Decrypting Flat Design – A Progressive Trend or a Passing Fad – Series 1

Flat Design – An Introduction

Flat Design or Flat UI, one of the most discussed web designing trends of 2013 has evoked mixed reactions and curiosity amongst web developers – to the extent of raising a debate ‘Is flat the new real’? Until now, web designers have been meticulously trying to create designs that looked and felt more real – or you can say designs with dimensions. So what exactly does flat design refer to?

Well, I’m sure everyone here into the world of web designing are aware of it. However, let me just briefly discuss the same for my amateur designer friends and all enthusiasts willing to explore more. Flat design, just as the name indicates can be defined by the flatness of its style. Here the basic idea is to create a design style that is two-dimensional – sans any additional elements (given to create depth or a 3D effect) such as shadows, bevels, textures and gradients, while maintaining to keep intact every functionality that a regular interface offers.

Flat vs. Skeuomorphic design: Is simplicity the new ‘cool’

As Flat design makes its way into the web design scenario as an emerging trend, skeuomorphic design enthusiasts are wondering if the new design trend will feed the user expectations of appreciating things closer to reality (the reason 3D art form came into existence) and maintain UX.

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Fig: A graphic representation of Flat Design; (left) vs. Skeuomorphic design (right)

Besides managing to stay in the headlines, flat designs have even generated a loyal following of designers who have been tempted to implement this trend in some of their work with an intricate mix of simplicity, clarity, and honesty of materials in user interfaces. But isn’t that a tough job to create flat design and instill the ‘element of reality’ in them?

On the other hand, skeuomorphic designs is all about visual gimmicks where digital elements are designed to appear like something from the physical world, or in other words ‘real’. It is more about the use of visual details, shadows, textures and ornamentation to make something look like another.

However, with prominent entities (like Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc.) endorsing flat designs in their latest user interfaces, Flat design is increasingly creating its space in the web design world as the new ‘Cool’. Nonetheless, at the same time it is also a new challenge for the designers considering the finesse you need to put into your designs for defining the main actions and elements, in the absence of integrating ornamentations and effects.

The Significance of Flat Design


‘Style’ and ‘functionality’ are two key components in designing, which in spite of being poles apart makes for great user interface if amalgamated. However as flat design concept gains momentum, those advocating flat design raise their support for GUIs stressing on functionality before style. This means doing away with gradients, soft edges, beveled edges, reflections and shadows – so as to create a user experience that explores the strength of digital interfaces; rather than restraining the user to the precincts of the much accustomed analog world.

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Flat design representation. (Image credit: Fiordilattegelato.com)

One of the basic parameters of flat web design is that it relies on parallax scrolling and visual clarity for communication – rarely demonstrating dimensionality, shadows, or textures into the equation. It mainly comprises of simple ‘flat’ (2D) patterns with more of single color sans texture and shades. One of the limitations of flat designs is that it cannot be appropriate for every project – mainly ones that call for demonstrating realism or artistic effects in design. So, it is important that you try to conceive visually what you are actually trying to communicate and if that will fit as a flat design.

The Story behind…

As we discuss, Flat design trends, lets me throw light on the interesting evolution story of it. The term “Flat Design” was coined and popularized by Allan Grinshtein from LayerVault.com. Grinshtein has referred to flat designs as “minimalistic interface”, which can be best understood to its function when compared to a more complex and ornamental design.

Flat design patterns are primarily available in 5 characteristics – no extra effects, simplicity in design and UI elements, a focus on clear typography, vibrancy in color and an inclusive restrained approach.

Flat Design: Celebrate the Abstractness of the Digital Web

As skeuomorphic design dominated the last few years in web design trends, offering infinite designing options (sometimes even momentarily making us forget the real-life counterparts); flat design approach can be considered to be an attempt to celebrate the unique, vintage and abstract nature of the web, which we almost are on the verge of forgetting.

