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It’s a flat planet

5th November 13

Posted by Mel Exon

Posted in design, User Experience

One more in a series of tech columns we’ve written for Marketing magazine this year. This article by Adam on flat design appeared in the September issue.

Author: Adam Powers, Head of UX, BBH London & BBH Labs

Image credit: selection of modernist, flat graphic design by Brent Couchman http://brentcouchman.com/

Image credit: selection of modernist, flat graphic design by Brent Couchman http://brentcouchman.com/

Sir Jony Ive revealed his vision for Apple’s iOS7 operating system on September 10th, and the SVP of Design’s vision of the world is flat.

This redesign is about more than just eradicating embossed buttons and drop shadows. In typically thoughtful mode, Ive declared, “True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter.” For the first time in perhaps a decade though, Apple is joining a movement rather than creating one.

The flat design movement has been gaining momentum amongst technology companies for some time now. Looking back, it may well have been Microsoft Windows 8 design team that pushed things past the tipping point. They created a crisp, clean and minimalist approach where geometric shapes, bold colours and sharp corners dominate the rather nice operating system. The next flat design fans were Google, with their new aesthetic applied across a dramatically improved suite of applications (Google Maps, I adore you). Then came Yahoo’s elegant weather app, but many others have followed.

Like many art and design movements, flat design was a reaction to the dominant aesthetic that preceded it. Skeumorphism – the approach that borrows affordances from a user’s day-to-day life and translates that to screen-based design with the aim of aiding comprehension. All that stitched leather, aqua shine and drop shadow of the past few years was borne from that belief. It goes back further, to the days of WYSIWYG computer desktops where the workplace norms, such as files, folders and trash cans, were employed in the language of the operating systems to help us comprehend and participate in the desktop computing revolution.

Fans of this flat aesthetic, ahem, cite this change as a sign of the maturity of human and computer interaction. Our interaction with technology no longer needs to be disguised to make it more palatable. Flat design embraces the constraints and challenges of screen-based design and runs with it. Minimalist and utilitarian design that foregoes excessive ornamentation and is sensitive to bandwidth and functionality.

Before I get caught up in adulation of this latest expression of modernism, we should pause.

It would seem that flat design might come with risks. That (once?) esteemed voice of digital usability, Jakob Nielsen, has undertaken extensive user testing focussed on everyone’s must have tech – the tablet. After testing on a whole range of fondle slabs, Jakob concludes that flat design is not optimal for tablet devices. It would appear that the absence of hover-states on tablets, combined with departure of drop shadows and the ‘less is more’ conviction of flat design, means there is “…a dearth of distinguishing signifiers for UI elements.” i.e. It is harder to intuit what is and is not clickable and therefore things are harder and less satisfying to use.

This presents a very specific challenge, but I would suggest that there are a couple of wider reaching challenges that face the flat design movement.

The first is the ever present spectre of commodification of the web. Look at the search returns page on Google, the tightening embrace of iOS and Android design guidelines or the increasingly far-reaching rules for brands on Facebook or Youtube – it’s just getting harder for brands to cut through on tech platforms and services. Though the folks at YouTube etc. might argue that brands should focus on the quality of their content rather than the ease with which they can spray their colour palette across their respective brand channels. Either way, the flat design movement does appear to be at risk of further contributing to the commodification situation.

The second challenge that I see is that much of the impetus behind flat design is from Europe and North America – where there is long history with Modernism.

What does a critical market like Asia make of flat design, for instance? A Hong Kong based expert, working at the juncture of global marketing and technology, advised me, “Whether you’re considering ux design, user testing or anything else for that matter, you mustn’t think of Asia as a single market. China is as different to Japan as it is to Australia…and each has quite a different relationship with technology…”

Actually, one doesn’t have to look too far for some quite specific insights. This Tech in Asia blog observes that in China, Vietnam and Thailand, flat design may frequently be interpreted as overly austere or ‘…a lot of hot air…” It also proposes that for many of these commercially important markets, it is in fact ‘crowded design’ that performs best.

Somebody better tell Jony.

3 comments on “It’s a flat planet”

  1. We see more and more experiments with Kinect, gesture-based games, 3D printing, brands exploring digital interactivity throughout urban space, etc and etc.. The physical space is being taken by the digital one with the advent of visual interactive installations and I believe we are all changing the way we interact with technology and the environment that surrounds us. What if in a couple of years we’re able to feel textures by touching tablet devices for example? Maybe I’m wrong but I believe flat design was initially an easy way to adapt interfaces to different sizes but it may not be the right answer with the advent of all the technology I mentioned before. We may be urging for more than flat design shortly. What you think?

    • avatar Adam Powers Said

      I’m sure you are right. Already there is experimental technology that creates buttons and textures that sit upon touch screens, dynamically and in real time. The human hand is such a wonderful tool, it deserves better than to experience everything under a shiny piece of glass.

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