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What Is Flat Design? Is it the Future of Web and Mobile?

What Is Flat Design? Is it the Future of Web and Mobile?

What Is Flat Design?

As we all know, trends seem to always seem to fall into an ever constant and cyclical motion, with flat design being no exception to the rules. In school we learned that history’s actions are repetitive and the most recent support to this argument is the emergence of flat design. Or would it be the re-emergence? Whichever it is, the popularity flat design could have (and may have) been predicted. Like any other trend, flat design came as a resolution to its preceding design approach skeuomorphism (skew-oh-what?), a jump from one extreme to the other. Just look at the fashion industry, for example. Less than ten years ago baggy, sagging jeans and oversized t-shirts were in, yet now everything is slim fit this, or super skinny that. You know you’ve seen it with your own eyes, don’t lie. There are even some cases where guys walk around in jeans that look like they stole them from their younger sister’s closets. Just as the fashion industry is ever changing, the approach to design is no different. We’ve even seen this design trend before, what was once referred to as a “minimalist” approach has been rebranded as flat design.

What Makes A Design A Flat Design?

Flat design has recently been a hot topic, setting a debate throughout the design community. With many of today’s designers hailing from a generation that grew up on computers the need for realistic visual cues and connections are no longer important. Instead, functionality and structure are held in high esteem with the goal of simple, clean designs becoming the main focus. Flat design has escapes the stigma of purely aesthetic accents being added just for the sake of it. It has been extremely popular for mobile designs and applications because of the smaller space designers have to work with. Flat user interfaces are much easier to understand, use and interact with making it a no-brainer choice for any designer looking to dominate the industry. Relying more on visual clarity and communication, flat design has introduced this generation’s designer to a minimalist approach.

Well, reintroducing that is. Minimalism has been around for quite a while, and just like I said above, it’s apart of the ever-constant cycle of trends.

Recently, wrote a few blogs on flat design with the first post identifying the five distinct characteristics accompanying this latest trend. Don’t automatically assume all flat designs are simple ones. On the contrary, many flat designs can be much more complex than you may think. If you are either trying to identify a flat design or create one yourself, use the following as a rubric to go by.

The 5 Major Characteristics of Flat Design:

  1. No Added Effects. All flat designs use two-dimensional elements that lack any type of embellishments or typical effects you would use to add depth. This means that effects like bevels, gradients, drop shadows, and embossing accents will be absent from the design.
  2. Simple Elements Only. By utilizing user interface elements like simple shapes, buttons and icons flat design allows each shape of the design to stand alone while making everything easier to be clicked or tapped.
  3. Focus On Typography. While a simple element, typography proves to be an extremely important aspect of flat design. The use of Sans Serif variations and weights are common as is the utilization of novelty fonts to be apart of the design scheme. Flat design ensures the tone of typefaces matches the overall design usually using bolded weights for emphasis.
  4. Colors, Hues, & Palettes. The world of flat design is a bright and colorful environment. Many flat designs utilize vibrant hues, in addition to retro colors like salmon, purple, or green and other primary and secondary colors as common design elements.
  5. Stay Minimalist Minded. When creating a flat design scheme, remember, less is more. Avoid trying to make elements look more realistic, let go of the third dimensional connection that skeuomorphism has instilled!

While flat designs embrace all of the abovementioned principles, there will be some occurrences where the elements are almost flat design, but not quite. There are groups of designers that tend to fall in the middle of this grand battle between skeuomorphic and flat design. Those designers will produce and use designs that somewhat combine the two methods, keeping the elements simple and minimalist minded while still adding depth to certain details of their design. In these cases the designer will usually choose only one type of effect to run with throughout the entire design scheme.For those designers torn between the two extremes, this middle ground offers flexibility rather than constriction, which can also produce amazing results:


Photo Credits to


Photo Credits to


Why is Flat Design Replacing Skeuomorphism?

