Is Flat Design a Web Design Standard That’s Here to Stay? 10 Designers Chip In

These days, the number one thing that’s required of web designers working on anything (that’s anything) is to make sure that their creation “has this flat feel about it.” In other words, the term “flat design” has become almost synonymous with “good design.”

But is flat design just a temporary trend, or is it here to stay and we’ll be designing flat websites for years to come? Can it be, perhaps, the new standard of web design?

Let’s find out.

To help me solve this mystery, I’ve invited 10 designers and web design experts to share their input on one big question:

  • Is flat design something that’s here to stay, or will it fade to make room for another, completely new trend?

But first, let’s answer a more basic question…

What is flat design anyway?

In simple terms, setting the somewhat confusing Wikipedia definition aside, flat design is simply a design that’s stripped of any sort of impression of the third dimension. The elements are meant to appear as if they’re lying flat on a single surface. Hence the name – flat design.

In practice, this means that all stylistic tastes like shadows, gradients, glow effects, etc. are not particularly flat-design-friendly.

Here are three examples of Behance web design projects rocking the flat design style:

Watlinger

Behance project: “Watingler Agency – Web Design” by Abrar Ahmed

maleo

Behance project: “Maleo – Clean Corporate WordPress Theme” by CreAtive Web Themes

sweet

Behance project: “Colorful Flat UI Web Design” by Cristina Style

 

How flat design happened

Every fashion expert will tell you that trends come back every X years. And flat design is no different – it’s an old trend living a new youth.

The origins of flat design are dated to the 1940s and ’50s by most sources. It’s back then when something called the Swiss Style was born. It was a trend in print design that appears remarkably modern when we look at it with our fresh, 2015 eyes.

(Some examples can be found here.)

The design was heavily based on sans-serif fonts, grid layouts, good content-headline separation, and utter minimalism. Much like the characteristic elements of flat design these days.

Why flat design is here today

The fact that trends like to resurface every X years is one thing, but why right now is the era of flat design?

Looking at the answers given me by the experts, which I’m just about to share, I can see three main reasons:

  • Users becoming more savvy with how the web works.
  • The rise of mobile devices.
  • The new developments in web technologies.

Let’s go through these three one by one, and explain what is likely to follow for flat design in the near future.

Flat design vs. users

Various web interfaces have been with us for quite a while right now. For instance, things like menus, site headers, content areas, web forms, buttons, checkboxes, social media share/update buttons, and etc. People are well aware of what they do and how to work with them.

However, when those elements first appeared, no one knew what they were or how to use them. Setting the fact aside that web design as a whole was in its infancy, there was a need to somehow convey to the user how to work with all that new stuff.

For example, a menu needed to look like something that can be clicked on. An input field needed to have a label saying “input your name here,” and so on. Without that, no one would be able to figure out how to interact with the web.

These days, however, things are different. The more users know, the less we have to suggest them through design or through labels or hints/tips. Users are simply savvy enough to figure things out on their own.

And that’s where flat design comes into play.

In flat design, the minimalist approach allows only for the bare minimum of elements. And while it does rely on the user’s familiarity with certain things quite heavily, it can get away with that because the users of today can simply cope.

This is visible in some of the responses from the experts:

The secret to a flat interface is in its simplicity hidden behind simple shapes and colors of elements (roughly speaking – red for remove, green for download). Users have learned to distinguish between buttons and input elements; they do not need to add glare or artificial volume.

It seems to me that flat design is not a temporary whim of designers, it is a lasting principle and like other design concepts will continue to evolve.

Flat user interfaces are a trend that will stick around for a while; it’s difficult to say what will replace it, but it should be something unique and completely new in its approach. […]

-Sergey Shmidt, Designer at Designmodo (web design blog and WordPress themes store)

Designers have come to recognize that users know how to use digital interfaces even if they don’t mimic real-world interfaces. As a result, design in the digital realm has naturally evolved from skeuomorphic to flat, and will continue to evolve in the same manner.

-Dan Birman, UX Designer at Digital Telepathy (product and UX design company)

Flat design vs. mobile devices

The last big web design trend prior to flat design – called the skeuomorphic design – was doing quite okay right before the rise of mobile devices.

