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April 28, 2016 /UX/UI Design /

Experts Weigh In: Is Flat Design Making The Web Boring?

Flat design is everywhere: from your neighbor’s blog to your grocery store’s website. The trend rejects real life textures and flashy animations, and instead, we get simple shapes, colors, and a distinctly ‘digital’ look. But in a world where web designers are capable of much more complex design, is this simplicity trend simply boring? We asked experts from across the globe what they think and their opinions are definitely split:

Jesse Smith, UX Designer in Residence, General Assembly

Jesse Smith 2

Flat design is not inherently boring, even if it feels that way right now, it’s honestly something worse.

When smartphones first took off, the virtual world was still so new to consumers that websites and apps were designed with visual clues that mimicked their parallels in the real world, aka ‘skeuomorphism.’ Digital buttons were shaded to look three-dimensional so people would know to ‘push’ them. However, the emergence of virtual conventions gave designers the freedom to move away from those signifiers. When flat design first started emerging, it was praised as ‘clean’ and ’fresh.’ Of course, now that everything is flat, the web feels like a relatively sparse, boring place.

Fortunately, the pendulum of design is slowly swinging away from flat, although it’s unlikely we’ll ever return to a notepad app that looks like an actual yellow legal pad. Now that user-centered design is becoming more commonplace, the next trend, whatever it may be, will hopefully find a happy balance between beauty and utility.

John Ince, Founder & Chief Technical Officer, Project Peach

John Ince

We firmly believe that form follows function, the data is the starting point of design and this data fuels the user interface (UI) if presented correctly.  This enhances the data and the user experience (UX).  If the design is simple to follow and enhances user understanding then this is good thing and can be thought of as creativity in itself.

Flat design came into popularity due to familiarization with the systems and products we now see. As we move forward with a product it becomes familiar: our knowledge is there and graphic tools are no longer required to aid our use, then and only then can a more flat design be used.

So to us, a totally flat design is an indicator of familiarity which is a result from a lack of innovation!  Flat design is by definition boring, but really how much has a static website changed since the 1990s?

Kristen Spencer, Instructor, HackerYou

Kristen Spencer

From a development perspective flat design is the most attractive solution to our current problem: providing a consistent user experience across devices. We are no longer able to know what our canvas is, so our objective is to build a site that looks just as good on any size screen, in any browser, with any type of connection. Since flat design is usually very simple and often grid-based, building a responsive web experience becomes much easier.

The trend also forces designers to focus more on the content and usability of the website, which is ultimately the most important part. Often, I find sites that attempt to think outside the box do so at the expense of usability: rejecting conventional design patterns can lead to frustration on the user’s end of things. If I can’t figure out how to quickly get to the information I want, I don’t care how ‘cutting edge’ the site’s design is!

Cathal O’Kane, Interaction Designer, Lexmark, and Freelance Designer

Cathal O'Kane

I find the use of flat design is helping the web industry create more websites with better content, better interaction, and a better environment to develop upon. The buzzwords of flat design today are clean, simple, minimal, space, easy, subtle; but with flat design I simply feel these words are a reflection of better UX being created in light of flat design practices.

The big advantage of flat design is that it gives web developers a better insight to the essence of what UI & UX Designers are working towards in creating a more usable website. Diverting away from animation, gifs, gradients, texture, pattern will give more light and focus to content, navigation, and the user.

In my design process flat design is at the heart of all my work, from the stages of low-fidelity prototyping to full development of a solution. I feel flat design is making websites more user-centered without even knowing it and that is a great thing.

Alex Koplin, UX Design Immersive Instructor, General Assembly

Alex Koplin

Flat design is often considered a response to skeuomorphism: the gaudy, felt-covered, leather-bound aesthetic that overstayed its welcome after folks had grown accustomed to doing everything on mobile devices.

