Probably the biggest UI design trend this year, flat design wholeheartedly embraces the ‘less is more’ approach. Stripped back, simple and clean, its aim is to focus on honesty, integrity and functionality, where beauty of form is dependent upon content.
By simplifying an interface to its basic parts and removing 3D elements such as gradients, shadows and textures, flat design can truly showcase content and typographic strength, often using striking colours and a brave use of space.
There are no extraneous details, fancy effects or gimmicks to be found here.
Is it just a fad?
Well if it is, it’s one that the big players are happy to enjoy for a while. Microsoft’s Windows 8 is a great example. Using flat, colourful tiles, typography and spacing, the interface is icon-free and provides users with a type of live dashboard.
Uncharacteristically not first off the mark this time, the new Apple iOS7 also favours flat design, replacing its glossy, shiny icons for pared-back flat reincarnations and semi-translucency. Google Now, Google Glass and Google+ all use clean lines and plenty of space, allowing ‘index cards’ to form the basis of their back-to-basics design.
In fact, every major mobile operating system now uses a flat UI style.
Design trends are, of course, just that – trends. As such, they are destined to be overtaken and usurped, and historically, humans have always shifted between our love of complexity and the need for simplicity. Similarly, new design approaches tend to react and rebel against what has gone before. In flat design’s case, comparison with skeuomorphic design is inevitable.
Skeuomorphic design (which involves making icons and other elements represent real-life objects as closely as possible) has been a hugely popular trend in recent years, with its brushed aluminium and stitched leather effects. But despite Pinterest’s ‘pin boards’ or the realistic page-turns or ‘wooden bookshelf’ of iBooks, increasing numbers of people are turning off from the reflections and bevels, and opting for a simpler approach.
Instead of helping people to feel at home, as the trend claims to do, this ‘visual trickery’ can be limiting to a designer and be seen as old-fashioned, referring unnecessarily to a pre-digital time.
Making it work
So if you want to join the flat design crowd, what do you need to consider? Here are a few pointers to get you started:
Since you won’t be using bevels or shadows to make your buttons obviously clickable, colour contrast, consistency of shape and grid alignment are vital for usability.
An absolutely essential focus, typography should be clear and elegant; the centerpiece of the design.
Whilst colours are always important, in flat design, their role becomes functional as well as aesthetic. So it’s crucial to define a clear colour palette, usually of bold, bright colours for easy recognition (e.g. blue for action buttons) and clarity.
Shapes and space
Where specific shapes are used for buttons or actions, these need to be consistent. Large elements and plenty of space increase usability and don’t clutter up your design.
Don’t forget that you don’t need to use flat design in every project. Like anything, too much of one style can start to feel jarring and people like variety. By all means jump onto the flat design bandwagon, but make sure you remember to stop off now and again and explore other territory too.