But then, quite suddenly, mobile devices became powerful enough to view the web just like a desktop computer would and also popular enough that almost anyone had a smartphone in their pocket.

Right now, mobile devices have truly taken over the web. It’s reported that for 60 percent of internet users, a mobile device is actually their primary or exclusive device for accessing the web.

This situation meant one thing for web designers – they needed to adapt and find a way to make sure that their creations can be viewed anywhere and on any device.

But that was way easier said than done. There were hundreds of different types of mobile devices, with different specs, different screens and sizes. Skeuomorphic design – with its realistically looking elements – just couldn’t handle that.

That’s when responsive design came along, and with it, the need to simplify everything heavily, but at the same time still make it look attractive. So flat design has become the solution everyone needed.

I think flat design, like most trends, partially came from certain needs. On the one hand, the realism that preceded it was getting a bit stale. But more importantly, mobile devices took off at an alarming rate and web designers, struggling to keep pace, found it incredibly hard to design realist elements into responsive designs. Flat, simple design was much more easy to manipulate for screens of all sizes. From there, usability needs like bigger input fields, larger buttons, or larger and more legible text impacted “flat design” and has made it last even longer.

I would guess flat design is here to stay so long as it best fits the requirements we, as consumers, have for usable, easy-to-consume media. But as technology progresses and flat design begins to feel more stale, we’ll start to see the pendulum swing another direction. I’m not certain what that direction will be, but I’m excited for it.

-Preston D Lee, Graphic Design Blender (helping designers build businesses)

Flat design vs. new web technologies

Lastly, let’s look into what’s been going on with web technologies as a whole and what impact it has on flat design.

Ultimately, the HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript solutions of today were the final nail in skeuomorphic design’s coffin, and what actually made flat design possible to happen.

With modern developments, it’s now possible to do much more in the source code vs. having to work with image processing tools or building animations manually. So what was previously available only to professionals skilled with tools like Photoshop, can now be achieved through good use of CSS and HTML.

Flat design isn’t a trend – it’s the norm. As web designers, we rely on technology to bring our ideas to life – constraints in tech may have been what pushed us toward skeuomorphism in the days of Web 1.0 and 2.0. Now that CSS and JavaScript are letting us use design in more interactive ways we don’t need to emulate a 3D world, instead we can rely on things like Z-Axis animations to bring depth to our digital designs.

-Cody Iddings, Sr UX Designer at Digital Telepathy

Advances in technology allow us to design in new ways. Photoshop filters, hover states, and complex key-frame animations ruled the web for years. But with the advent of mobile devices, design has become simplified to ensure cross-device compatibility. “Flat” has been a radical response to previous trends. Eventually, we will land somewhere in the middle with design that has a sort of haptic response and nods to the laws of physics.

-MK Cook, UX Designer at Digital Telepathy

What’s next for flat design?

Whether we like it or not, the idea of flat design – the idea itself of making things appear as if they’re laying flat on a single surface – is a trend. And like any trend, it’s sure to make room for other, new things at some point.

However, the general rules that make up flat design are most likely to stay with us for a longer while.

I believe flat design is not just a trend; but part of the evolution of content delivery in its simplest form, which in turn enhances the ability for us to more easily absorb the information. And for this reason, unless a new trend gives way to further improving this perception, I believe flat design (and in a larger spectrum minimalism) will be around for some time.

However, given that traditionally every 5-10 years major changes in design styles give way to new trends, I believe at some point flat design will evolve to another format.

-Payman Taei, Founder of Visme (DIY presentation and infographic online tool)

I don’t see flat design going anywhere for at least a decade, but what you will start to see is people referring to it less; in the same way that responsive design hasn’t gone away, we simply call it design.

It’s inevitable that new ideas, new aesthetics, and new solutions to new problems will continue to emerge. But flat design lends itself so well to the current technical requirements for most websites, that anything new is more likely to develop in tandem with flat design, rather than replacing it.

