further Reading

Great round-up of the debate by Sacha Grief: Flat Pixels