Co.Design

Is Flat Design Already Passé?

Maybe it's time to give skeuomorphism another try?

Over the last few years, we've seen an upheaval in the way computer interfaces are designed. Skeuomorphism is out, and flat is in. But have we gone too far? Perhaps we've taken the skeuomorphic death hunts as far as they can go, and it's high time we usher in a new era of post-flat digital design.

Ever since the original Macintosh redefined the way we interact with computers by creating a virtual desktop, computer interfaces have largely been skeuomorphic by mimicking the look of real-world objects. In the beginning, computer displays were limited in resolution and color, so the goal was to make computer interfaces look as realistic as possible. And since most computer users weren't experienced yet, skeuomorphism became a valuable tool to help people understand digital interfaces.

But skeuomorphism didn't make sense once photo-realistic computer displays became ubiquitous. Computers have no problem tricking us into thinking that we're looking at something real so we don't need to use tacky design tricks like fake stitching or Corinthian leather to fool us into thinking our displays are better than they are. In addition, most people have grown up in a world where digital interfaces are common. UI elements don't have to look like real-world objects anymore for people to understand them.

This is why Jony Ive took over the design of Apple's iOS and OS X operating systems and began a relentless purge of the numerous skeuomorphic design elements that his predecessor, skeuomaniac Scott Forstall, created. To quote our own John Pavlus, "skeuomorphism is a solution to a problem that iOS no longer has," and that's true of other operating systems and apps too. Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox, even Samsung, they're all embracing flat design, throwing out the textures and gradients that once defined their products, in favor of solid hues and typography-driven design.

This is, without a doubt, a good thing. Skeuomorphism led to some exceedingly one-dimensional designs, such as iOS 6's execrable billiard-style Game Center design. But in an excellent post, Collective Ray designer Wells Riley argues that things are going too far.

Flat design is essentially as far away from skeuomorphism as you can get. Compare iOS 7's bold colors, unadorned icons, transparent overlays, and typography-based design to its immediate precessor, iOS 6. Where once every app on iOS had fake reflections, quasi-realistic textures, drop shadows, and pseudo-3-D elements, iOS 7 uses pure colors, no gradients, no shadows, and embraces the 2-D nature of a modern smartphone display. But while flat design has made iOS 7 look remarkably consistent, it has also removed a lot of personality from the operating system. It's like the Gropius house, when the old iOS 6 was a circus funhouse. Maybe it needs to get a little bit of that sense of madness back.

Here's how Riley defines elements of a post-flat interface:

• Hierarchy defined using size and composition along with color.

• Affordant buttons, forms, and interactive elements.

• Skeuomorphs to represent 1:1 analogs to real-life objects (the curl of an e-book page, for example) in the name of user delight.

• Strong emphasis on content, not ornamentation.

• Beautiful, readable typography.

Riley's argument is that flat design has allowed digital designers to brush the slate clean in terms of how they approach their work, but it has also hindered a sense of wonder and whimsy. Software should still strongly emphasizes content, color, and typography over ornamentation, but why is, say, the curl of a page when you're reading an e-book such a crime, when it so clearly gives users delight?

"Without strict visual requirements associated with flat design, post-flat offers designers tons of variety to explore new aesthetics—-informed by the best qualities of skeuomorphic and flat design." Riley writes. "Dust off your drop shadows and gradients, and introduce them to your flat color buttons and icons. Do your absolute best work without feeling restricted to a single aesthetic. Bring variety, creativity, and delight back to your interfaces."

Maybe Riley has a point. Why should mad ol' Scott Forstall be allowed to ruin skeuomorphism for everyone? With the lightest of brush strokes, skeuomorphism can be used to bring back a sense of personality and joy to our apps. For those of us growing listless in the wake of countless nearly identical "flat" app designs, he makes a good point. It is time for the pendulum towards flat and away from skeuomorphism to swing back, if only a little bit.

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39 Comments

  • There is a reason that folks like myself, and many others have not given up the iPhone 4s -- even in the age of the 6Plus. It's because we just cannot bear to part with the skeuomorphic splendor of iOS6.

    Of course, we know what we are giving up in terms of increased iOS functionality (and glitches, btw); but after switching our iPads over to the latest iOS versions we are EVEN MORE CONVINCED that we don't want our phones to go through the same agonies.

    If I wanted my iPhone to look like an Android, I would have probably purchased an Android phone. Everyone who uses a smart device is not a twenty-something. I was under the understanding that I should take Apple's smart devices as more expensive tools for more serious business than a "Fisher-Price" styled interface. As for Windows? It's difficult to even mouth a comment about how badly their "new coke" Windows 8 fared by trying to force the "Fisher-Price" type, flat interface onto their enterprise audience.

  • Stephen Deming

    For most people, Flat Design is just removing layer styles. It is an uninspired approach to meet a demand that not so design savvy clients want. How many of have to hear "Like an iPhone" on a daily basis from clients?