-Benjie Moss, Webdesigner Depot (web design blog)

In my opinion, flat design will definitely stay with us for a long time. The principle of flat design isn’t as much about the visual aspect, but more about how it works and feels. User interfaces got more complicated over the last 10 years, and flat design (or material design) is just necessary at this point in order to create a good user experience.

Of course, at some point we will start seeing new iterations and designs taking the concept of “flat” to the extreme, and this will also bring new trends and styles, but in the end, the idea of simplicity will prevail and stay basically the same.

-Ionut Neagu, ThemeIsle (WordPress themes and plugins store)

So what will happen with flat design exactly?

Well, exactly is not the right way to think about it, as it’s impossible to predict anything exactly, but there are two likely scenarios we should look into:

  • flat design evolving into a new form,
  • total change and going in an entirely different direction.

The evolution of flat design is the most probable scenario, at least in the nearest couple of years. The way flat design lets the user interact with a website will continue improving, making things even more simplistic and more minimal, but also more intuitive.

This can make various web interfaces more similar to each other, but overall, it’s hard to see this as a downside.

The first time when I saw this new style I was very confused, I was thinking, “Why? Why do we need that? Skeuomorphic design is still so beautiful!” But after a while of studying and “living” with it, I changed my mind and started to understand it…

[…] In my opinion, whatever new design trend will come next, it should inherit the simplicity from flat design. It has to be intuitive, but perhaps it’ll bring back a little touch from skeumorphic design too – maybe a more vibrant color palette and some quiet yet eye-catching visual effects.

-Sergiu Radu, eWebDesign (web design blog and newsletter)

About flat design diminishing to make room for something entirely new, well, predicting what that thing might be is a bit difficult.

However, the most likely scenario is the one that has happened many times in web design’s history already. And that is web design standards going in a whole different direction. This would mean ditching the minimalist approach, two-dimensional interfaces, and the whole flat feel, all to make room for an entirely opposite trend.

I think flat design as a trend will fade away and will be replaced with a new “fad”, but the core principles of flat design will continue to be used. We’ve seen in the past the trends in web design shift from highly glossy interfaces to realistic textured surfaces to basic solid colours, each subsequent trend being a direct opposite of the last. My guess is the next trend we’ll see will ditch the bright hues of flat design in favour of monochromatic colour schemes.

-Chris Spooner, SpoonGraphics (web design blog)

If I were to share my own personal opinion about this, I’d say that flat design is here to stay for the short term (whatever this might be… two to five years maybe). But after that, we will see yet another shift toward something entirely different. Much like it’s been going on for years now.

What do you think? Is flat design a web design standard that’s here to stay? Let us know in the comments.

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  • “Users have learned to distinguish between buttons and input elements”

    What if they don’t?

    What if we put ourselves in a bubble?

    I’d like to challenge the designers who have answered in this blogpost: go see what happens with the elderly and dare tell me you can put all users in the same bucket. That little experience may be mind-blowing I must admit.

    • I do agree that some users still don’t have a clue what’s going on with web interfaces and how to use them. But we’ll always have those users. And I don’t believe we should be making the web experience worst for the majority just because there’s a smaller group that will struggle.

      • Chris Smith says:

        Quote: “And I don’t believe we should be making the web experience worst for the majority just because there’s a smaller group that will struggle.”
        I find it funny that we are NOT allowed to discriminate against the disabled in real life but, on the web it’s a totally different way of thinking. And that is exactly what you are doing. You are saying that ‘if they can not figure it out, then they should not be using the interface. I once attended a class on web design where someone had the same stupid notion. That my blind friend should NOT be on the internet, because they believed in looks over content.
        And for me personally I am continuing to get frustrated that more and more control is being ripped away from me, because some designer THINKS that their way is better for me. I loved things like winamp and themes because I could make it look the way I WANTED it to look like. I had control. But now, resistance is futile.

