Definitions:

Flat design is a minimalist UI design genre, or design language, currently used in various graphical user interfaces (such as Web sites or Web applications).  More>>

A skeuomorph /ˈskjuːəmɔrf/ is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues from structures that were necessary in the original. For example a software calendar that imitates the appearance of binding on a paper desk calendar. More>>

I know I’m a little late to the table on this (Fast Company wrote about it here and here) but as I see companies “doubling down” on this design language (think Windows 10 and iOS9) I want to give three reasons why I think the shine on flat design will eventually fade.

  1. Flat Design was a initially introduced as a “product differentiator” – When Windows came out with Windows 8 in 2012, the radical flat design look was new and exciting and there was a lot of buzz. Apple legitimized the idea in 2013, incorporated flat design into iOS7. Since then, everybody and their brother has jumped on the bandwagon and skeuomorphism was declared dead.

    When “everyone is doing it”, someone is going to look for a way to differentiate away from flat design.

  2. Flat Design only taps one artistic tool – When it comes to getting the best, you need to draw from the largest talent pool. Flat design really only taps the expertise of vector designers.

    “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”  – Abraham Maslow

    You can ignore the entire range of artistic design tools for only so long, before someone gets a clue that maybe other artistic disciplines can offer some good ideas to your user interface.

  3. The higher the pixel resolution, the more the eye will appreciate visual complexity – I recently heard the quote “God does not design in straight lines.” Our creator gave us an amazing capacity for appreciating complexity. Flat design is nothing but perfectly straight lines, elegant curves and perfectly proportioned icons. The amount of detail in nature is amazing. The closer in you zoom, the more complex things get.

    As we move from retina display, to 4K and beyond (think virtual reality and the Oculus Rift), I predict the trend will be back to more texture and realism. 

I’m not saying, flat design doesn’t have it’s place…or that some companies aren’t doing a good job with it. In fact, as backgrounds and virtual worlds get more textured and complex, a clean flat white UI would stand out nicely. In the mean time, the pendulum has swung too far toward flat design, and will eventually swing the other way.

Case in point:

May I introduce you to the Apple Watch…skeuomorphism on steriods.

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2 thoughts on “Why Flat Design Will Fail

  1. Bruce,

    Great post, as always. I must take some exception to your statement that so-called ‘Flat Design’ will fail, however. Flat Design is nothing more than a return to the simplicity and clean composition that past movements like Bauhaus and Minimalism brought us before. In so much as Flat Design is a current popular design movement, and as all design movements eventually ‘fail’ (read: fade away to return later), it WILL fail. But I don’t think that this is due to any failing on the part of Flat Design itself; rather, it is simply a typical characteristic of any design movement.

    On the  Watch, I’d like to point out that there are several faces that do NOT incorporate skeumorphism, so it doesn’t make the best case in point. Especially since the watch is a part of a new category of devices in which UI currently needs to, on some level, reflect what watch owners are accustomed to, rather than only offering them a stark representation of it.

    One last point – I was working for a friend in graphic design some time ago, helping him develop some print and online materials that would lay out the vision for his company. We were working on developing some very clean and simple iconography to use in the materials – I admit I was inspired by the then brand new icons Adobe had released for the Creative Suite software. They were basic squares of color with subtle gradation, interrupted only by two letters in white that represented the software in question. These icons have persisted to today, albeit without the gradients, but at the time I told my friend that I could see this look becoming the new standard for visual design in the near future.

    It did, and that was 2002. So if ‘Flat Design’ is about to make a graceful exit, I don’t think it’s overstayed its welcome – it’s been 13 years, after all.

    Cheers!

    • Mike, thanks for the comments. You know I like provocative titles : ) Design trends are like hemlines, they go up and down as the years go by, each designer thinking they’re bringing something “new” to the table. In the same way bellbottoms “failed”, someday ( hopefully not soon) they will be back in fashion. My point is that skumorphism isn’t dead, won’t die…and will pendulum swing its way back. My bet, sooner rather thad later.

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