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Flat Design Is Going Too Far

Flat Design was the design trend of 2013. Momentum is showing no sign of slowing as more and more sites jump onto the idyllic san serif bandwagon.

With so much going for it, it’s perhaps justified that Flat design stands as the design trend of the minute. So, you ask, why do I think flat design may have gone too far?

It is hard to argue a case against it. Flat design brings with it everything that is appropriate for the modern web. Simple, minimalist web pages. This simpleness translating to a medium that is relatively easy to implement. The use of low contrasting colour pallets are easy on the eye. Sans serif fonts creating a feel of cleanliness.The removal of the ‘bells and whistles’ leaves us only what is important: Colour, Shape and Content. A presentation method which is effective at being both minimalist and beautiful. And with the rise of mobile computing, minimalism is a key advantage. Reducing the stress on low power systems.

Net Magazine recently released nominations for their annual Net Awards. The chief prize going to agency of the year. Looking at the sites in question, it is difficult to argue Flat Design has taken the world by storm (See here for an album of the nominees, provided by Reddit user awkwwward).

However, this also raised some of the major issues I have with Flat Design. These are the best in the business, yet they encapsulate my 3 major pet peeves with the Flat World:

Extreme Minimalism

The ethos of flat design is to implement ‘Swiss Style’ design philosophy onto the web. A philosophy that places heavy emphasis on minimalism amongst other things. Don’t get me wrong, minimalism has it’s uses. It has served to tidy up, and condense sites. Cleaning them, creating a user friendly atmosphere. In the meantime, also reducing stress on lower power devices, such as mobile, by creating simplistic web pages.

Minimalism is a fine line however. It is all too easy to overstep the line where minimalism becomes a featureless site.


(Source: Mark Boulton Design)

We begin with an example from Mark Boulton Design. A renowned web design studio, and a Net Award nominee. You’d expect them to be showcasing their talent on their own site. Instead we are presented with an ultra-minimalist spectacle. Creativity seems lacking. Flat, boring colours with basic text explaining what they do. It may be enough to fulfil its purpose, but does little to inspire us with their talents.

That is not to say this extreme minimalism doesn’t have it’s place, Google has done it for over a decade. It just has to be in the correct context. I don’t think a web design agency, where creativity is key, quite fits that.

Mobile First Design, Taken too Literally.

The great, if not the greatest, selling point of flat design is its accommodation for mobile devices. With over 28% of web traffic now mobile, only a fool would not ensure their site was optimised as such. Flat design’s previously mentioned minimalism drops intense graphics, and process-heavy items. Favouring a clean and basic design.

This is all great. Many designers however, seem to forget about the medium on which the majority of the web is still consumed. The humble PC.


(Windows 8′s Metro UI)

Windows 8 is the obvious example. Microsoft attempted to create a uniform experience across all devices. Utilising their ‘Metro’ interface on Mobile, Tablet, Xbox and of course PC. Metro had shown great success on Mobile, Tablet, and Xbox, and the eventual movement to PC was an inevitability.

An inevitability met with much disdain – you either love it, or you hate it. With hidden off screen gestures, and on screen gestures more suited to fingers than a mouse, Windows 8 provides a usability nightmare for any new user, or experienced user. The clunky Metro ‘Start screen’, ‘Apps’ obviously designed for tablet with little or no regard for PC, oversized text, amongst many other wrong doings.

All of these apply to many modern websites, designed to offer a ubiquitous experience over all devices. Unfortunately, if that experience appears far superior on one device over another, why handicap it – especially if it is your largest market? The user has to be first.

Fear of Breaking From Normality

Flat design has seen so much success of late, everyone is desperate to jump on the bandwagon, or risk being left behind. We’re at a stage where if your site isn’t flat, you’re not keeping up with web standards. You’re living in the dark ages. Your site is a failure.

It is no surprise then, that everyone is jumping on – joining in. With the redesign goldrush constrained by relatively strict rules on what Flat Design is, combined with other current web trends, we’re seeing a huge rise in generically designed sites. Designers appear scared to do something different – at risk of not being current. This schoolgirl mentality is stifling creativity and innovation. We are seeing people play it safe in order to conform. Why change when everyone expects, and seems happy with flat design?



(Sources:Teehan+Lax, Meta Lab Design)

The two sites above are again nominees for thenetawards’ top prize. Two top web design agencies we would expect to be forging a creative path. Yet everything is so generic, so similar. These near-identical sites have nothing to do with one-another, other than being in the same industry. Yet the placement of elements is identical in both, down to menu options and company name/logo. Even the background image has stark similarities.

The scramble to conform only serves to turn each site into a template to be ever so slightly customized for the site it belongs to. Is this really what we want – a generic web?

Will Flat Design’s Popularity be Its Downfall?

Flat design has become the template for budding websites. We’ve seen it feature in a plethora of flattened redesigns of late (The New York Times, iOS 7, Flickr). There is no denying that great flat design really is great. That flat design certainly fulfils problems with ubiquitousness and touch interaction found in older styles.

The issue with flat design is that it has become too powerful. We’re at a stage where creativity is being stifled in preference of sticking to a template that ‘works’. Where sites are becoming generic, sites are conforming. Usability is being sacrificed because… flat design works right?

