A few years ago the web decided it was time to grow up. Gifs, animations, shadows and Word Art were out the door. Minimalism, pastel colours, fast loading and muted designs were in. This trend became known as ‘flat design’ as the shadows and shading which once gave design elements on a website depth and a three dimensional effect started disappearing. Site’s became much more two dimensional. This was a rebellion against the previous trend of skeuomorphism – the practice of making design elements look as lifelike and three dimensional as possible. Skeuomorphism sacrificed function for superfluous aesthetic, and it was only a matter of time before developers made a stand against it. Flat design was that stand.
On the surface, this move to flat design was made for the right reasons. Simple, content focused design meant user’s eyes weren’t drawn to distracting parts of the site that had little value for the brand. In theory this would up conversions and reduce bounce rates, all the while providing a better product for the end user. Admirable indeed.
But is flat design really better, or is it more trouble than it’s worth?
Site’s that embrace flat design are nice to look at, at least initially. They embody the notion of ‘modern’. After a while however you start to notice something: they all bloody well look the same. The problem with minimalism is that it gives you less to work with: fewer design elements means fewer possible combinations and the end result is a sea of sites that all look more or less the same.
This might sound a bit contradictory considering one of the main points of utilising flat design is to make a site easier to use. That doesn’t change the fact that if used carelessly, flat design can do the opposite. The reason why lies in the use of shadows. Traditional websites and programs in general, have used shadows to highlight clickable elements on a page since the earliest days of the internet. Shading these elements gave them the appearance of a three dimensional object, elevating them above the rest of the page’s content and making it clear that they were there to be clicked. Flat design, rather recklessly, did away with this tradition. Clickable buttons no longer stood out and users had to rely on prior experience and intuition to determine which clicks would take them deeper into the site and which wouldn’t. For inexperienced computer users in particular, this made things difficult.
Trends Come and Go
Flat design is a trend, and with that comes inherent risk. While some trends make perfect sense and stay around forever, others are done largely for aesthetic reasons and simply don’t have staying power. While flat design isn’t just about looking good, the argument could be made that that is a big part of it. Since people are fickle things, tastes over appearance can change at any moment. A sea of websites might one day soon discover that they’re looking 2000 and late in a changing web landscape.
We don’t want to sound too negative. Flat design has it’s advantages: it would be foolish for any web developer today to discount it completely. That said, it’s not a perfect product and could do with some revision.
And that the good news. The next development in web design is becoming colloquially known as flat design 2.0, and many websites are embracing it over it’s superseded ancestor. Remember that trend factor we talked about? Well it turns out that flat design is already looking long in the tooth in that department.
Flat design 2.0 solves most of the inherent issues of the original version. At its heart it’s a compromise between old and new: taking the function and stripped back nature of flat design and combining it with the explicit usability of traditional web development. Flat design has embraced shadows and shading, albeit in a minimalist fashion, in order to make clickable elements more obvious once again.
The Bottom Line
Compromise is a wonderful thing. The web of 2008 was totally invested in skeuomorphism, and by 2012 it was totally invested in the antithesis – flat design. Both schools of thought had their advantages and disadvantages, and now developers are finally realising that though both have a lot to offer, neither is perfect. Compromise is key and the move to flat design 2.0 is a good one. Flat design sits among a number of web designs trends that succeeded. Curious? Read more at Web Designs that won!