Irony: Just As 3-D Interfaces Are Getting Good, Apple's UI Is Going Flat

Apple, Microsoft, and everyone else are re-embracing 2-D user interfaces like never before. So what are we to do with all these brilliant new 3-D interface controllers?

The original Mac OS is almost the perfect flat interface. There are no cheesy extrusions or faux plastic glare coating the icons, no faux leather bulging around skeuomorphic stitching. Instead, each element seems to celebrate its two-dimensionality. But there are moments when UI artists clearly couldn’t help themselves. Even Steve Jobs’s fabled calculator sticks out, literally: Its buttons protrude from the screen with a heavy drop shadow.

And for the next few decades, powered by more pixels and more powerful graphics chips, designers couldn’t seem to stop themselves from building more and more 3-D effects into user interfaces—until the trend stopped dead in its tracks. Windows 8 went 100% flat with Metro. And it sounds like iOS 7 will follow. Flat has even taken over branding—have you see what Facebook has done to their logo?

But here’s the irony: just as interface flattens to its flattest, we have our first wave of legitimate 3-D controllers like Leap Motion and immersive 3-D displays like Oculus Rift making their way to market. We’re at a technological fork: Just as engineers have figured out 3-D, designers have grown sick the the aesthetic. Where do we go from here?

Why 2-D Works Better On Our Phones

Truth be told, designers aren’t wrong in championing the 2-D interface in the mighty year of 2013 because our most popular computers—smartphones—are entirely 2-D. The multitouch screen displays a 2-D image. And every touch, tap, or pinch can only occur on a 2-D plane.

So every time the iPhone UI fakes 3-D, even in the most subtle of ways, we become flies banging against a window. And it’s another reason that skeumorphism simply doesn’t translate all that well to touch screens. Every time you tap Gamecenter’s green felt poker tables expecting fuzziness, you’re reminded that in reality you’re pressing against a stark device of cold glass. We subconsciously realize that we’ve been forced to interact with illusion.

It makes sense that designers would simply stop faking 3-D in the era of touch screens. Champion typography. Relish in white space. Rediscover photography. Make a true, 2-D interface that looks honest, and it will also feel honest.

Why 3-D Isn’t Done Yet

The market seems to agree that 3-D feels inauthentic, or simply lousy, on touch screens. A few years ago, Sharp, Samsung, LG and HTC each released smartphones with 3-D screens. The trend never took off, and not a single new 3-D smartphone has been released since November 2011. You can see the sentiments echo all the way through the consumer electronics industry, too. Remember the rise of 3-D TVs? That fad is finished, too. But we shouldn’t count 3-D out forever.

For one, we’re finally developing the controls to effectively navigate 3-D space. The Leap Motion will be out within two months. The system can track gestures down to the submillimeter, and it’s a mere $70, making it poised for mass adoption in the short term. In the living room, the inevitable Xbox 720’s Kinect will likely come standard, and with greater fidelity than the original. With these controls in place, we can finally marry screens with gestures beyond the tap.

Even more importantly, there’s the emerging market for wearables. Even with a Leap Motion (or even the mobile-friendly Capri), using 3-D gestures for a 2-D screen still feels unnatural. But as we navigate the real world, 3-D tracking will allow for naturalistic inputs that can simply pick up on the movements we already make (there are already two different companies working on that problem).

Today, Google Glass may default to the same flat typography we see in Windows 8, but it’s also in wearables like Glass that we’ll eventually (finally) need UIs with 3-D depth. Because once we can have seamless augmented reality giving us directions that appear overlaid onto our view of the street, will we really want things any other way?

So…What Will Happen?

There’s a reckoning coming between 2-D and 3-D, but it’s a problem that’s only compounded by the varying use cases of desktops, tablets, cellphones, and wearables. If universal app platforms like Apple’s App Store continue to be the norm, it’s hard to imagine that UI might be 3-D in one part of our daily lives and 2-D in another, merely because developers won’t be clamoring for the task of creating what are ostensibly two different apps.