We’ve covered the issue of whether flat design is here to stay before. I’d certainly agree that its principles will have a lasting impression on the web and elsewhere. It has certainly been a welcome change from the messy skeumorphisms of the past. It just feels as if the internet has lost it’s ‘Wow Factor’. I’m becoming tired of being confronted by the same template site after site. It feels as if every designer is being handed a set of 8-10 WordPress templates to deal with, and adapting sufficiently.

Where’s the creativity gone, and when will it return?


Marketing & UX @ Usabilla. Interested in design, marketing, the games industry and all things sports. Can often be found wandering Amsterdam, lost; or having a good time with friends. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter or Linkedin.

18 comments

  1. Alex Rose

    Great article, always good to challenge ;) I am a big fan of Flat UI design, especially around it’s capability to aid simple ways of completing complicated interactive tasks, but for Web/brochure-ware its an interesting challenge.
    Re thenetawards nominees – Someone recently remarked to me… ‘Is this Web design with good use of photography or just photography which is kinda interactive?’….

  2. Oliver McGough

    Thank you kind sir :)

    Yea, I’d certainly agree. Flat Design has rightly taken the fore, no denying that.

    Ha, great remark! I think that encapsulates this trend perfectly. “Throw a beautiful picture on there, and voila beautiful site” …beautiful =/= functional…

  3. Jan Van den Bergh

    Maybe flat design is going too far, but on several points the article is in my opinion misleading.

    E.g. The websites from Teehan+Lax and Meta Lab Design are far from similar, although the initial look is quite similar (especially on a screenshot). The experience (or feel in look-and-feel) of both websites was already very different to me. Even the home page felt quite different; static image versus movie, collapsed menu versus main navigation directly accessible, etc.

    I guess there is good reason for the overall structure to be quite similar; easy to use means that some level of familiarity is required.

    These sites are in my opinion (based on only a quick visit) both simple and easy, which is certainly not easy to achieve. Although I’m no design expert, they seem to challenge the status quo — I admit sometimes in very subtle ways — without becoming unintuitive.

    I am not a big fan of these all-encompassing images, but somehow it seams to work (on these websites).

  4. Mark Allum

    “We’re at a stage where creativity is being stifled in preference of sticking to a template that ‘works’.”

    So are you suggesting that we ditch trends that are boring and uncreative, even if they work?

    Because I’m pretty sure if you told a client “well, your traffic has dropped x% since those last design changes, but at least I’m not conforming those boring trends” then they would not be sharing their money with you again.

  5. Oliver McGough

    Cheers Mark, point taken.

    My point is that if the industry becomes too enamoured with one design, innovation stalls. Creativity will be sacrificed to continue conforming. The only way we can push forward and innovate is by risking with creative flair. If we continually use a template that works, we’ll just be stuck on the flat design treadmill forever. I’m not saying this will be the future – after all, Flat has dominated for barely a year.

    ‘The horse and cart worked perfectly well, why bother risk money on a motorised contraption that could never take off’

  6. LJ

    Flat has its benefits, I’ll concede (I’m still not a fan) … but when we are choosing style over substance, and adopting a look to meet a trend, design fails.

    There was actually a lot about skeumorphism that worked well, too … when not taken too far.

    Flat is a fad. The pendulum will swing again, and some other influence will become the design darling …

  7. RockStar B

    Flat design it’s the best thing that happened to webdesign in the last years! It does not block creativity, it’s a challenge to display the information in a most efficient way. Web 2.0 was awful :)

  8. Nicolas Schepers

    I agree that, while using Flat Design has many merits, flat designs do not have to look like each other all the time. The principles are fine and honest(mostly) but they should be used more creatively other than copy paste the same structure.

    Don’t fully agree with the ‘Mobile First Design’ argument, as Windows 8′s issues don’t originate from Flat Design. It’s rather because of a lack of proper, user-centred testing and trying to be too radical instead of listening to the users’ top tasks. They’ve done even Flat design wrong, as they hide important functionalities.

    Though it’s true when you look at the hamburger menu, which is being also used when viewing a website with the laptop, which not every users understands (mainly frequent mobile users). But that kind of overlaps with your point on extreme minimalism.

  9. Oliver McGough

    Cheers for the input Nicolas :)

    The problem isn’t only with Windows 8, but with many new responsive site revamps. The sites often feel clunky without the benefit of touch. The NY Times site comes to mind, as does the new facebook revamp. Though I love the new designs, I can’t help but feel I’m intruding on a tablet’s app.

    Perhaps this just something to get used to overtime. After all, ubiquitousness is certainly beneficial, and upholds UX principles in attempt to keep the experience consistant. I just hope that attempted consistency eventually solidifies itself.

  10. Jerry Burton

    Oliver,
    Thanks, for the great reading! I was curious to know what your thoughts are as to where the industry heading next. What are your predictions as to what the next BIG Trend is…As far as Visuals go?

  11. Daniel Dogeanu

    Flat Design is not a trend, it’s rather an evolution. This is why all websites are switching to Flat Design. And keep in mind that Flat and Minimal are not the same thing. You can have Flat Design without it being Minimal, or the other way around.

