What is flat design and how it can help you create great UX?
Design play a crucial role in the success of any product. Traditionally, the design has been used to enhance the look and feel of a product. Even in case digital goods such as websites, mobile and web applications, etc. the design has been used to make the product more attractive.
With the advent of mobile and tablet devices, things have changed quite fast. The focus of designers has changed from mere attractiveness to the usability of offerings. Over time, the companies have put more emphasis on the user experience to make their products more competitive. The look and feel have not entirely gone on the back burner. Rather, the design elements are being used as a complementary to the functionality of the product to improve the usability of the apps and web pages.
Flat design is the latest trend in the design and technology industry which is aimed at minimizing the design elements while maximizing the user experience.
What is Flat Design
Flat Design is opposite of rich design. It is based on the philosophy of minimalistic design of user interfaces and other elements. Which means flat design uses the least number of design elements and doesn’t include gradients, highlights, mixed colors, etc. It also excludes the textured, shiny and shadowing effects from the design. Although the flat design is directly opposite to skeuomorphism, it may include some features of the same which is discussed in later part of this article.
Although the flat design is a minimalistic design, it may not be as simple as it might seem. It requires a highly specialized skill set and knowledge of hue, color, and typography to create flat design elements that work well together.
In short, user experience and focus on the content is at the core of flat design. It helps users achieve their goals by making minimum efforts. Thus, it excludes all design elements which distract users from the main content.
(Movies and Cinema elements in the Flat Design)
(Image source: GraphicRiver)
Evolution of Flat Design
In the primitive days of the internet, all designs were dull and flat. Simplicity in design is attributed to the lack of availability of the technology that can create complicated designs. However, with the evolvement of technology, the graphic and web design became more complex. Designers started using mixed colors, gradients, textures, etc. to make things real and attractive. The idea was to recreate the real-world objects so that the users can learn technology faster. Thus, when you delete an item, it goes to a trash can (Recycle bin) on the desktop. Similarly, a watch will be shown as a wall clock with its second-hand moving as it does in the real world. Designers also started creating elements that will attract eyeballs. The objective was to design graphics that make users curious which results in more traffic and page views.
In 2010, Microsoft launched Windows OS 7 with a new look that used sharp edges, simple designs, and clear graphics (Such design was also used in Zune). Inspired by its success, the company used the similar design in the launch Microsoft Windows 8 OS which was highly appreciated by the users.
Metro Design in Microsoft Windows 8
In 2013, Apple unveiled iOS 7 with completely revamped previous icon and user interface design.
(Apple iOS 7 Flat Design Icons)
Head of Design for Apple, Jony Ive said; “When we sat down last November to work on iOS 7, we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching the glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits.” He further added that “So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got the design out of the way.”
Soon, Google also adopted the flat design for its website and applications and named it as Material Design. Google has an exclusive section on Material Design in which it has discussed the goals, principles, and guidelines to create icons, apps, layout, user interface, etc.
(Examples from Google Material Design)
In design, everyone says that they are innovative and they don’t follow the herd. However, once big guys create something new, the same is picked up by smaller guys, and over time, it becomes a trend. Flat design soon became a hot trend just after the top three bigwigs of technology sector had adopted it in varying degrees. Today, it is being adopted by a majority of established firms as well as tech startups. Many established companies have revamped their existing web pages and applications to adopt flat design.
Key Features of the Flat Design
Flat design has borrowed many elements from various old design styles while creating several new ones. Over time, it has changed significantly with a lot of new features. Here are a few features of flat design which help in designing great user interfaces:
Since the flat design is based on simplicity, it rejects any sort of effects. However, it has accepted the “Long Shadows” style from skeuomorphism, especially for smaller user interface items such as buttons, etc. The long shadows usually extend beyond the graphic illustration box. These are positioned at a 45-degree angle with the edges and twice as long as the object. The long shadows bring depth and add emphasis to the flat elements.
However, many influencers claim that the length of the shadows is becoming shorter. Thus, in future, we might expect subtle shadows as compared to what it is today.
Bright Color Palettes
Use of color is one the most important features of the flat design. It consists of a few primary colors. It has also brought back the bright colors in fashion. Most significant colors in flat design are vibrant, bold, bright and saturated colors. Of course, the color scheme is not just limited to these specific colors. You can also use various shades and tints depending on what you are trying to depict.
Experienced designers can use the color scheme based on their experience or guess work. They can experiment with the various colors in the Color panel of Photoshop and create an excellent color palette based on their intuition, experience, skills and practice.