For 3-D interface to really take off, we need one amazing statement made with hardware and software. Every element of UX needs to be so intertwined that it’s hard to believe anyone but an Apple, Google, Microsoft—or maybe even a Samsung—could make it. And these are precisely the companies that are doubling down on 2-D UI right now.

So while we should all be excited by the Leap Motions and Oculus Rifts pushing interface forward on the hardware end, a 2-D ecosystem of apps and touch screens will keep us firmly anchored in the 2-D present for a while. And it’s an incredibly ironic place and time to be: Just as we’re finally figuring out the third dimension, the software world has finally settled on two.

[IMAGE: Classic OS via Wikipedia, Calculator via Low End Mac]

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  • Calorus

    3D was dead before it started. There is no purpose to it.

    Higher and Higher resolutions - up to a point - deliver readability and clarity; bigger may not always be better, but it is well, bigger and and the same is true of smaller (except it's not bigger)...

    Let it go.

    The fact is the technology required to make 3D usable is unpleasant and frustrating.

    I've never seen a film in 3D and I have no idea why I would. 3D that works with my eyes might be fine, but the fact is I'd never spend more for the pleasure of having it -- and the market's already spoken, and it said the same thing.

  • Igor

    This article doesn't make any sense. You are putting 3D and 2D graphics and compare them to real live environment!
    The skeuomorphic revolution happened because designers and developers tried to sell more apps on Apple devices and it became a fad! 3D graphics they look cool but they don't help user to achieve anything, actually it is possible to argue that amazing flashy interface distracts from the users goal!

    The only irony here is this article!

  • Samuel Lungu

    I think Apple is being crucified because it hasn't followed a trend. There is a trend towards flat UI which Microsoft 8 has gone for; and so has Adobe' CS, Google, Yahoo, etc. I think that is the main issue here. The thing is Apple are what they are because they broke the mould. They made things easier on the eye. Microsoft tried to copy that with Vista and failed miserably because the glossy interface required a lot of system resources that made slowed the computers down. Apple made GUI visually appealing that worked well with their computers.

    Even when every smartphone was getting bigger, Apple still chose to keep their traditional dimensions (only making the phone taller when iPhone 5 came out).

    I don't see anything wrong with pseudo-3D interfaces as long as they work fine. And maybe they shouldn't overkill it though.

    So, are people going to like the new iOS more because it is flat or because it is making their lives simpler?

  • Rachel

    What they really need to do is give us options to tailor the UI the way we want it. Maybe some people realy LIKE to make it all look like Steampunk gears, or bubbles, or leather, or triangles, or Star Trek Okudagrams or even, yes, flat - let us decide, let us skin it. I want my icons to look the way I want them. More power to the end user, please. Alas, that is not the way Apple works.

  • jmco

    Humans have been communicating in 2D for millions of years. It just works better for graphic and typographic information efficiency and visual clarity. Our brains can only handle so much at once or for so long. 2D strips away the unessential and provides uniformity and pace to the information our brains process.

    This concept has been a guide in creating the modern world starting with artists and designers stripping away the extra dimension. The penultimate being Mondrian's work and that of the flat color field artists of the 1960s. But also in architecture with the removal of ornamentation and eventually to all surface elements in some cases (the glass tower). In design it was the use of sans serif typefaces starting in the 1920s with Futura and other modern designs and culminating with Helvetica in the 1960s.
    In the case of interface design, it is less a style problem (except for some users) and more of a good design is about color, form, and ease of use. Removing extraneous shadows and other visual extras speeds up the ability of the user to use the interface. But it is also critical that the designers not strip so much away that it becomes unusable. Apple has been guilty of doing this too. Forcing the user to hover over an area to actually see a scroll bar or interface element. That's a bit too minimal! Color and size are also important to convey information and feedback to the user. For example, this comments section typeface size is *way* too small for about 50% of the population - those needing reading glasses and those over 45. (Assuming the Fast Co designers made it and tested it on one of the 1920 x 1200 iMacs typically used nowadays in site design. Mine is the iMac11,1 which is a variant you are likely to see in design studios.) The solution is simple: use the same size as the article type for comments and make the article type slightly larger. Design and layout for print and screen is complex enough. Simplicity using the fundamentals of visual design – still being taught in all design schools and university design programs – is a welcome direction for designers and users alike.