    • This exactly – I think designers are taking their designs for granted – they are in a bubble. I had an epiphany watching my father try to use his new smart phone for the first time. He isn’t dumb by any means, but I had to point out the buttons and each the input fields. At each step he was like “now what” because he couldn’t distinguish these elements from the rest of the UI and it wasn’t obvious how to proceed – this was Android’s new “material design” btw, which uses a lot of flat elements (but is arguably different than “flat design”). It gave me a sudden appreciation for the gradients, drop shadows, and other design elements I’d taken for granted in more traditional desktop UI – these are useful hints that aid accessibility that we’ve sacrificed because “flat looks cool”. To really judge good design I think you have to show it to users who have never seen it before. All UI is learned, so people will catch on eventually, but my own opinion is that good UI (and good design) should be intuitive – e.g. is that flat rectangle a button?! Hell if I know, guess I’ll click to find out.

  • This is wrong thinking:
    “The more users know, the less we have to suggest them through design or through labels or hints/tips. Users are simply savvy enough to figure things out on their own.”

    It bothers me when any kind of design decisions are made around the user’s expected intelligence. Whether the user is smart or stupid is irrelevant. Good design is about respect for a user’s time. Sure people can figure out how to wade through an interface with less than obvious cues, but how can you justify stealing even milliseconds from your users? Bad design sucks the life out of humanity and flat design sucks hard. It’s nothing more than wire framing with a little added color. It’s lazy at best and criminal at its worst. When I see plain text acting like a button I hear Christopher Guest’s voice telling me “I just stole one minute of your life, how do you feel?”

    • Right on!!!

    • Exactly! I just can’t understand the reasoning of saying “yup we’re going to downgrade the usability because it’s cool and users can handle it”. It makes no sense at all. It’s like saying “we’re going to remove all signs in a metro station because passengers know it well and the corridors will look cleaner”.
      We should always consider the user experience as a priority. In the end “Users” are the end customer, not developers or any trendy IT company.
      Flat design is an ergonomic disaster, users are confused and waste a tremendous amount of time figuring out interfaces. We can only hope it will pass as soon as possible…

    • That’s it! Bravo! The ‘respect for the users time’ and for my part the intended openess to a maximum width of users – may they be first-timers or nerds from outer space.

  • But now, we’ve made the web look like a smartphone, even if it is a 27″ screen!

    • Indeed. I hate maximizing a window so that I can see more, only to have the design enlarge itself causing me to actually see less on my 24″ screen than on my 5″ phone.

  • Flat web design is like building a 600 horse power car and then removing the steering wheel and blacking out the windshield. You have all of this unbridled power just rearing to unleash it’s potential, yet you have no clear way to navigate or any clue of where you want to go. Read this article: https://tackk.com/why-flat-design-will-die

    They don’t essentially shred the flat approach, but they do, rather implicitly, exemplify the pit falls that are sure to accompany the flat trend.

    In my own opinion, take Windows 8 as a stark example. Companies that jumped the “latest greatest” band wagon quickly learned that most end users longed for Windows 7 and elected to downgrade because no one had a damn clue what they were looking at or how to get where they wanted to go, simply based on a horrible user interface.

    I look at this way. You ever go out into the country after a heavy snow fall? If the sky is overcast and the landscape is covered in vastly a very similar color, where does one landmark end and the other begin…or can you even differentiate between anything resembling a landmark or starting point? It is known as white out or snow blindness. Shadows, differences in colors, or the ability to locate based on perspective, are lost to the fact that all things look 2-dimensional and sharing the same plane…in other words…flat. Navigation is quite simple at it’s core. You have a clear starting point, a way to chronicle milestones, and a clear path to measure progression. You also have visual cues to high light variations in depth, perception, and differences in relative location. Remove all of that, you are essentially blind. Skeuomorphism may have its place in the annuls of potential poor design lore (mainly based on the idea that more is better), but when you shift to the extreme opposite pole, are you not setting the stage for the same failures, just giving it a 2-dimensional coat of paint and labeling it a “trend” and calling it flat?

  • When college web designers graduate, they will share this information. Students must understand why some web design techniques are popular.

  • Flat design is a conspiracy by programmers who cannot do the most simple graphic designs. Or it’s a conspiracy by failed academics who needed to write a pointless thesis on skeuomorph..something or another.

  • > The secret to a flat interface is in its simplicity hidden behind simple shapes and colors of elements (roughly speaking – red for remove, green for download).