While many readers may be scratching their heads at this odd, scary word everyone has seen examples of skeuomorphism everyday, especially if you’re an owner of any Apple product. Skeuomorphism is the term for the “visual trickery” Apple introduced back in 1984 and still used today. This design method is not exclusive to the technological world either; the fake wood paneling in cars, false facades on buildings, and even dentures are also all examples of skeuomorphism. This hard to spell, hard to pronounce term refers to designs whose sole purpose is to look like the real life analogues, a created visual metaphor to help us learn, and understand products and purposes better.


photo credit to

In technology, Apple is one of the worst culprits of skeuomorphic designs. Consider the green felt table surface in the “Game Center” app, the leather stitching in “Find My Friends” or even the Dashboard screen in all Macs. They are all digital representations to mirror the real life objects while serving no functional purpose.

By utilizing flat design elements, designers remove all of the unnecessary aesthetic accents for clean functionality. As the screens to host these designs are getting smaller, flat design opens the door for elements that load faster, look sharper, and possess an overall better structure than the former design method had.


GUI Designs Turn to Flat Design

GUI (Graphical User Interfaces) was first introduced as a desktop concept in 1984 with Apple’s first consumer desktop. Back then visual assistants and cues were completely necessary as computers were still an infantile product slowly being welcomed into the masses. In order for users to understand the functions and features of this desktop, visual representation needed to be created to mimic real life products. For this original desktop, Apple used digital variations of folders (representing what a typical ‘real world’ manila folder’s function) and paper stacks to help the user understand how to use the desktop. It helped create connections from the real world to this new foreign concept of digital user interfaces.

Now, almost three full decades later almost every household has at least one desktop computer or notebook. Computer systems are regularly introduced to the masses multiple times in their education in the form of keyboarding and computer science classes. The need for visual representations is no longer necessary for the modern techie. Because of this, skeuomorphism began to fade as functionality and the strengths of digital interfaces became the main focus.

Who Is Using Flat Design?

As the modernist flat design movement continues to gain traction, let’s look at who is already utilizing the concept. Apple’s adversary and fellow technological titan Microsoft recently unveiled Windows 8 to the public. While it’s acceptance was mixed on notebooks and PCs, its flat design user interface was perfect for their line of various touch screen products, including tablets like the Surface and Ultrabooks. With a clean, sharp look and amazing functionality, Windows 8 products and the Windows based smartphones are gaining an overwhelming amount of popularity due to their simplicity.


Google is also embracing the flat design movement as they utilize it throughout their catalogue of sites and resources. Besides GoogleNow, which removed their static icons and replaced them with “card-sized” displays for their data making it easy to read and swipe away, Google has also used it for their real-time “Hot Searches” page.

Flat Design Examples

For those of you looking for more examples of flat design, there are a lot of great resources to check out! One of the best ones I have come across actually belongs to a Pinterest user named War Marc, who has an entire pin board dedicated to great flat design concepts on the web.


Other great examples of flat design can be found here on Tumblr and Dribble.

Will iOS 7 Go Flat?

So, the big question on everyone’s mind is what will the iPhone’s new operating system look like? There are tons of rumors flying around along with “allegedly” leaked blurry photos of iOS 7. At this point, the only thing we truly know is what Sir Jony Ives, lead designer on iOS 7 recently announced. He stated that the new iOS 7 will be “black, white, and flat all over…” leading us to believe that Apple is finally throwing it’s skeuomorphic appearances in the trash to make room for fully functional flat design user interfaces. Earlier this week someone supposedly leaked a photo of the iOS 7 home screen, but the image was extremely blurry. If the rumors are correct we won’t have to wait for the actual iOS 7 unveil for too much longer. Apple announced they had sent some of their Mac OSX engineers over to help wrap up iOS 7 in time for WWDC ’13 which starts on June 10, 2013.

Is Flat Design Here to Stay?

As I said at the beginning of this post, all trends are apart of a larger cycle. They constantly rotate with certain ones gaining popularity based on the general population’s current needs and preferences. While flat design may only be here for another few years, it will most likely be an integral part of the next trend. Looking at past occurrences design schemes will most likely arrive at a happy medium between skeuomorphism and flat design offering dimensionality only where it’s necessary.

Time will truly tell, but what are your thoughts? Are you a fan of flat design? Or are you an advocate of skeuomorphism? Let us know!

One Comment

  • Rob McNelis on Apr 11, 2014 Reply

    Hey Ryan,

    Found you from a comment you made at quick sprout. Nice post. I love flat design, but I do wonder what the next trend will be. Hit me up on twitter sometime. I would love to hear about your goals online.


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