The Flap Over Flat Design

Lately I’ve been seeing many articles talking about flat design. It was not totally clear from the articles what flat design was. It wasn’t clear why we needed to talk about it as the latest hot thing. So I did a little research. Here’s what I learned.

Most articles talk about flat design as opposed to skeuomorphic design. Skeuomorphism is an attempt to give web page elements qualities they might have in real life. For example, a button might have a drop shadow so it looks like a real-life button. Think Apple design elements with drop shadows, gradients, rounded corners. You can see an example in this calculator keyboard from Apple.

Apple calculator

On the other hand, flat design gets rid of those beveled edges, gradients, shadows, and reflections. The look of Windows 8 is a good example of flat design.

Windows 8

I don’t want to paint this design discussion as a Mac vs. Windows thing. Web sites are using what they are identifying as flat design. Google+ uses it. There’s even one of those showcase design sites where you can look at the latest in flat designs. It’s called – what else – Flat Design.

On the Usabilla blog, they wrote Flat Design: Trend or Revolution? They argue there that flat designs are honest, quick, usable, and scalable. I don’t see any evidence that flat design is more honest, quick, usable and scalable than any other kind of design, but that’s their checklist. In the end, however, Usabilla does not come out and boldly say that flat design is better or more usable.

Reading and researching this topic has been interesting in terms of trying to parse out the facts from the slant and bias. For example, Gizmodo describes skeuomorphism as overwrought trickery while describing flat design as modern and simple.

The article that got me started reading on the topic of flat design is The Interview about flat design that wasn’t cool enough for the media by Michael Flarup. It’s an interview he did for Wired that never made it into the magazine so he published it himself. He, very sensibly in my opinion, says that the debate about flat vs. skeu is a false one.

I think I speak for a sizable amount of the design community when I say that we’re all a bit tired of this debate. One isn’t better than the other, no more than a hammer is better than a screwdriver. A flat minimalistic design, and a rich ‘themed’ design are both tools in a designers toolbox. They are different approaches and they each come with their own pros and cons. Both can work fantastically in the right context.

To me, describing the two styles as 3-D and 2-D makes more sense than using terms like skeuomorphism and flat. But such basic terminology might not generate as much discussion.

What did I learn from this little research project? I learned about the 2 dimensional flat design trend (I’ll label it a trend, even though Usabilla wouldn’t). I understand what the term means now.

Did I learn anything about what makes good design, or the best type of design? No. Flat design is just another type of design. Use it if it makes sense for you. But don’t think you have to because there are 631,000,000 mentions about it on Google.

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