    Sounds great, only I am red-green color-blind. Those buttons will look the same to me (and many others). Also, with images instead of labels on the buttons, I will only have to remember 5-6 images in 20-30 apps/websites I use.

    By the way, to read this page (as well as many others today), I had to switch the font to Arial – just to make it readable. I know Arial looks dull, but it is readable.

    • I switched to Arial font – it’s really more readable! Thanks!
      And have somebody noticed that – modern flat design as example google material design is slower, heavier and require more computing power. Just take a look how it is realized in css, html. For describe simple object – a lot of code.

  • Chris Smith says:

    You are right ‘flat design’ is clean and new. So, I decided to employ the concept in my apartment. I got rid of all switches, outlets, sinks, toilet, tub, cupboards and closets. So now I can just stare at my 4 white walls. It may not be usable, but hey at least it LOOKS clean and new.

    If you were to submit this page to a magazine editor the way it is with a massive 22pt font and 33% white space along the edges. Would it not be rejected ?

  • All these experts talking about how great flat design is makes me think of a bunch of clueless art critics trying to explain why Jackson Pollock paintings are so awesome. Hint: I don’t think they are. As a matter of fact I think my daughter could do that with access to a large enough canvas, alot of paint and a small ladder…

  • Flat design is a major blunder. Its inceptors have failed to identify what was truly wrong with skeumorphism, and have come up with the wrong response. The problem was excess, up to a point where it distracts users from the task at hand. Now a form of distraction has taken the place of another, not improving user experience one bit. And in many instances confusing users and making things worse. As a user, I can only implore designers to stop the madness, and consider bringing back a fair measure of haptics to their interfaces. After all that’s how humans evolved over hundreds of thousands years to comprehend things and interact with the world. I think this touches our hard wiring. I do not find navigating a flat interface enjoyable at all, and tend to minimize my interactions with it. So much for engagement…

  • If flat is so good, why did Microsoft abandon the Windows 1-3.x look? That was pretty flat. But I see they are bringing it back with Windows 8 & 10. AOL was flat originally, evolving to a haptic-friendly v4-6, then going insane with 3D in v8.

  • I dont know who controls this flat design look but it needs to fucking stop! seriously waste of life, I’m tired of pulling up a website to see a fucking white piece of paper with words on it…. flat design is boring and slow, half the time you have to guess what a link is….

  • Like so many other websites and magazines, we have ‘experts’ (in colouring) droning on about how wonderful is flat design. Then we have real people (users) complaining about how fucking shite and annoying it is.
    All you developers out there: give us the choice.
    If its so wonderful why are we not allowed to ‘skin’ our operating systems, programs, apps, and all interfaces.
    If the choice was available, 99% of people would NOT choose Fucking Flat Shite.
    Yo’all wait and see…

  • Tell me if I’m completely crazy here. This my my conspiracy theory. I’ve been designing professionally for 15 years. Seen a lot of trends and fads. In regards to flat web design, when I first started designing responsively and grasping this silly “mobile first” strategy, I simply just discovered it was much easier to do less. Responsive layouts from scratch with a lot of stuff going on were quite tricky and time consuming. Early on, trying to employ styles and techniques from a previous era to this new mindset was a challenge and I recall many times saying “man this used to be easy”. Great knowledge in box models, padding, margins and percentages is a must. How often did we talk about box models back in the day? So I unintentionally started dumbing the designs down for one… my lack of experience in working with responsive design and two, to help minimize these crazy complex media queries lol, thus minimal/flat design is born. My designs all started to look the same and boring and it became increasingly difficult to build something different. I even started to feel guilty that I was not putting my best foot forward because I was shackled by this boring trend.

    So… can flat and boring partially be a natural artifact of responsive/mobile first?
    Or is it just laziness?

    Well since then, I’ve gotten comfortable with responsive design (not to be confused with stupid mobile first) and learned how to incorporate some old with the new just from a shear desire to create nicer looking stuff to try and separate from this bubble.

  • Ivan Burmistrov says:

    Here is a bibliography of research on flat design: http://flatisbad.com

    The majority of publications presented there show that flat is a harmful trend in modern UI design.

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