Flat Design – simplifying UI design or losing a sense of reality?

Jun 12, 2020

Flat Design is an ever-increasing trend in the design world – the web and UI (User Interface) design world, especially. ‘Flat’ design has exploded into our technology-centered world at an alarming rate, with big companies now incorporating the simplistic, almost minimalist look and feel to their web and UI elements.

The time of 3D-esque app icons and delightfully real-world user interfaces is now behind us, being replaced with ultra simple, flat icons and shapes. Apple’s has gone with an all-flat design since iOS7. Other big boys in the tech world such as Microsoft have also replaced a multitude of realistic elements with simplified shapes and icons.

What is ‘Flat Design’?

Flat design is a philosophy, the ideals being that everything a user comes into contact with gets simplified, whether that be your iPhone’s calculator, your computer’s desktop, or your tablet’s news app. Functionality is the key element, with everything having a real sense of clarity and a no-nonsense design approach.

Flat design involves stripping UIs of their clutter. This includes drop-shadows, gradients, reflections and bevelled edges – in fact, anything that makes the design element seem more ‘realistic’ is dropped. This provides the user with an ultra clean, functional interface.

Why choose Flat over Skeuomorphic?

This is a tricky one, as the industry has been down the path of Skeuomorphic design for quite a number of years now. And, well… it works great. Doesn’t it?

Don’t you love how your phone’s calculator looks like the analogue calculator sat on your desk? Or how the library of books on your iPad looks like a real bookshelf? Well, they all (currently) use trickery and design tools to make your brain think that the buttons you’re pressing are 3D, that they have some degree of tactility.

Pros of Skeuomorphism
– It makes buttons and other call-to-action functions more tactile
– It can make a user feel more at home with their apps
– There is a comfort in feeling that your apps and other UI elements look like the real-world objects
– It makes clear that the functional elements of the UI are different from other flat graphics

Cons of Skeuomorphism
– Time-consuming icon design
– Apps can look cumbersome and over designed
– It is easy to mess up a beautiful functional app with overly designed real-world materials

Flat design does away with all of this ‘nonsense’ to take you into a flatter, less ‘real’ environment where all your apps and other web elements are simple solid shapes and typography. In terms of information architecture and user experience, this is where a problem might arise. Unless a button looks like a button, what’s to stop it merging in with the other flat graphics on a web page?

Pros of Flat Design
– Ultimately functional, easy to use interfaces
– Apps become simplified and less busy
– Potentially less time spent on designing the look of interfaces/apps

Cons of Flat Design
– The feel of the app can be lost, or it can feel cold and unfriendly
– A feeling that applications lose their honesty and integrity
– An active button or icon looks no different from any other flat graphic on the page

Who is doing it?

Even if you’re not an Apple product lovey, you can’t get away from seeing their Flat design on all their communications. When they first launched it a few years ago now, Apple’s iOS7 UI was the talk of the town, appearing on all the important social networks and design blogs. But they’re not the only big company to have stripped back their user interfaces and websites. Since Windows 8, Microsoft have also employed Flat design across all their technology, employing it to its full potential to create a simple, easy-to-navigate and ultimately usable interface.

Is Flat design a good evolution of UI design, or not?

For me, I love the simplicity of clean, uncluttered design, but I also think the navigation and functional elements of a site or an app need to stand out from the content. And with flat vector buttons and rectangles, I suspect we might have lost sight of that. A button that looks like a button surely can’t be a bad thing.

Call us on 01934 820854 or send us a message now to start a conversation.
David Merrifield is Managing & Creative Director of Just Us Agency.