Honestly Flat

The authors of LayerVault blog about the flat design era — a move towards simpler UI design with fewer bevels and textures and more flatness. I endorse this movement too much to let this pass me by without comment.

While one side of the mouth yells “good design is how it works,” the other side mumbles that great aesthetics mean realism. It doesn’t need to be this way. Designing honestly means recognizing that things you can do with screens and input devices can’t be done with physical objects — more importantly that we shouldn’t try copying them. It takes too much for granted. Can you imagine your pristine iPhone built into the body of an antique telephone handset? Is that beautiful design?

I really can’t help but agree with these points, but I’m thinking perhaps they’re overthinking it. Having been in this business for over a decade now (yep, I’m old), I feel like I’ve arrived at a couple of simple truths. One of them I arrived at reluctantly, and it took a while to accept it. It’s the notion that there’s no such thing as good UI design, there’s only bad UI design.

To elaborate: when you see a good design, chances are you don’t notice it. Because it’s a good design, it’s already set you on your way to your next destination, offering a clean and simple path on your journey. On the flipside, a bad design has you stumble in your tracks, wondering — where’s the phone number for this restaurant? Whether the UI design is full of linen does not necessarily matter (( I hate myself for actually saying that, because the linen texture is the worst )), what matters is that you found what you were looking for with the least possible friction. The point is: good design is good design, no matter how you arrive at it.

Aside from good design and bad design, there’s also the design that creates an emotional connection within you. Not only does it step in the background when you have a specific goal, but it will reach inside you and shake something when you don’t know where you’re going. I’m not sure textures, bevels, or even glorious flatness does this. In my experience, only tone, can do this. The tone of your wording, phrasing, or even your kooky layout may incite a smile in your viewer, and your large personal photos may tug at a heartstring somewhere. So it’s about being personal, and the best way I know to do this is to let the content shine.

Because of these two lessons — design to help the user on with their journey, and let content shine — my love-affair with gloriously flat UI design is not so much a matter of being honest as it is a matter of getting to that point where you’re feeling the design you’re working on, as fast as possible. Any big design project is borne of agony and a feeling of insufficiency. The more pieces you put in play, the more functionality you sketch out, the faster those feelings subside until at some point they turn into pride.

If I start my process with a canvas of linen, I’ll have already limited my playing field into a very narrow path that’s needlessly hard to find and follow.

For me, keeping things flat for as long as possible is like leaving your body and seeing your project from high above. Suddenly the answer to the question: “should I put a linen texture here?” becomes easy. That answer is that it doesn’t matter. So I usually leave it out.

3 thoughts on “Honestly Flat”

  1. Whenever the diskussion about skeumorphism begins (which is, like, several times a day) I immidiatly think about the entire Microsoft metro makeover. Especially Windows Phone 7, since I’ve had a Lumia 800 for the past couple of months. It’s one big tease really, because it’s so close to being really good. I love the direction it’s taken, and I’m sure it would be incredible if it got just a bit more strict UI and a bit more human UX.

    1. Joen says:

      I love 90% of what Microsoft is doing with the new Metro direction they’re heading.

      Who would’ve thought that Microsoft made the pretty software in 2012? If you’d asked me just two years ago, I would’ve said you’re crazy. But I really like what they’re doing.

      I want Microsoft to succeed with Windows 8. But I tried it, and there are some things that stick out still:

      – the font smoothing is still pretty terrible. I feel like only Linux gets this right
      – I sort of understand why the Desktop is still in Windows 8, but the fact that a bunch of even Metro configuration is still desktop only seems halfbaked. Ideally you should be able to use a Windows 8 PC without ever entering the Desktop environment

  2. Ben Hayes says:

    Also, I’m not really sure that ‘flat design’ is actually ‘flat’. The Layervault UI is great, but it still uses the visual effect of depth to help define a hierarchy and context. So really it is more about simplification and a reaction against over-used drop-shadows and gradients. See http://www.benhayes.com/2013/01/is-flat-design-really-flat/.

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