    But yes, I agree with you! Creativity is suffering a lot from this. Some of my clients even pointed that out to me. I still believe Flat Design is a good thing, but if we all copy the same layout as some frameworks dictate us.. That’s not creativity.

  12. Serviced Apartments Guy

    I’ve rather noticed this trend myself recently, I would never have thought flat design was bad necessarily? I suppose its that extension of instantly recognisable brand identity.

  13. Tim

    I’ve been a software developer since the early 1980s, and have kept up to date with technologies, designs and trends over the years.

    I have to say, I have really been annoyed at the trend towards these “flat” interfaces (and I am really happy to have found your article, since my various searches for articles on the subject – using terms used by Google and Microsoft like “cards”, “tiles” etc. have turned up very little).

    I wouldn’t mind if these interfaces stuck to phones and tablets, but they have migrated to desktop sites and applications as well – places that, in my opinion, they do not belong. Even redesigns such as Microsoft Office’s “ribbon” interface seem overly simplistic to me.

    I like to see a LOT of information on a screen at once, a dense field of content, so that I can scan over it and find what I’m looking for easily. Things like Google’s new Play Store website interface, where all information is displayed in big colorful flat “cards”, where you can only see a few onscreen at the time (I suppose since they expect you’ll be flicking through them on a phone/tablet with your fingers) I find absolutely useless – I want to search for specific terms or comments or features, and it won’t let me… I am FORCED to act like I’m casually browsing on a tablet, not scanning for information on a screenfull of data, which I prefer.

    These bright, Kandee-Kolored Klown interfaces seem to me to be built to appeal to 4-year-olds, not adult eyes and sensibilities, and I hope at some point we go back to more sophisticated, information-dense interfaces.

  14. Suzanne

    Thank you, Tim. As someone who must fact-check and quotation-check hundreds of sites each week, I have come to HATE these eye-crap sites. Can’t find a damn thing on them. Checking manuscripts takes me easily four times as long as it used to. I’d like to know who could possibly find this design an improvement, or tolerable, other than the designers jerking off over them.

  15. Andrew Palios

    I disagree with flat design not being minimal. It is minimal, it just generally does not have texture, yet. People call it flat design because it is generally easier to digest, in my opinion.

    I think the logical next step here is Conceptual Minimalism. This will begin happening when people decide that minimalist design without a concept or a big idea will begin to get lost in the millions of other minimalist designs out there.

    The idea of conceptual minimalism is that a concept will be expressed through design, with just enough art elements to communicate the concept, and no more.

    The job of the designer is to take what is happening now, whether good or bad, and find a way to make it better. The only way to make minimalism more interesting is to introduce a concept, then use the elements of art to make a design more appealing, but only until the concept is communicated. Then stop! LOL its not easy, but that’s why everyone isn’t doing it!

  16. Henry Hode

    >>> ” Is this really what we want – a generic web?”

    Perhaps it is.

    After all, for many useful objects of everyday use, we have settled on some standard, usable, understandable, conventional designs, that all resemble each others. Think of doors, cars, scissors…

    And if elements on web sites with similar intent are placed in the same spots, it could be for the same reason that cars all have generally four wheels. Because it works well that way.

    And most users who are looking through several agency websites, say, to check if they want to work with them, would only benefit from not having to discover every time how their portfolio works.

    Most of the variability we see today on the web is a “forced” attempt to stand out, to attract the attention of users who, most of the time, could not care less of the cool animations or the menu that works illogically just in the attempt to be different. They are there to do something.
    Our job is to provide a consistent, predictable way for them to do so.
    If that means flat design and predictable sites. I am all for it.

    Henry

  17. Ayesha Goyal

    Flat design is on the trend due to its simple shapes ,colors

    Its objectives focus on
    1) It emphasize on usage and its clarity.
    2) The limits of the screen and works with in the parameter
    3) It make websites more functional
    4) No edge on the screen
    5) Flat design limits down the visual elements to let expose the essential functionality

    KAOS build appealing,highly compatible designs which conveys the right image of business. Web designer team at hong kong website development company is full of skills and ideas that helps in scoring higher in designign and development field.

  18. Julian

    I hate flat design. It is a huge step backwards – to a time before Windows 3.1.
    Even early Star Trek graphics were more interesting !
    Flat design seems more about fashion and image than function. I want to see a button that says “click me”. “Flat” websites are a real turn-off as they require a lot of mouse-trawling to find what’s clickable.

    Minimalism certainly isn’t “modern”. It’s been around since the ’60s (if nor before). Minimalism is just an excuse to be lazy, to cut corners (or rather to NOT cut corners….).
    Why the hell should I pay more for a perfectly rectangular table than one with the corners rounded – but say it’s “fashionable” and the mugs roll over….

    If you want people to re-visit your website then surely navigation to be both clear and interesting.

    Single colour rectangles make me think I’m at a site for pre-schoolers.
    Monotone and simplified icons are both dull and confusing. What the hell does three horiizontal lines mean?

    Here’s hoping that enough small businesses baulk at wasting money on a flat re-design.

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