When Windows 8 was introduced, designers sat up and took notice – not because of the many features of this new operating system but because of its minimalist design – flat, flat, and flatter. Certainly, flat design was not particularly new, but it had rather been in designers’ back pockets for some time. There were always new things to try, and new tools to try them with. And, quite frankly, some design took a turn toward the cluttered and “too much going on” phase. Face it – it was fun using Photoshop to design leather straps with stitching in them to mimic a real strap – people like familiarity. And Apple was into this pretty heftily.
In fact, it seemed for a time that the “duel” between flat design and skeuomorphism was almost a “duel” between Microsoft and Apple, just on a smaller scale. Take a look at Apple’s calculator – rounded buttons, shadows and gradients, basic functions with which everyone is familiar, and even the “C” button to clear.
Versus a minimalist flat design option:
And then Google got into the mix with a bit of a variation. Consider its mobile map app:
Shadows and gradients used in combination with a flat design – both efficient and simple.
The Important Discussion
The discussion is no longer about which is better or more pleasing. The discussion must center around design that meets the needs of the client and that will provide that client’s users with the best experience for them. Here, then, is a summary of both flat design and skeuomorphism, along with their plusses and minuses, so that, as any designer begins work for a client, s/he can make choices that “work” for that client.
Flat design has its roots in minimalism as an art form. Such designs are crisp, clear and reflect a stripping away of all three-dimensional effects. The ideology behind the flat design is that working with a screen, nothing can really ever be fully three-dimensional, so we should stop trying to make design elements in such a manner. To make up for the risk of being boring, flat design can add bold color and typography. As well, minimalism will streamline designs and make websites more functional and faster. Philosophically, flat design mirrors a cultural shift, often on the part of millennials, to keep things simple and straightforward.
Are there drawbacks to flat design? Of course.
- It’s easy for designers to abuse flat design, using it for everything and every client, without regard to the “image” a client wants to project. Rolex may have a very different “image” in mind than a safety video that is meant to appeal to a much larger user audience and that must include color and humor.
- User experience can be damaged. They are accustomed to rounded buttons, shadows, gradients and navigation bars that “float.” Introducing a full flat and minimalist design may confuse, and designers have to be aware of this. If you remove all of the “clues,” users can become confused and bounce because of a frustrating experience.
- Visual style must meet functionality and must be seen as a means to the end for a client and his/her users. The flat design may very well meet this end, but it may very well not. These are critical design decisions.
- Flat design often requires more coding, and designers need to be aware of this and make certain that they are up to the task.
We are creatures of habit and we do like the familiar. This is the ideology behind Skeuomorphism – give the user an experience that mirrors the real world as much as possible. From a design standpoint, that ideology is translated into providing as much of a 3-D experience as possible, with perspective, shadows, gradients, and such. This is emotionally comforting to a user, especially one of an older generation, who wants to see the “real” thing as opposed to a replication of it in a flat perspective, and who is used to floating navigations bars, rounded CTA buttons, and visuals that depict real objects. And there are sites that simply lend themselves to this design approach, indeed, require it. Consider websites related to food, for example:
A flat design would never work when it is expected to appeal to people’s senses.
Drawbacks to Skeuomorphism
There are some drawbacks, of course. Sometimes, skeuomorphic designs can seem dated, especially as trends and styles change. There will be greater need to update more often. But even more than that, there is a desire, especially on the part of younger users and shoppers, to have clean, contemporary looking designs. If a business is appealing to a younger audience, then, incorporating flat design may be more desirable. Also, the larger files associated with skeuomorphism can take longer to download. From a designing standpoint, moreover, it relies on images as opposed to pure CSS.
Wrapping it Up – Designer Preferences Vs. Client Needs
This is really the crux of the matter. Designers are artists, and like all artists, they have their styles. But they cannot be Picasso’s all the time. Designing is a business that must appeal to a variety of clients and other business venues. Businesses exist to provide products and services and, most of all, to make a profit. Maximizing profits means marketing correctly to their audiences. Part of that marketing is a website design that “fits” their products or services and that is appealing to their customer demographics.
The discussion, then, is not whether flat or skeuomorphic is inherently better. Flat design is certainly “kicky,” fun, and seems better suited for screens. Being bold with color and typography allows a lot of creative juices to flow. Skeuomorphic design is pleasing to the senses, on the other hand, and provides a familiarity with our world. The difference is rather like realism vs. contemporary art. And there is a place for both because human preferences differ so widely.
The question every designer must ask him/herself is this: “Who am I designing for?” The answer is for the client, not for oneself. And in serving that client, a designer must look very closely at the product or service that is being featured and/or marketed, the audience for which it is being marketed, and, yes, at the site designs of the competition that is successful.
This is not to say that every designer must become perfectly skilled in both design types. Designers have the right to make their own “signatures” in their career field and to stay true to their own ideologies about the art of design. No one would expect Renoir to paint like Andy Warhol, and he wouldn’t consider it. If you have a strong design preference, then stick with it. And serve clients whose products and services lend themselves to your talents and preferences. Your designs will then be better when you love creating them.