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So, here in the above screenshots you can see a representation of skeuomorphic design (left) from Find My Friends app, which is designed with an attempt to emanate realism, while on the other hand on the right you can see a ‘flat design’ at Windows 8 with a two dimensional effect.

Flat web design is about Simplicity

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Fig: Simplicity in color, design and content is at the core of Flat design (Image: Wistia.com)

Flat web design is more about simplicity in design presentation, where 2-dimensional nature of screen design is accredited, without making any attempt to blend any 3-dimensional effects or create any virtual effect for the user to give a realistic impression that appears to be anything other than a flat screen.

One of the key identification of flat design is that it is devoid of any 3-D effects, gradients, shadows, reflections, patterns or anything that imitates real-world elements. Flat designs refers to a simplistic representation of colors, typography, a lot of empty space, and a rigid grid system for a flawless and usable interface.

Flat web design looks simple, yet trendy

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Fig: Pinterest makes use of a flat design with assortment of colors and a lot of white space.

Simplicity is the new trend in web design. Flat design is more about using bright colors, clear typography and lots of empty space with emphasis on the subject. However, just like I said earlier, anything that is ‘in trend’ might not be the right fit for your business unless it justifies it. So pick a trend, just like you would pick fashion – one that suits your style. Also, it matters to understand how your target audience will reciprocate the idea of flat design for your website.

Flat web design is about Usability

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Fig: This image from Layervault.com depicts web design usability, while keeping the design elements to the minimum.

Flat design enthusiasts while endorsing this simple and minimalistic design trend, stresses on usability as a key component for entities choosing to shift loyalty to flat design. One of the basic idea of minimalistic flat design is to eliminate all distracting design elements and focus on the usability factor that involves content and your users’ goals – using visual elements like vibrant color, clear typography, etc.

Flat web design is about Efficiency

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Fiordilattegelato.com’s flat design convinces through a flat and simplistic design – allowing you to know what you are getting.

Just as you see in the above image, flat web design is about efficiency; and how you can offer your users quick solution or efficient service so as to help them improve usability and take informed decision quickly. This can prove to be a crucial factor in improving conversions if applied strategically.

Flat web design is scalable

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Image: Microsoft Windows 8

Flat design is highly scalable considering the fact that it is in perfect tune to the recent design trend of responsive design. Also with the prevalence of mobile internet, the scalability of flat design is sustainable considering the fact that flat design elements like color and typography can easily adapt to smaller screens than other design effects and realistic images.

Usability: Where should Flat Designs be used

This is a very important aspect to be considered before choosing to use flat design. Basically, flat design is a great choice if you are to create a light and minimalistic interface like designing a portfolio, or a startup site. However, it might not be a good idea if in case you are trying to create a complex design structure like you want to create a website for fashion, children or restaurant.

Similarly, in case you are designing a gaming website; the usability factor demands the web design to be flashy, colorful, and animated – complete with graphics and effects- in trend with the target audience’s expected response.

However, one aspect that needs to clarified at the onset is that usability is ‘always’ more important than looks. Ensure that your target audience is ready to accept the concept of flat design for your website. One viable way is to create mockup designs or prototypes and test usability with real people to ensure that your design work achieves its objective.

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Synopsis

More recently, flat designs are found to be slowly and steadily gaining momentum, thanks to pioneering industry leaders like Apple, Google and most prominently Microsoft, which has given flat designs an entirely new recognition with the advent of Windows 8 and now Windows 8.1.

While many designers are getting inspired and following suit, questions are raised as to whether Flat Design will manage to sustain the craze for its ‘raw and rustic’ flavor of simplicity? Look out for the continuing series to the comprehensive world of Flat Design as we delve deeper into understanding the more aspects of Flat Design and how you can implement it in your website to generate improved ROI.

Author Bio:

Ellis is a digital marketing strategist at VITEB. He is passionate about online marketing & web usability. He is associated with leading web & development company having expertise in PHP Development and Magento Development in India. Follow us on Twitter @viteb.

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