New designers can use various color palette generators such as Adobe Color, Coolers, etc. to create colors which are suitable for their specific designs. Most of these palette generators are meant for almost every kind of design not just for flat design. If you are looking for color palette generator for flat designs, you can use FlatUIColors by Designmodo which is specifically made for Flat designs.
You can also find a great variety of color palettes and swatches on Google’s material design guide.
The typography used in the flat design, commonly known as Flat Typography, is much more than using Helvetica font. Like the design elements, it focuses on fonts which are straightforward and easy to read. Many argue that using sans serif with uniform stroke width is a most common form of typography used in the flat design. The flat typography has emphasized on lettering back and made it an important element of reading experience.
Typography is an integral part of overall design element in the flat design. Due to less number of design elements on the screen, the users focus on the typefaces. While choosing a typeface, you must consider that the font must complement the color and other features. It should not be very loud and must be legible.
(Source: Icon Works)
Ghost button is a transparent design element which is an outline of a button. Although it is clickable, it just gives an idea of button and not designed as an actual button. It provides a visual interaction cue without disturbing the user interface design. Being just an outline, it also shares the background focus. In the past, the ghost buttons have been mostly used in high-color backgrounds. With the advancement in flat design, ghost buttons are now being used with images and various other design elements. These buttons include the crisp typography. Paired with minimalism and flat aesthetic, ghost buttons work well in the flat design.
Why Flat Design is Thriving
It is simple and intuitive
Today, the modern technology is striving to make things simple. Both, software as well as hardware, are being developed to keep the learning curve of end users shorter. As Jony Ive noted that the consumer behavior and habits have changed significantly. They are becoming more involved. The attention span of users is shortening, and they look for things which are simple and out of the box. People use technology and tools to achieve a set of goals. The flat design naturally fits into the current technological landscape. It keeps things simple and helps users focus on the work. In many cases, it even assists users to achieve their goals. Thus, flat design is the need of the hour.
It is perfect for Adaptive and Responsive Design
Being a minimalistic and grid-dependent design, flat design naturally fits into both responsive framework (one design for all devices – the design shifts according to the device) or adaptive framework (one design per device). Also, in flat design, there are fewer design elements on the screen which mean that the backend will have less load. Therefore, the web pages will load faster which will further enhance the user experience.
Almost everyone, especially the big players in the tech industry, is adopting the flat design. Which means all the new players and smaller guys, will follow the trend. Also, since the fundamentals of the flat design are based on improving the user experience, the trend is not going to die down soon. Even when it will reach its peak, the strong fundamentals (which are based on solid usability principles) will ensure that it reincarnate itself in the new form. It has already been trending for past few years. Still, it is reinventing itself and adding many features continuously to stay relevant. It is also gaining a lot of positive attention from graphic and web designer and marketers from all over the world. Also, if users get used to the flat design style, the designers will have to adapt the same to stay competitive in the market.
How to get started with Flat Design
If you have not tried your hands at flat design, then it is the right time to do so. Until you get your hands dirty, you may not appreciate this great style which is here to stay for quite some time in future.
Start creating icons
If you are a newbie in the field of flat design, then start creating icons first. You can select many concepts on the same topic and start designing the icons keeping in mind the important features of the flat design as discussed above. Keep them as simple as possible. Although the flat design is a minimalistic design, it takes a lot of time to create an excellent design by using a minimum number of design elements.
You need to look it from the perspective of usability. Don’t use any element which doesn’t help in enhancing the user experience. Keep the edges sharp and clear. Use bright and vibrant color palette as discussed above in the article. As a designer, you must have experienced the power of iteration. Iterate your design until you get a perfect icon.
Once you create a perfect icon, move to designs that require more complexity. You can try building a city landscape. Use as many flat objects as possible to create a flat scene. Practice the usage of highlights, textures, shadows, etc. as prescribed the flat design.
Flat design is redefining the simplicity in designing user interfaces. Its importance will grow with advancement in new technologies such as Internet of Things, etc. With the large scale implementation of the IoT, the user interface will gradually disappear to machine-to-machine communication. Thus, the fundamentals of the flat design will be useful in designing in the era of IoT. Therefore, the graphic and UI, UX designers must learn the principles of flat design and start using it in everyday designs. The content of this article will be helpful in getting them started in the right direction.
Anthony Bergs is a project manager at writers per hour. He always keeps an eye on the marketing sector to implement the best innovations into the strategies that he builds. He’s always open for new connections and partnerships.