  • Barry Quinn

    Design is not about trends, its problem solving. Who cares what is dead or alive. Do what is right,beautiful and needed.

  • Damien Menard

    The thing that frustrates me about every one of these 'flat design' articles ("it's dead!" "It's the holy grail") , is that they conflate several different issues instead of isolating them.

    Skeuomorphism doesn't need to be photorealistic (iOS7 date picker). Ornamentation doesn't need to be faux-3d (old tacky myspace pages). Minimalism doesn't need to be flat (that 'long shadow' iOS concept).

    We talk about this in the context of iOS6 vs. 7 because it's a high-visibility example, but there are several completely unrelated objective (ergonomic) and more subjective (visual style) blunders in each.

    Get the IA and cognitive ergonomics right, then let brand determine whether your progress bar is a flat monochrome rectangle, or a beveled and bulging rectangle, or a growing 8-bit flower, or a glass tube of glowing goo, or an eagles claw clutching a vial of magic potion.

  • Flat Design can be good but is often implemented in a way that makes it less usable. Buttons can look like headings, no clear primary call-to-actions, and it's not always clear which part of the interface you should focus on.

  • Two notes: To use Marshall McCluhan language, flat design seems to me very "cold"; skeuomorphism has a warmth (which Brownlee describes as "whimsy") that seems to be lost in the new iOS design. Bringing back some of its elements would be a good thing, and would dispel some of the coldness that is inherent in the new look and feel.

    But another part of the iOS design aesthetic that I believe they really blew was their choice of color scheme. They went from something that was very warm to something that is so bright and bold and colorful that it looks like it was designed in 1977. Avacado-colored refrigerators and burnt-orange corduroy chairs and eye-wateringly bright paisley shirts. That was a design era I thought (and hoped) we had left behind forever, but iOS seems spang in the middle of it.

    Oh, and I despise the Game Center design, too; it's so bad, I deliberately avoid it.

  • Funny how the "elements of a post flat interface" are so similar to what is taught in the first year of a design degree. It's just advice for good design, which has been the same since.... forever.

    "• Hierarchy defined using size and composition along with color. • Affordant buttons, forms, and interactive elements. • Strong emphasis on content, not ornamentation. • Beautiful, readable typography."

  • I do have a cartoon about this very same subject, wish I could attach to this comment. But suffice it to say, when a certain style or look is considered to be far below the realm of good design, then there will certainly be a rebellion of that very same style in the making...

  • "I for one love flat design and will ride it until the wheels fall off!" --- the minimalist in me.

    However, I truly do not allow any design trends dictate what I do for my clients. Some clients need a good old fashion vintage appeal with all the gaudiness and antiquities included. Of course those projects will stay out of my port but they still remain in my repertoire.

    I say designers should experiment! Just know how to deliver what the client wants while guiding them along the paths of good design and aesthetics (whatever that is) lol.

  • Bryan Le

    Sorry, but this article is looking at things on a surface level. Materialistic and shallow. It is taking into account only the art/visual side of things and NOT true design. Design is problem solving with visual communication.

    It doesn't matter if it's beveled and gradient to hell, as long as it properly communicates what the user needs to do. I can point out some of the best designs in our history that relies on these techniques and ones that don't. It doesn't matter. What makes something successful is if someone GETS it.

    Skeuomorphism was born not because a designer got fancy in photoshop as this article would lead you to believe - but because it presents a natural sense of familiarity to a user. It's intuitive in the sense that it represents an interface they (probably) already know.

    If all designers designed for the user and NOT personal taste (ala, I feel like designing flat today) then this article - and the debate in general - wouldn't even exist.

  • Dude, read the article again, it surely pointed out why skeuomorphism was born. The article does not lead the reader to believe otherwise.

    For your clarification, its basically saying this:

    skeuomorphism was intended for easier use dealing with UI, thats why they looked like their real world counterparts. Thats no longer needed, so we went away with 'morphism and in with 'flat.' However in our purge of 'morphism, we lost some personality. We made ourselves believe that anything 'morphed was sooooo bad. In reality, its not. And allowing ourselves to use it when people think its cool, and designing with that notion in mind, it allows us to create a wider more than we could if we prohibit all things 'morphism.

    Flat design is a trend just as anything else could be. Lighten up and stop trying to preach what you think design should be man. Let me do the preaching, cuz you sound like a whiny design student who knows everything.

  • Craige Lucee

    Main thing is that the UI ADMINISTRATION Overhead is now where it should be: in the users hands, not taking up valuable screen space. From Prof Tufte, Yale

  • I disagree. Holding on to how things work in the real world is holding us back. We need to embrace innovation. Beyond ebooks having a curl at the page. Having pages for ebooks is bad design. I'd much rather just scroll through a book like I do with articles like this on the web. So much easier to read without having to pause between artificially created pages.

  • What is the app in the iPhone screenshot midway through the article? The one with four quadrants of colored tiles and what look like app and service icons. You should probably caption and link that. ;)