What is this, flat design?
There has been a trend recently, a poor use of nomenclature amongst designers and those who aren’t really in the know; that term is ‘Flat Design‘. In its inception, the coined lingo basically captured the reduction of graphic elements that only distracted the visuals from accomplishing good communication. Graphic design or visual communication at its most simplistically understood root is the delivery method of communication in a visual medium. Which in recent times has been packaged into the term ‘design’. The word design in itself does not mean aesthetics, it is a vessel for the definition of creating a system to solve a problem in a structured method. Applying the word flat to the front of design only creates a paradox, one that suggests the very opposite of what designers are really striving for. One would not say, “I’m a flat designer” (unless they were talking about flatware or lofty homes).
Designers as a whole, disregarding the medium or parameters, create cohesive, holistic systems for which to solve problems. Whether it be a brand designer: creating a system around Nike’s new line of shoes or an interior designer: matching patterns and colors that flow between a living-room and a dining-room. These designers are creating large branching trees that relate in one way or another; it’s not about making something aesthetically pleasing, that comes last. The core foundation of a designer’s job is to take information, create a skeleton around it, and then skin that skeleton; this method is know as ‘form follows function‘.
My problem with the term flat design isn’t so much the usage of ‘design’ or the word ‘flat’. It’s the two together which combine to describe an approach to visual communication which is wrong. If it were to be coined correctly, and humoring the idea of including design in the term, it should be called honest design. In this trend designers are striving to create visuals that are more applicable to the medium at hand. For example: it doesn’t make sense to create a digital interface that mimics a knob that tries to create a 3D look when it could be solved simply with a couple of bars that represent volume. Not only does a 3D knob make the end-user have a difficult time with interaction, but it must be mimicked throughout the rest of the UI. This creates a problem. With the entire UI becoming visual metaphors, the casing/product that displays the UI conflict. Say an app presents leather texture in its user interface, I want to be able to feel that texture. When I can’t interact in that instance, when the surface of the screen doesn’t mimic the leathery feedback, the UI is no longer engaging. This of course goes back to the root of the problem, the function of the screen creating texture is not present, so the form of the UI should not have said leather graphic. This problem is being rapidly fixed with haptic surfaces and real-world metaphorical feedbacks. It’s arguable as to whether or not it should be fixed, is the technology really there for such usage (creating leather texture), or could it be put to better use from a user experience/interaction perspective?
It’s hard to say what honest is to a digital interface; maybe it’s an MS-DOS approach with green mono-spaced typography on a black background? Or a visual-friendly approach, a-la Windows 8′s metro UI, which creates a system of tiles that do little more than shift and have dynamic information inside? Whatever path is taken, every approach is going to have gaps and areas of improvement because the vast majority of users are human, and every person is different (I say the vast majority because of Cats and Ipads). Ultimately, the final approach, regardless of aesthetics is going to fail if the form does not concede to the function. I’m not saying this is a design rule, and it should be broken in some places, but not where it’s a core functionality to the product. However, for the most part it should be a key factor taken into consideration.
Adam has an extensive background in social & digital media, Flash, and design. Adam graduated from the University of Georgia...