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Bring on Flat Design and Say Goodbye to Digital Naugahyde

Suddenly, flat design is all the rage. From Microsoft to Apple, the “new” flat style is taking over screens everywhere, and our buttons and apps have never looked smoother. Of course, companies are now also in a mad race to make their logos flatter than the next guy’s.

Beyond the trend, there are several legitimate reasons for this. Simplicity removes distraction and communicates quicker — perfect for the online engagement frenzy and especially the mobile world of the smartphone. Things are just more easily decipherable with pared down visuals, and their smaller file sizes also satisfy our ever-increasing need for speed.

Imagine the world it would be if we just did less. Simplicity in design says so much more.But one of the most compelling reasons for the change is that skeuomorphism is out — that is, we no longer feel the need to pretend that new media should somehow copy and replicate the look and feel of the tools and objects that came before. Digital folders on our computer screens no longer need to look like the paper folders in our file cabinets (do we still use those?), and navigation tabs on websites no longer need to look like the things that stick up from those paper folders. Just as we ditched Naugahyde in the ’70s, skeuomorphism was fun while it lasted — it served its purpose but it’s no longer necessary.

It seems like just yesterday that we were all scurrying to make every design look as 3-dimensional, shiny and “real-looking” as possible, with several drop shadows thrown in for good measure. Making things look like real-life objects was a handy style-bridge between yesterday and today, helping us familiarize ourselves with the cold new world of pixels. But we’ve been living in the digital age for a while now, and we don’t need that security blanket anymore. A digital world requires its own visual language, not a second hand copy of things that came before.

Flat is where it’s at

I love flat design and am happy that things have progressed to the point where simple forms, beautiful layouts, and typography can once again rule the day in visual communications. Trends are cyclical by nature, but what matters most is not the style — but rather, is it good and does it work?

Flat design can be wonderful but it is very difficult to do well — it takes “real” designers and illustrators to pull it off. Minimalism is deceptively simple and unfortunately, we see a lot of bad flat design because of it.

As flat design’s inherent simplicity offers no place to hide, it will now be easier to separate “those who can” from “those who can’t.” All those tacky stylistic renderings and cheap “special effects,” layered upon ugly layer, did a fine job of concealing a lack of real design skill — but Halloween is over and the mask needed to come off eventually.

The key now is to make flat design and the return to minimalism as clever and interesting as anything more elaborate — boring, empty design won’t spark anyone to action and is the risk taken with less capable hands.

So… bring on the flat — no more 3-D buttons that feel like we can push them, no more leatherette backgrounds (why do we call them “wallpapers” anyway?) and no more spherical balls when a plain circle will suffice.

It’s time to move past all the unnecessary adornment and the land of bells and whistles — to embrace our present by looking to the past. Flat design is not a trend, it’s a reawakening.

Photo illustration work: Paul Biedermann, re:DESIGN

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