With the release of iOS7 just around the corner, clamor over the changes Jony Ive will institute is growing. The general consensus—on this site and elsewhere—is that Apple is about to get a flat makeover. But for the uninitiated, “flat design” can be a confusing term. So let’s talk it out, shall we?
Flat design is shorthand for a design philosophy...
Think about your computer’s desktop. Or your iPhone’s calculator. Or your iPad’s newstand. Those things are designed to sound, and more importantly look, just like the real-life analogues they’re named after. Do we really need all of those visual cues and extra details? People who advocate for flat design don’t think so.
…that argues for simplicity, clarity, and honesty of materials in user interfaces...
Instead, flat advocates (flatvocates?) argue that GUIs—graphical user interfaces—should eschew style for functionality. That means getting rid of beveled edges, gradients, shadows, and reflections, as well as creating a user experience that plays to the strengths of digital interfaces, rather than limiting the user to the confines of the familiar analog world. In web design as well, "flat" pages rarely introduce dimensionality, shadows, or textures into the equation, relying instead on parallax scrolling and visual clarity to communicate.
A great example of flat design is Google Now, which uses a card-like system to display information brackets. Rather than ghettoizing information inside of static icons, Now displays data on a standard-sized card that's easy to read and easy to swipe away. Another example? Windows 8, descended from Microsoft's Metro design language, which values typography—or the delivery of information—over graphics that help the user understand what type of content they're reading.
…usually couched as a reaction to the problems of skeuomorphic design...
To understand flat design, you have to understand the thing it’s revolting against: skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism boils down to visual trickery, or the use of details and ornamentation to make one thing look like another. In architecture, false facades are skeuomorphic. In car design, fake wood panelling is. Skeuomorphism in UI design usually refers to a digital element designed to look like something from the physical world. That can mean anything from Pinterest’s “pin board” to the rich leather stitching that boarders Find My Friends.
Examples of skeuomorphic design.
...which uses gradients, textures, and other details to make digital objects look “real.”
Skeuomorphism in digital space dates back to the early 1980s. For example, Apple’s first consumer GUI, from 1984, introduced the concept of a “desktop” and icons that looked like folders and pieces of paper. Back then computer interfaces were a totally foreign concept to most users, which made skeuomorphism a valuable tool. It let designers create visual metaphors between old, familiar objects (a manilla file folder) and a new, confusing tool (a digital file). Skeuomorphs helped us learn.
An Apple Lisa desktop in 1984, image via.
But as personal computers became ubiquitous, fewer and fewer people needed those visual cues to understand the function of an icon or button. Skeuomorphism became an overwrought style—a kind of digital Potemkin that cluttered screens and overburdened the user with unnecessary details. And so it became a pariah for a new generation of designers—most of whom don’t remember a world without computers.
This should all sound pretty familiar. Modernists have argued these same basic ideas since the turn of the last century: don’t add extraneous details that don’t support functionality. Do be honest about materials and structure. Don’t create a fake front just to make users feel safe. It’s the same basic war cry of every modern designer since Le Corbusier came screaming into the world. In a way, “flat design” isn’t anything new—it’s just the contemporary shorthand for modernism with a capital “M.”
And what’s after flat?
Though the world is definitely going flat, it won’t be flat forever. We can glean where UI and UX are going, after flat design runs its course, by looking at the last century—during which each wave of modernism revolted against the one that had came before. For example, after the strict modernism of the Bauhaus and the International Style took the world by storm in the 1930s, a second generation of designers introduced the concept of Critical Regionalism into the discussion, arguing that one-size-fits-all credo of early modernists was sort of... reductive. It’s likely that the same thing will happen with interface design. After radical flatness, we’ll probably see designers carefully reintroduce dimensionality where it’s really needed.
But that’s all a few years down the line. For now, we’ll wait and see whether Jony Ive takes the flat design bait, or if he revolts—in which case, things are about to get a lot more interesting.