Flat Design Is Going Too Far
Design | User Experience

Flat Design Is Going Too Far

on / by Oliver McGough

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?

| |
Article by

Oliver McGough

Passionate UX Designer and Marketer.

Become a writer here!

Share your thoughts

  • 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?’….

    • 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…

  • 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).

  • 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.

    • 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’

  • 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 …

  • http://rockstartemplates.com/ 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 :)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • http://www.bluesmokecreative.com/ 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.

  • http://www.thearmitage.com 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • http://www.paliosdesign.com 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!

  • 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

  • http://www.kaos.com.hk/ 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.

  • 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.

  • Tino

    i’ve already used flat UI design for websites and i like the clean and plain colored geometric shapes without texture. It’s the context where it works and where not. On a website with 3D content and flat UI overlay it works good. It’s the right contrast to highly textured background, but in other cases like iOS 7 UI it was a nightmare. Like Tim wrote there is a problem with candy colorization and not intended classification of icons with the same popping orange for example. A user looks at and immediately see a pattern that doesn’t exist. The apps are not in the same class. Why is this happen on iOS 7? My thesis is a oversimplification in color palette (orange, white) similar surface area of white icons inside so you don’t have a chance to differentiate them from each other at first look, so the brain builds a pattern that’s not intended. Another issue is the symbolic iconic design, it’s too boring not outstanding. The old skeumorphism design don’t had this problem. Each icon was unique with rich texture. I also had to change my background picture on the smartphone, because the bad contrast with new flat design. Buttons don’t work as buttons anymore, because they have no depth with the wrong context. I think flat design will transform into a slightly more 3d looking design, but still flat, but with more depth and not pushed to the extreme.

  • Tino

    Hey Julian, i got also huge problems with functionality of flat design. My worst example is the change in iOS7. There are several drawbacks from the prior design. First the recognition of symbolic message of many icons is worse, it’s too abstract and they looking not familiar, second the not intended classification of icons because of a primary background color like orange for several icons, this combined with lack of texture in the icon (just white) leads to confusion or senseless search for the right app because of the perception everything is the same and it’s boring, yes totally boring. I’m going so far to say, flat design is the apologize for the lack the ability to design outstanding real good UI elements, which are unique, which are make a product unique.

    Additionally i’d changed my background because of bad color and brightness contrast. I had also problems in ultra flat UI to find the clickable elements, it’s not a good design for this purpose it needs a bit depth always. Because i don’t want first time hover over all elements too find the hidden treasure, stupid game. The earth isn’t flat, we’re not flat. I always preach to designers not follow the extreme trend, just give some smaller redesign but never forget the intention of the design, the function.

  • Migs

    Flat design is like a plague, a virus of conformity, killing usability in the name of fashion and profit.
    For mobile devices it certainly has some advantages, it goes from simplifying screens to saving some battery life… But the concept was pushed way too far and spreading it to desktop UIs is a huge usability step back.

    The truth is, most companies do not understand that in order to have the best user experience possible, you need to adapt your design to the device you are using. Or they do understand it but since it is more expensive they try to save some pennies by asking for a multi-device compatible interface. And sometimes it is even worse as they create an interface designed for mobile devices and try to make it work on a desktop devices! And there we go, usability is sacrificed for more profit…

    Worse comes to worst, companies managed to turn this capitalistic idea into a trend, knowing that something becoming trendy in the artistic world is like a landslide that would take over all web agency worldwide… Today, everyone has this stupid idea that if a design is not flat, it is a failure, a backward version of reality. “Your design is not flat? Haha you are a prehistorical idiot, unable to embrace change!”

    Then we have designers that are not only formatted to follow trends but they actually like it since it allows them to be lazy! “Oh yeah now I don’t have to bother with shadows and perspectives effects anymore! I can just draw some stupid rectangles with a 16 colors palette and they will be happy!”

    Now it’s like no one cares about usability anymore as long as we are trendy and able to save money when reaching the mobility market. We are all following one way stripped from most creativity and the worse is that we deeply believe that it is good for us. When did this brain-washing happened?!

    Remember this the next time you have to guess what is a button in a simplistic UI where you can hardly find what you are looking for among a mess of geometrical and colorful shapes…

    Excuse me if it’s not the future I had in mind.

  • Kevbo

    Great article! I am very tired of everything being centered around mobile first. Like others mentioned, I often feel like I am being forced to use a tablet/phone interface from my PC. I see more and more sites get re-designed with lots of ‘white space’ and large buttons that are easy for thumbs to press. However the information is spread so thin that you have to click/swipe/look all over just to get stuff that used to all be on 1 page. Very annoying in my opinion.

  • vape guy

    I pretty much disagree with this article and people who say things like “Flat design is used too much” or “Flat design is destroying creativity” or “People are only using flat design because it’s “trendy”. It’s a very narrow minded view about why decisions are made in the business world and the author comes across as inexperienced and juvenile with his attempt to paint everyone with such a broad “talentless, we just want to be trendy” brush.

    Sure, I will contest there are those who are creating sites with no real perspective on web design/content strategy/ui/ux/ia and are simply following the trend. This is true in pretty much any field …

    But a lot of other companies out there know exactly what they are doing and a flat/minimal design is the result of exhaustive research and testing and has proven to meet their business goals.

