The World Is Flat for Now

Flat design is a beautiful thing. In the past few months, each time I come across a new “flat” site it feels fresh and new even though I’ve seen this style before and despite the fact that it’s about to become the new skeuomorphism. Still, I wonder if it will last? I suppose that’s a silly question. Of course it won’t last. The better question, perhaps, is how long will it last? I may like the new look a lot of sites are adopting but I have some lingering doubts about the trend. The idea seems to want to try to replicate something timeless but will it turn into what we now cringe at when we refer to Web 2.0 style design?

Its Cheating

Flat design seems way too easy. I resisted using it in my designs for a long time but the other day I let myself create two flat designs. One was a series of static images in Photoshop for a slideshow and the other was a two page website designed to match the slideshow. Both were surprisingly quick and easy to create. When it was all over I felt like I had cheated somehow. Design is not supposed to look that good on a first draft. Either I’m just incredibly talented or flat design is easy to replicate. I don’t think I’m all that talented so we’ll go with the latter.

Simple ingredients for flatness (or flattitude or flaticity)

To create a flat design there are just a handful of key ingredients you’ll need that never vary all that much:

  • A lot of white space
  • A large background image (landscapes are always great) that has nothing to do with your content
  • Neon colors mixed with some subdued versions of those neons
  • A sans-serif font with a 300 weight or lighter variant (Open sans, Lato, Helvetica)
  • A touch of transparency

Now put up your big background image, overlay large blocks of color on top of it, then use a really thin sans-serif font for headlines and a normal weight for paragraphs making sure that the contrast between your type and the background is borderline illegible. Your color blocks should be slightly transparent so you can see the background image behind it and your headlines and links should be neon colors.

And that’s it, you just made a flat design. And it fucking looks good! That’s the part that gets me. Anyone can do it. Now, as with all design, everyone may be able to do it but can they do it well is the important question. I’d usually agree that not doing it well would be a problem with any design style but with flat design it doesn’t seem to matter. People to seem to be incredibly forgiving even when flat designs commit cardinal design sins. This style is so captivating that it tricks people into sticking around when they would have left had the site been done in any other style.

…But it doesn’t look that good

Flat design does look good but not all that good. It can apply broadly to designs but not as broadly as any other trend… err – I mean style – of web design I’ve seen before. Flat design can often end up looking very cold and doesn’t invite you to interact and explore it. Like a doctor’s office or someone with OCD’s apartment. You look at it, it’s very pretty, but you don’t stick around to enjoy it. It’s almost like it’s very beautiful in theory but the minute you have to use it it becomes a hassle and you want your skeuomorphic iOS style designs back. They may have been gaudy but at least they were a joy to use.

Microsoft’s Windows 8 is one of those flat designs that don’t feel right. When you see it on TV or from across the room it looks like a great idea. You want it. Same with WindowsPhone. The problems begin when you pick them up and begin to use them. Suddenly you feel like everything is too spread out and that the UI is actually hiding information you want to see and making itself harder to use for the sake of design. A lot of flat design.

I’m still ambivalent about flat design. I like a lot of what I see but for as much as I like I seem to be finding just as much that I don’t. My own designs lately have primarily walked the line between flat and whatever not-flat is (it isn’t skeuomorphism in my case). I’ve found that rarely does one want to go full flat for a design. Instead a good approach is to begin flat and then add depth from there or you run the risk of your design looking cold, unapproachable, or even boring. Flat design doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere any time soon but I’m still not convinced of its staying power over the long haul.

Design, Web design

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