Flat Design You Say?

"Welcome to a flat design era," has been the cry of many lately. Although I’ve embraced this design ‘movement’ wholeheartedly, I have my questions. Is it really a new era in design that we are experiencing at the moment?

You see, I’m one of those designers who started my career in print design before later moving to web. When I first started designing for the web, I used my previous knowledge from print and applied it to the screen. No harm there, a very natural process I suppose. Web is relatively a new design discipline and where we couldn’t find solutions, we looked at designers from the print area and learned from their experiences. We were inspired, influenced, we borrowed, we iterated and we learned. Didn’t print teach us about typography after all? The colour wheel and colour psychology have existed for years, long before the web. We’ve always fallen back to graphic design theory to answer our questions.

Design on print has always been flat as far as I remember and the only time where drop shadows or gradients are applied on such medium, they are quickly classified as kitsch; faux even. I’ve seen design trying to resemble the web, back in the Web 2.0 era, with shiny buttons or glass looking speech bubbles…on print. So design has always been flat, yet it wasn’t labelled flat.

What we must keep in mind is that we’re designing on a medium that requires user interaction and users will be expecting feedback from your interface. Drop shadows and gradients might facilitate and point users to the correct area. Adding depth helps to organise information and create hierarchy. Therefore flat design cannot be described as the ultimate solution as such. Different contexts require different solutions and flat design is not always the right solution. In fact flat design shouldn’t be described as a solution as it is veering from its function and only describing the look or the surface.

Not adding visual elements is still considered as designing since “design is a process not an outcome”. The work that a designer puts into the thought process plays a major role in how the “design” will look at the end of the day. Design is not only the process of laying out elements in place but also the lack of it. Great designers are able to remove elements from a page without effecting the information presented, in other words thinking more and designing less.

Somehow, this debate reminds me of this interview with Erik Spiekermann where he addresses mainly the convergence of print to web and how these are getting closer as design disciplines.

History is repeating itself but on a different medium. Should we be calling this “flat design” or give it a name at all? Probably not. I think we’ve just learned something about web design which was just waiting to happen.

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