Why Flat Design Will Die

A Designer and UX Opinion

Flat design has arrived as the preeminent stylistic trend in interface design today. From startups to news that Apple's IOS7 will be Flat, it seems this trending pattern in visual display of content will be the dominant style for the foreseeable future.  

As we at Tackk consider our design on a daily basis (both on our current and our 2.0 version of our product), we thought we'd share how two guys with different backgrounds and strengths arrived at the same conclusion:  Flat design will ultimately go the way of the glass buttons, beveled edges, reflections on images and gradients...into design fad category associated with a particular time in the web's UI lifecycle.

But first, a little on how we got there.  Tackk's Co-Founder and Head of Design Dan @danklammer and Tackk's CEO Kyle @kstalzer come from very different backgrounds. Dan is every bit the pixel-perfect design guru, a minimalist with an ability to paint a picture of elegance and simplicity with vision and precision.  Kyle has a UX/IA history, spending countless hours in previous product management roles in usability labs and running multi-variate tests observing user behavior and patterns on large and small websites.  This dichotomy [usually] provides healthy discourse in the product design process, but can make for a very interesting look behind the curtain of designing a product that promises to wow people with a ridiculously simple content creation experience.  As we thought about flat design on Tackk, we thought we'd share how we evolved through that discussion as we know many other designers are probably considering the approach for their offering.

What We Like About Flat Design

We first want to state that we both like a lot about flat design and it starts with the overall visual appeal.  There is a very calming and friendly aesthetic to most flat-designs, which is a welcome contrast to some of the previous design trends that were very stark, hectic or forced.

Secondly, we love the very philosophy behind a flat aesthetic...most notably the forced simplification. If you take your experience through a flat design exercise, it has a positive wire-framing effect that makes product design teams think about the importance of the hierarchy of information as a means to educate the user on what is most important for them to know/see/learn/click, without the crutch of just making a component standout with a distinct UI treatment. In fact the very philosophy of a design that puts equal weight on all components forces IA consideration, when that's the corner most often cut in a product design. In addition, a more in-depth and thoughtful look at the layout is required.  Components and elements need to be placed so that there is balance in the design AND in a way that's intuitive for the user.

The Downside of Flat Design

So where does it break down and why will it die? First, taking the emphasis off certain components does not help the user visually organize information at lightning speed, which is the new mobile-driven expectation of consumers and websites or apps. People don't consciously consume all the pixels we pour over in the design process. They skim, scan, and quick-flick scroll on touchscreens looking to be led down a path that makes their visit have a purpose. That purpose should be led or at least influenced by the creators - remember we're asking them to interact with our service and do something. Before flat design, small design cues like depth and shadowing allowed designers to let users know what content to notice at the quick glance they will spare.

Can this be done with flat design? Sure, by nailing the color balance and being extremely thorough in the content organization process, you can get a user to quickly orient themselves. But like most design trends, the correct application isn't the reason a great concept fails, it's when it gets in the hands of the wrong people where the flaws start to multiply. It's when amateur designers, copycats and corner-cutters decide to flatten their design but don't do the IA work required to make it work that will ultimately make it fail. And usability tests and downward trending conversion ratios will show when designers simply applied the flat design skin and didn't think through the hard stuff first.

But Can't the Same Be Said of All Design Trends?

Yes, but there's a key characteristic to flat design that we think will accelerate the end to this trend - it's unforgiving. Because you remove all the crutches of a bad design that can be overcome by visual depth, a flat design will expose a non-sensical content organization. If this is off, users will miss critical cues that they may have caught in a previous design. The outcome of this can range anywhere from annoying to the user to becoming a very costly design. Missed instructions could mean more customer service inquiries. A button on the fringe of your site might get more traffic than you intend at the expense of a button you really need users to click.

Once these issues start surfacing in large numbers or in the data, the trend will get blamed by an influential voice and the bandwagon will empty very quickly.

Is There a Smart Way Forward with Flat Design?

We actually think so, and you might have noticed while exploring Tackk that we have many flat elements in our design. The approach we settled on was to take a Flat approach to start, get the benefit of rethinking our content hierarchy and simplifying, and then add very subtle cues and depth where we want to make sure users focus their initial attention.  

While a completely Skeumorphic design can also be problematic, adding a layer of subtle but noticable skeumorphic elements to 65-85% flat design can get close to a best of both worlds scenario.  Design purists for either movement might get up in arms about that approach, but we have to always remember that we don't design products for that group.  

We think this approach can work accross the board and get the best out of the trend while still ensuring we aren't leaving our users to figure it all out without a little help.   And like any design, this will be an evolving process as we observe, test, measure and optimize.  

Whatever your stance, we'd love your input.  Leave a us a message or comment below.

Comment Stream

5 months ago
0

Great Read!

4 months ago
1

I've heard of this idea before - the "nearly flat design" ethic - and I like it. Firefox's logo has gone this way - less of the overly shiny look towards a more subtly rounded, deeper blue. More pleasing to the eye without going down the purist route.

6 days ago
0

Flat UI design will be a fad, just like the Brutalist architecture of the 1960s -- which was also initially touted as being "clean, simplistic, and modern", but was quickly criticized as being too plain, boxy, and unartistic. Of course, just as we didn't go back to the overly fancy Art Deco style of architecture, we won't go back to the overly fancy Windows Aero or early Mac OS X style, but I think within a few years, UI design will correct itself to about a 50/50 balance between the two design extremes.