Flat is the new black, or at least it is when it comes to website and application design. You can put the finger of blame on this trend on Microsoft, and their 2012 re-design of Windows which marked a radical shift in appearance from any previous incarnation of their operating system. For once, Microsoft got something right. Here was the first operating system that looked just the same on PC or laptop when compared to a mobile or tablet. Apple decided to follow Microsoft’s idea and chose a “flat” design for the release of iOS7. As usual, Apple’s changes prompted the usual rash of issues, with some apps failing. Players at PokerStars, for example, found they couldn’t use or download the site’s app, whilst other poker-playing apps, such as , were not affected.
The previous trend of operating system interface design centred upon what is known as Skeuomorphism, where design concepts associated with old technologies were applied to new ones, to give a sense of familiarity. Those old enough to remember the Atari ST will remember how “folders” were represented by the basic 3D rendering of the draw of a filing cabinet. This trend of representation has remained with computers ever since. An ebook reader is represented by a 3D icon of a set of book shelves, even though ebooks never sit on them.
As PC graphics became more sophisticated, so did the icons used to represent certain tasks. For example, take the humble button. It wasn’t enough for a user just to click something in order to get their computer to do what they wanted. The computer had to respond instantly. Hence a 3D graphic of a raised button sank when it was clicked to acknowledge that something had happened. Simple graphics evolved into lovingly-rendered buttons with curved corners and authentic drop shadows.
Modern computers react so speedily (and are expected to react instantly) that this acknowledgement of a task “in progress” is no longer necessary. Critics of the skeumorphism system point out that such a design is archaic. They champion the flat, functional look of Windows 8 and iOS 7. However, this blind adoption of one system totally in favour of another has raised discontent. Is functionality really so much more important than eye candy?
There’s an important in lesson in history where this has happened before. In the 1970s the world went digital crazy. LED and LCD displays spurred on the advance of the electronic calculator, and eventually some bright spark realised that the visual representation of numbers as digits could be applied to watches as well. Hence the digital watch was born, and sales of traditional analogue watches collapsed. Who needs hands when you have the digital functionality of numbers?
The answer took a few years, but it came eventually: almost everybody. Analogue watches simply sat back and allowed their new cousin to enjoy a brief spell in the sun, but eventually the classic design of the analogue watch returned to completely dominate the market. Now digital watches are the preserve of young children.
Functionality does matter, but not totally at the expense of aesthetic considerations. Flat design should pay heed to the lesson of the digital watch. Perhaps, eventually this new trend of one-dimensional displays, just like the fashion for digital watches, will fall completely ‘flat’.