The world is flat, at least for now

September 18, 2013, is a date that may (or may not) go down in web and app design history: the day Apple's iOS7 was released. That's the day the earth (or at least the web-o-sphere) went flat. The iOS redesign was in large part the trigger for a new trend toward flatness and simplicity in design.

What do I mean by "flat"? No beveled edges, no (or minimal) shadowing, no more buttons made to look raised with shiny surfaces and chrome rims. No more skeuomorphism, the practice of designing virtual objects to reflect their real-world counterparts (think the fake wooden bookshelf background that used to represent the newsstand app on your phone).

Is this a trend? Or a triumph of good design principles? As one commentator put it, flat design "reflects a maturity to the aesthetics of digital design that has been developing for decades, a process that for periods was held back by amateurism or an under-appreciation of the value of beauty and clarity in software."

However, this aesthetic has the potential to spawn a creeping sameness, already evident in many newer designs. How many websites have you seen lately that feature (a) a boldy colored, full-width image at the top, with (b) the name of the website or title of the article superimposed in large white letters, followed by (c) a featureless, borderless white canvas that holds (d) large, clear text, sometimes covering the full width of the screen? Many of these websites are beautiful—but shouldn't there be more than one kind of beauty?

How flat is flat?

There's also the issue of perceived depth. Even absent any deliberate attempt at creating different planes on an inherently flat medium, our brains make sense of what we see by using visual cues that include depth. Warm colors come forward, cool colors recede. Large shapes appear closer than small shapes. When two shapes overlap, we perceived that one of them is in front. (Try MC Escher for some major confusion of these visual cues.) Even flat isn't really flat, and we have to work with that.

So what are we doing about it?

One thing I'm not doing is rushing to the edge of the flat web world and jumping off. I've always believed in clarity - even in the most decorative of websites, it's essential to give users a clear path for the eye and the brain and make it easy to find what they've come for. To the extent that the web post-iOS7 gives us more opportunities to exercise what we know are good design principles, I'm on it.

I love large, compelling images, clean fonts, and white space as much as the next web designer. But I won't be adopting them in the same predictable way on every website. And yes, some of our existing websites do feature skeuomorphic elements that our clients loved when they were new and still love now. If these elements are still working well for our clients, why fix what's not broken? For the time being, I'm planning to let them live on unaffected by the winds of change—maybe someday soon they'll be charmingly retro.

take me home