  • jmco

    And, I just realized that, while entering a comment, the type is smaller but when it is posted, it *is* the same size as the article type. 
    Which is an example of that interface obfuscation minimalism, perhaps?

  • crking

    The transition from skeuomorphic to flatter interfaces makes sense to me. When first being introduced to new digital inputs like touchscreens, we had to be trained how to use them and the best way to do that was to mimic the analog world, which we already knew, in digital form through skeuomorphs. We get it now and no longer need the skeuomorphs to tell us "hey, I'm a button, tap me!" It's the same case with icons. We use irrelevant icons such as the old school telephone or envelope to represent digital experiences on our devices. They don't accurately represent what they do in the context of our devices yet we still use them.

    That said, 3D interfaces can be stylistically "flat" and are not skeuomorphs if they exist in the context of the physical world such as the google glass example or augmented reality. In those case, they actually compliment their environment. I feel that the device/environment should dictate whether it's a 2-D or 3-D interface.

    Good article!

  • Guy

    I'm not a fan of skeuomorphism, so I have no problem with that going away. But I do like looking at a screen that has some shading and gradients and shadows. It just seems easier on the eyes over time, 

    Also, though I know it's not really 3D, those shading and gradients and shadows are more interesting to look at and just less boring, I spend so much time looking at flat screens. Do they have to smack me in the face all day with the fact that they are flat? Can't they even give the illusion of some depth, especially when it takes nothing away from the function

    Authenticity has its place. I don't think this is one of them. 

  • Mathieu Gosselin

    Are we really sure that's what the market want or what designers think is cool? 
    I have some doubts about it. Most people i know who are not super geek or designers love natural realistic looking things and find flat stuff boring. Really. There should be some studies on the subject but i think in term of enjoyment, Skeueomorphic beat flat. And for me that's the only thing that matter. Do people want to use it? Sure it should be functional but shouldn't it be pleasurable too?

  • Ross

    Occulus Rift and Kinect are both used to interact with 3D applications. The most interesting LEAP motion demos so far have likewise been as an interface to 3D applications. I don't see why this is being conflated with a stylistic trend away from faux 3D in navigation?


  • Reza Natsir

    You restore my faith in humanity. Please note that skeuomorphism != 3D interface

  • tN0

    I think this article mixes a lot of things together. 3D has nothing to do with drop shadows or gradients. Even a flat interface can have an abstract 3rd dimension with overlapping windows or elements.

    On the other side, 3-D doesn't make a lot of sense as long as the input will be a 2-D surface (read: a touchscreen). Kinect is one example where a real 3-D interface is already available in some cases, mostly games of course.

    And Windows 8 isn't really about a "flat" UI but a "content over chrome" UI. It isn't just that the modern design language that Microsoft uses here has flat elements, borders or menus, it almost has nothing of this at all! Most of the interface is just text and images. Content becomes the chrome itself. And that is what Apple should focus on.

  • Ali Thanawalla

    I Agree !... this article is confusing 3D graphic design elements with 3-Dimensional User Interfaces. Drop shadows and skeuomorphism have absolutely no relation to the gesture based interface that the Leap Motion device offers. 

  • Mark Wilson

    "I think this article mixes a lot of things together. 3D has nothing to do with drop shadows or gradients. Even a flat interface can have an abstract 3rd dimension with overlapping windows or elements."

    I think that's exactly how we've been looking at 2D, but in reality, things are on their way to even flatter interface/aesthetic. My piece argues why this idea is on trend--that faux 3D aesthetics are a lie brought to light by touchscreens.