When the first iPhone was introduced, mobile app designers, following Apple’s lead, referenced familiar analogs from everyday life in order to make novel interactions more approachable. It was fun to use, it looked pretty, and we were still getting used to the convenience factor. But as time went on, those metaphors grew stale. Companies implemented designs eschewing usability principles in pursuit of trends they barely understood, and users began to voice their frustrations. In response, designers seemed to migrate to the opposite end of the spectrum.

As with so many things in life, the ideal answer isn’t black or white but somewhere in between, balancing the appropriate metaphors and pleasant aesthetics of skeuomorphism with an approach that puts content first and avoids visual clutter.

UX/UI Design

Join the discussion

  • By Ken - 7:16 PM on April 28, 2016  

    I am beginning a process of pure SVG interface design based on Material Cards and the like. I believe this “balance” you refer to can be achieved with flat design coupled with image tracing, shadow, elevations, proper transparency and gradients.

  • By Vicky Baxter - 10:08 AM on April 29, 2016  

    The problem with all the above opinions are that they are opinions.
    I have enough opinions of my own, thank you very much, I need evidence and statistics. Hasn’t anyone done a survey to see what users actually think, rather than what designers think they think?

  • By Ivan Burmistrov - 12:09 PM on April 29, 2016  

    Wrong question asked to wrong “experts”. The main problem with flat design is that it is terribly unusable, not that “boring”.

  • By Wheels Of Italy - 1:13 PM on April 29, 2016  

    There is a true generation gap…and it’s getting bigger!

    The gap of running websites with a bunch of cool stuff (‘flat’ or not) has made a tech/age accessibility online gap huge and it’s getting progressively bigger! If 50% of people are using their smart phone, pads or what ever mobile device, we have to remember that this 50% is generally >50 years of age and home computers, laptops are <40 years of age (of course there is crossover). Most the $$ are with people 50 years and older and there is literately NO focus on this market.
    As designers (like John pointed out) we have to remember that form follows function but this is only a small part of the whole. The other is access leads all! If people don't use super duper smart phones/pads and are running the average internet connection (31 megabits per second) but eCommerce websites, for example, have increased in complexity and capability 30X! This isn't just the WebSite.com's fault but all the other "hidden" gems that are running in the background placed there by it widget happy people or third party "have to have" data mongers.
    We can only keep the websites as fast as possible, hence the main reason for the introduction of flat design which we were made to swallow as the new "Paris/Milano fashion for the season". It's time that all the 80% of bandwidth sucking technology start to belly up and become more efficient so we can get back to more creative and unique designing which will put UX at the forefront and UI will follow.

    Just my 2 cents… Ciao!

  • By James Brocklehurst - 2:15 PM on April 29, 2016  

    If you ask a group of instructors, interaction/UX designers and technical instructors their opinion on the visual design of interface elements, then surprise! they’ll say “it probably doesn’t matter that much – as long as things function and are useable”.

    Including the views of graphic designers in this list may have made for more balanced reporting.

  • By PeteW - 6:07 PM on May 2, 2016  

    From a user.
    Flat design is the most boring and bland episode in the history of the computer and graphics industry, but since I’m just a user, you probably don’t care. Just can’t wait until it disappears into oblivion. Bet, it has nothing to do with minimalism either.

    • By AlanB - 11:23 AM on July 6, 2016  

      As a full-stack Web developer and graphic designer, with a lot of experience in UX (nearly two decades of experience overall) if I want a quick, cheap project I’ll shoot for minimalism. It’s easy flipping a toilet over and calling it art. Very easy, trendy, bold, risky, and whatever buzzword that now excuses gutter trash for art.

      Minimalism is also the wet dream of el cheapo businessmen throwing poop at the wall to see what generates a buck.

      Here’s reality: combining a ‘great look’ with a great ‘ux experience’ that works great across multiple devices requires work and talent. A completely flat, minimalist approach is a shortcut that more often than not sacrifices a bit of ux to achieve a consistent, non-hideous and non-breaking website that loads decently fast on all devices.

      Maybe the technical side needs a bit of ‘minimalism’ too?