Flat Design Is Like Skinny Jeans: An Interview with Jeff Veen

jeff_veen300Last week Jeff Veen, VP of Products at Adobe (and formerly of Typekit, Google, and Wired magazine), gave a talk at the Gigaom Roadmap conference in San Francisco, where he shared his thoughts on what it takes to create an innovative office culture that seamlessly blends individual autonomy and collaborative teamwork to deliver consistently inspired results.

Jeff also had a few intriguing things to say about the importance of design for the Bay Area tech startup community—including an attention-grabbing statement that “flat design is the new skinny jeans”—which he was happy to elaborate on when we caught up with him for a brief interview…

Q: So, Jeff, why is flat design like skinny jeans?

Jeff Veen: (Laughs) Well, when I first thought of that analogy I was chatting with a friend about iOS 7, which introduced a dramatic change into the whole look and feel of the mobile Apple operating system, where all of the buttons, drop shadows, and color gradients became super flat. My friend, a venture capitalist, was understandably concerned that his portfolio companies were going to have to hire new designers to figure out this new visual direction that Apple was pushing everybody in.

So I said to him, look, we’re just entering a cycle in an industry that operates a lot more like the fashion world than what we used to consider to be the slow-paced technicalities of UI design. Software is now subject to popular trends, and flat design is the new skinny jeans.

Q: Is that a good thing?

JV: To me, it’s wonderful. It means the esoteric, computery discipline that we’ve practiced for all of these years has now gone mainstream, and people are using new technologies and apps in their lives in the same way they use other things that designate their unique personal style. Still, beneath those superficial aesthetic layers, the deeper function of design remains the same.

Q: And what is the deeper function of design?

JV: Design is problem-solving. That’s all it is. Design is taking a look at a set of problems that a set of users have and a set of problems that a business has, and then matching them together to solve those problems in an innovative way. But people get confused and tend to think of design only in terms of aesthetics, such as fonts, colors, and layouts, overlooking everything that superficial layer is built upon.

Q: So aesthetics is just the top layer of design?

JV: Right. Consider how the basic function of jeans hasn’t changed at all since they were first invented, but they look different now than they did ten years ago. Everybody’s wearing skinny jeans today, but maybe a decade ago everybody had, say, boot-cuts on.

Those are the kinds of trends that happen in the fashion industry, and manufacturers of jeans have to stay on top of it because doing so connotes that they’re paying attention, that they’re up-to-date, and that they’re making products that you can trust because they look contemporary.

At the end of the day, though, the actual function of the jeans doesn’t change at all. And that’s because there are different layers of design that change at different rates, and they’re all important.

Q: Why do you feel this is especially important for tech startups to understand?

JV: I think whether you’re in a startup or an enterprise, you want software for your business that looks and feels as contemporary, intuitive, and trustable as any consumer application does. This isn’t about being “trendy.” It’s about understanding all of the layers that make up good design, and then making sure that you are paying attention to the latest fashions, up to the minute, so that your team can continue to evolve their taste in terms of the top-level aesthetics they design into an application.

Why do you want to do this? So that you can communicate to your users that you are on top of things, that you care about your product, and that you care about the experience that each one of them has.

Q: Do you have any tips for startups to bear in mind before they pitch their next potential investor?

JV: Well, I don’t think you should ever say to a VC, “We’re using flat design so you should fund us.” That’s merely an example of a current design trend; a few years from now it will be something else. But I do think that there are all of these little cues that an investor will use to decide if the startup has what it takes to make a successful product.

It’s just that among those criteria that investors look for, one that is incredibly important is gauging a team’s product sense. Is their intuition and understanding of contemporary products competitive? Are they going to succeed? How do you decide that? Seeing that they are up-to-date with the latest design trends is by no means everything, but it’s a necessary baseline. You’ve got to have that or you’re not gonna fly.