Dispelling a “Flat Design” Fiction

November 22, 2016

Illustration source: unknown.

Droves of the internet’s design writers drink from the same metaphorical watering hole. A cursory search of design industry “buzz phrases,” such as “user experience,” “flat design,” “innovation,” and “content is king,” yields much interchangeable rubbish. Today, I feel compelled to debunk one hulking chunk of rubbish that has gone unchallenged for too long: the unsubstantiated claim that “flat design” always represents a better user experience.

Taken literally, the term “flat design” refers to digital design that lacks dimension: it does not attempt to simulate light, shadow, or perspective. (For instance, according to “flat design,” a “button” on a screen should not resemble a real button.)

A button, according to the “flat design” philosophy. Notice the absence of textures, shadows, and other details that would suggest three-dimensionality.

For the practitioners of this approach, however, the term “flat design” can refer to a slew of loosely related style cues. Bright and saturated colors prevail. Intricacy is scowled at.

Writer Tom May and designer Luke Clum define “flat design” in this Creative Bloq article, claiming that the design philosophy represents a better user experience:

Flat design is a minimalistic design approach that emphasizes usability … This raw functionality forces a site's focus to be on user experience, so websites that employ this design style successfully are likely to receive positive feedback as being user-friendly.

- http://www.creativebloq.com/graphic-design/what-flat-design-3132112

I submit my counterargument: “flat design” does not and cannot lay exclusive claim on user-friendliness or usability. Any design, “flat” or otherwise, can be user-friendly. Claiming that “flat design” emphasizes usability is akin to claiming, “My political party emphasizes progress.” Those who support that political party tend to agree with that statement; those who oppose that political party tend to disagree.

At least one entire company parrots the same argument as Messrs. May and Clum. This LG marketing video, poorly written and therefore especially convoluted, tries to justify the company’s mobile operating system redesign:

As we added more and more fancy visual elements in order to catch customers’ attention, we started to realize that the essential user experience was somewhat overlooked. So, to return our focus on the true customer value, we changed the role of graphics into a faithful supporter. For users to focus on the contents itself, we removed unnecessary graphics, [inaudible] visual clutters, and redesigned the entire GUI with simple graphics.

- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXKuASAD_4Y

LG’s change from “fancy” and “unnecessary” (in whose opinion?) graphics to “simple” ones did not emphasize user experience; it simply swapped one interface design for another. This new design may or may not have offered a different user experience.

I must confess that I rarely expect intellectual, artistic, or logical excellence from companies that only value style insofar as it “catches customers’ attention,” or companies that bludgeon the brain with sayings like “true customer value.”

And on the topic of “focusing on the contents,” has any person in the world ever been genuinely distracted by operating system graphics? I leave that question to you, reader.

To my frustration, May/Clum and LG are not the only design industry inhabitants to espouse the view that “flat design” and its peripheral philosophies inherently represent a better user experience. See these additional quotes:

While the bright colors of Microsoft Design Language help make the user experience easier to follow, flat design apps without vivid color schemes suffered.

- http://blog.proto.io/brief-history-mobile-app-design/

Did the apps really suffer? How does this author know? Bright colors do not inherently “make the user experience easier to follow.”

The product design process is advancing and evolving from the old segmented approach that encouraged superfluous design to a more holistic process that truly is focused on the user.

- https://medium.com/swarm-nyc/complexion-reduction-a-new-trend-in-mobile-design-cef033a0b978#.erp4352gn

Let me proffer my best definition of “design”: a mindset and method that mixes empathy, engineering, research, common sense, personality, and art. With this definition in mind, how is it possible to have “superfluous design”?

When you look at all the new iOS 7 screens in together in a side-by-side view, you get a clear sense of what he [Jony Ive] means. The simplified design removes mental associations that might complicate one’s ability to process the experience.

- https://uxmag.com/articles/review-ios-7-gives-us-insight-into-the-future-of-mobility

On the contrary, mental associations often help one’s ability to process an operating system experience. Humans require mental associations in order to understand the symbols that populate their computer screens. Here are some common examples: a musical note means “audio,” a notepad symbol refers to a notepad app, and a paper icon represents a document.

Long scrolls, hamburger menus, card layouts and hero images have captured the market, creating user-friendly, interactive websites that grab the viewer’s attention.

- https://testcreative.co.uk/5-ways-to-make-your-web-design-stand-out-in-the-crowd/

This statement falsely implies that “long scrolls, hamburger menus, card layouts and hero images” are inherently user-friendly. It also lacks supporting examples. This excerpt, like most of its fellows, amounts to empty rhetoric.

Before I retreat from my desk and live to write another day, I will repeat my one vital point: any design, “flat” or otherwise, can be user-friendly. Designers and design-likers: denounce these dogmatists. Let fly your criticism. Even rubbish deserves a good counterargument.


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