  • Drew

    As someone who does not design websites or mobile apps and who is just a customer/user, I *HATE* the flat/minimalist design. From a usage perspective, they are the same – instead of being easier to use with “cues” as to what’s clickable and what’s decoration, I constantly find myself having to pause and think too much to find the functional areas of a screen or page. It’s clear to me that minimalism/flat design is more for designers’ fancy and the quest to “do something different” than for usability and a seamless UI experience. Hate hate hate hate flat/minimalism and hate Jony Ive for ruining iOS. :)

  • Ibo Vis

    Good Design to me is a system, all about communication and usability. Great Design adds a touch of art or creativity to make it unique. The reason people are jumping on the flat design bandwagon is because it is the next step in design-evolution. The system is constantly learning and improving itself adapting to the current zeitgeist. Flat design is here simply because when done right it is superior when it comes to communication and usability. Great designers will use the flat design system to create great designs that are creative, unique and have personality. If you like the way flat design looks is a matter of personal preference.

  • D Marie

    Flat design is hot because it’s *cheap*. Any programmer/developer, i.e., anyone who’s NOT a designer, can now call themselves a designer (you just pick a color, and presto/bammo you’re site is designed!). Anything creative requires a true designer who’s spent years perfecting their craft and hence will CHARGE AN HOURLY RATE reflective of that. This fits in nicely with the other trend which is for companies to pay less and less in salaries (again, they expect a programmer/developer to be a graphic designer as well). I first noticed a similar phenomenon 15 years ago, when bad websites were appearing left and right; this was because programmers thought they could design just because they knew Photoshop. Eventually that work (or a good deal of it) came back to the graphic designers and we began to see nice websites (where the designer and programmer work in a team). Sadly, I don’t see that correction happening here.

  • Riz meri

    Flat design has gone too far in the wrong direction, i hate it so much that i refuse to use applications with flat ui, it’s been created by a bunch of hippies and became a trend because of some major companies desiced to adopt it like Microsoft, Apple and Google forcing most graphics designer to use flat design in thier designs. Every time some company convert thier design to flat it makes me so angry that i want to swear, like Spotify.. Tunein radio.. Duolingo… they had a perfect ui and then they messed it up completely with a hippie flat design. I use windows 7 and i love it, there’s no way on earth i’m going to use winows 8 or 10 or any newer versions if they had the same crabby design.

  • Jack

    I feel that, like in everything, a balance is necessary. Flat Design can be used in many ways and can be almost as unique and individual as any other design form. In this modern world of constant digital information, it is my opinion that a simple and clear way of presenting information is not only useful, but almost nessary.

  • Ogre Magi

    How do I upvote this article??

    Personally, I somehow just hate the “new” flat design… It all started with windows 8 and its horrible metro experience…

  • Adagio

    I remember the first time I saw Windows 8. The first thing that came to my mind was “is this a beta of the very first Windows ever?”, but when it dawned on me this was an actual screenshot of the final design of Windows 8 I was shocked. Did they fire the designers to save a few bucks?

    Not only is this flat style extremely ugly, the usability is often down the drain. As many already has mentioned it can be difficult to find the clickable items as clickable items often looks just like any non-clickable items. Often it can also be difficult to “read” the meaning of icons. When icons are only using two colors the icons can be hard to recognize as there are no depth.

    The only “good” thing about this flat style is that even programmers like me can easy make a trend design. No need to spend money on a real designer. I can just put a boring yellow box here, a mindlss lightblue box there and then add a bit of text, then I have created something using this trendy design. Not that I ever would go that way.

    I’m sticking with Windows 7 for now.
    I’m glad this flat design haven’t made an entry in the games I’m playing

  • Sharon

    Truly well said!

  • David

    Slapping a wingding on a primary colour square and calling it a button is not web design. Give me a few drop shadows and glossy buttons. Things were flat and boring in Windows 2.0 and looked better with every version until Windows Vista, then it’s been in decline ever since. There’s nothing wrong with a nice clean interface, but I don’t want to try to figure out what someone’s minimalist icons are supposed to mean.

  • http://blueant.in ImmanuelK

    There are plenty of terrible examples of flat design but I think the reason it works is BECAUSE of its simplicity, not inspite of it. If used well it can be quite elegant without falling into the abyss of over-minimalism. I may be biased because we’ve had great fun using flat design over on our site – it hasn’t been the basis of our entire website design, but we’ve really enjoyed creating characters using flat design (and the people we made them for seem to have dug them too). Super proud of our flat design gifs, e.g. http://blueant.in/gifs-flat-design-blueant/

  • Patti March

    I hate flat design, I hate mobile first.

    • The Darling Kinkshamer

      Why do you hate mobile first?

      • Patti March

        One example:

        A bank redesigned their site for mobile first. It has totally destroyed the ease of viewing information on the desktop. The large blocks of information are a total waste of real estate, not to mention a user’s bank balance shows up so large that it can be read across the room. Users have to scroll down the page to see two to three transactions.

        Just jumping on the mobile first bandwagon is not the right way to redesign websites.

        This is just one example. Mobile first without any thought for desktop or larger screens is just as bad as desktop designs without thought of user experience on a mobile phone.

  • sighmaster

    It’s a shame you deleted all the comments when you switched to the new site design…

Pin It on Pinterest