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:
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.
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.
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.
-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.