The "fad" of flat design?

There’s been a lot of press these days surrounding Jony Ive, from Apple, bringing flat design to iOS 7. He’s had a direct impact on the design of Apple hardware since 1992 and is now bringing his talent to the software space. A TechCrunch article back in April announced this move with a post titled “Apple’s Jony Ive Said To Be Bringing The Flat Design Fad To iOS 7 With Visual Overhaul ”. There is one particularly irritating word in the post’s title - “fad”. Flat design is not a fad. It’s always existed. Today’s flat design is born out of freedom. It’s a natural progression based on today’s technology. As the new look of iOS 7 was just released, now is a good time to discuss the changes that occurred, from skeuomorphism to flat.


In the possible event that you’re unaware of skeuomorphism, you should know that it’s heavily influenced by Apple. The first user interface introduced by Apple back in 1984 introduced ‘desktops’ and icons. As these concepts were new to most users, visual metaphors were required in order to help users learn. Skeuomorphism was a very valuable tool. The focus is on making objects familiar.

Essentially, we’re dealing with digital elements that are made to look like physical world objects. By presenting users with visual cues that they are already familiar with, they are understood. Today, iOS’ look is primarily skueomorphic. It’s filled with various 3D effects, shadows, and textures. Apparently, the skeuomorphic look is a direct attribution to Steve Jobs.

Flat Design

Flat design is gaining attention primarily by Microsoft’s Windows 8 as well as Google Now. Both focus on minimialistic design that is emphasizing usability, colours, and typography. With flat design, generally speaking, the obvious visual cues and textures are gone. Apple is now in the spotlight for embracing this principle with iOS 7. This change can be directly attributed to Jony Ive.

Flat design is aimed at utilizing the strengths of digital interfaces, rather than limiting the interfaces to real world confines. We can take a good look at Jony Ive's view on this aspect from a Telegraph interview: "Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that's a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That's not simple. "

The constraints or lack thereof

So why the shift to flat design?

1. Familiarity

Users no longer need analog world visual cues to understand how to use an interface. They’ve been there before. They know what a folder is. They know what a desktop is. They know how to use a button, and they understand what an icon is.

2. Smartphones

There’s no need to point out the importance of smartphones. Responsive design is now all the rage due to the massive amount of users visiting sites, or utilizing apps, via smartphones. By designing with a smartphone in mind, you realize that you can’t load a site up with massive graphics.

3. Display capabilities

Effects simply aren’t required anymore thanks to better display resolutions. The retina display, for example, provides such great resolution that the fakery that comes with skeuomorphism is no longer required. How often do you see this in good print design? Rarely. With good print design, the techniques from skeuomorphism isn’t required thanks to the beautiful resolutions possible from print.

4. Good Design

Simply put, flat design is almost a nod to the design of the past. That time before computers where flat images were required thanks to the restraints of printing. Furthermore, when “everyone” is utilizing skeuomorphism, why not buck the trend if you have the ability to do so?

Speaking of good design, now is a great opportunity to review Dieter Rams “10 Principles of Good Design”.

1. Good design is innovative
2. Good design makes a product useful
3. Good design is aesthetic
4. Good design makes a product understandable
5. Good design is unobtrusive
6. Good design is honest
7. Good design is long-lasting
8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail
9. Good design is environmentally friendly
10. Good design is as little as possible

Now, think about these points one more time:

Good design is honest
Good design is as little as possible

There are times when skeuomorphism is required, and there are times when flat design is required. It’ll be entirely based on the project you’re developing. If you require realism and its real-world visual cues, then go with skeuomorphism. If something requires a flat, minimal design, then work for flat design. Work on both if needed.

With Apple diving in to the world of flat design, they aren’t joining the so-called ‘fad’ of flat design. They are, instead, focusing on the principals of good design. Isn’t that a good thing?