Echos from the style rebellion that took place at the turn of the 19th century have reached the digital world. In the same way that the rise of the manufacturing industry created the modern design movement that stood firmly in opposition to the flamboyance and detail-heavy tastes of the Victorians, today’s content focused web is forcing a change. From the highly detailed and impressive, web designers are turning their attention to clean, functional layouts with a strong emphasis on quality user experience.
In 1925 renowned architect Le Corbusier washed away the last remaining dregs of the 19th century design ideal when he announced that low quality, trashy items are abundantly decorated, and that “the luxury object is well-made, neat and clean”. Lavish detailing and ornament had long been a means by which the wealthy demonstrated their social status. This was hijacked by the burgeoning manufacturing industry which capitalised on the opportunity to bring those symbols of wealth within the reach of a growing middle-class.
Le Corbusier and the Modernist Movement decided that the antidote to the spread of cheaply produced ornamental goods, furnishings and architecture was to promote the beauty of the simple. Styles like Bauhaus, cubism and surrealism burst onto the design scene and influenced everything from household goods to skyscrapers.
Fast forward to 1984. When Apple computers first introduced the idea of a ‘desktop’ with ‘folders’ and ‘documents, skeuomorphism – the use of details to make one object imitate another, was brought into the digital world. Real-world examples include fake leather, tiles printed on linoleum flooring and fake wood panelling.
In the early days of computing, skeuomorphism had an important role in connecting computer functions to real-life actions, providing visual metaphors that allowed people to relate to something they knew in an unfamiliar technology landscape. A classic example of this is use of the envelope icon;
In the same way that modernism was a reaction against flamboyance, Flat design is a reaction against skeuomorphism and the beginning of an era of ‘honesty’ in the planning of user experience.
Rebelling against Skeuomorphic fakery, flat design removes embellishments like shadows, bevelled edges, textures and gradients to create a simplified interface that is perfectly two-dimensional.
The challenging part is achieving this with no loss to functionality. A light application of skeuomorphism often makes buttons more obvious to the user, so with a two-dimensional interface clarity and definition is achieved using contrasting colours and careful spacing.
Due to the minimal detail in flat design, subtle differences in typography have a marked effect. Contrast is now relied upon to separate elements and make them ‘pop’ so black or white type on a vibrant block colour is most common.
Sans serif typefaces are more popular, and while serif typefaces step away from the principle of maximum simplicity, they are still occasionally used where a more formal style is required.
…provided that a simple font is used for the body text.
Flat design’s emphasis on simplicity should be reflected where possible, particularly in links and calls to action. Simpler text also leaves room for a larger typeface, making site buttons easily identifiable for mobile users:
Achieving clarity in flat design involves using bolder, brighter, contrasting colours. Microsoft took a daring leap with their Windows 8 tile-based design and in an unusual twist, is being followed by Apple into flat design based development.
Above: The current iPhone calculator in contrast to Apple’s new iOS 7 flat design verson, to be released in September.
What flat design has over other styles, is agility.
Gloriously detail-rich, singing and dancing websites were fine for the wired internet connection of the big-screen PC user, but now mobility and speed have become the priority of a hyper-connected generation who expect to retrieve information anywhere from any device.
Stripped-down and light-weight, flat design isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it’s fast loading and mobile friendly.
Its simplicity allows it to integrate into responsive web formats where the layout of a web page changes to fit the type of screen it’s viewed on with no loss of functionality. Since mobile and tablet web browsing are rapidly increasing, it seems this trend will dominate design until it grows old and new innovations are conjured from the imaginations of tomorrow’s user experience designers.
But with a style this functional, that’s a long way off. In the meantime, if your website is feeling a bit cumbersome in the face of all these new trends, contact us to see how our talented web development team can help your business stay at the forefront of technology and design.