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Flat Design is Not the Answer to Skeuomorphism

August 16, 2013

For awhile now, I’ve watched as countless people (designers, developers) argue the merits of so-called “flat design” in favor of the skeuomorphism that had previously taken over the mobile and web app space. I don’t want to re-hash that conversation or take sides. I like flat design a lot and the conversations surrounding it has influenced my thinking greatly.

There's nothing wrong with a mullet if that's who you are!However, it’s all gone too far. Flat design has become an extreme view that aims to be as opposite as possible to skeuomorphism, often to the detriment of the user experience. Flat design is not the answer to your problems any more than a toupee will make you look like you have hair. The people who champion the flat design cause are the same people who drooled over the skeuomorphistic gloss in Apple’s first iPhone. It’s like someone with a crew cut screaming about how terrible the mullet was.

Mental Models
Here’s the thing. We all carry around mental models of how the world works and our ability to operate in a systems-based world depends a lot on our understanding of what we see. The more that applications and systems rely on these existing mental models, the easier it is for people to use. A system that takes advantage of people’s mental models requires less brain power and therefore takes less time to perform the task of the application, whether that’s navigating a website or tapping the right button.

What do I mean? For example, buttons look raised or depressed because of shading. Purist flat design proponents would have you believe that your buttons should have no shading at all. If you take away the shading, it might look simpler but it’s also not as easy to figure out which one is which.
Which button is raised? Which is depressed?

Now, the more that we (people) interact with systems, the more accustomed we are to how things (like a button) should look. In short, our mental models can change over time. This is the reason my toddler instinctively swipes the pages of a magazine like an iPad. New technology will change how we expect to interact with devices and those shifts will introduce new design ideas.

On Branding
Perhaps more disturbing to me, is the idea that a product or service should change it’s visual appeal based entirely on what is the current trend of the time. The flat design trend illustrates to me that many companies believe the end goal of their product is simply to be cool. Tired of the way your app looks? Slap the latest trendy design on it so that you’ll like it again. But successful product marketing is not about what you like. It’s about what works.

We should be basing our design decisions on an overall branding strategy that establishes the kind of product we want to be perceived as. Throwing flat design at everything undermines a marketers ability to communicate the personality of the product through unique visual distinctions that attract a specific target audience. How do we want our product to be perceived? Unless our branding strategy calls for us to be “chic, sleek, metro, high-end, artsy, and minimal” then we should consider some other ways of designing our products.

Can you imagine if Farmville or Angry Birds adopted flat design?

What if angry birds adopted flat design?

What’s Right
One thing I really appreciate about the discussion surrounding flat design is the idea that we should return to simpler design and focus on color, typography, and content. Good user experience design needs to focus only on the essentials. Anything non-essential has the potential of distracting the user from the primary purpose of the application. When we remove the fluff, the result is usually a better experience for everyone. I am all for a better user experience!

Towards Balance
The right approach to the conversation is to employ a design that balances the needs of your brand, current trends, and user’s mental models for understanding systems. I’m not saying flat design is bad. I actually prefer it. I’m saying there are a lot more things to consider than just what’s trendy. You have to do what’s right for the product. Do what works, not what looks cool.

Specifically, I’m a fan of using gradients and shadows where they are needed. It’s okay to give your modal a drop shadow because it’s supposed to look like it’s sitting on top of the page. Give yourself permission to make an active element glow. And by all means, please make buttons look raised with a nice gradient. But should your wallet app have a leather texture? Should your blog look like a yellow legal pad? I’d say that all depends on how your product needs to be perceived in the market.

In the end, flat design is just a swing of the pendulum as far away from skeuomorphism as possible. It’s not the answer to your design problems and eventually the pendulum will swing again. If you want your product to live longer than the current trend, find the right design approach for your apps that accomplishes your business goals and establishes your brand firmly in the consciousness of your audience. There’s nothing wrong with a mullet, if a mullet is what you were meant to have!

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