Modern minimalism IS the right choice

Has flat design destroyed the role of the web designer? I think not.


I’ve been reading with interest the brilliantly written opinion pieces ‘Fall of the Designer’ by Eli Schiff recently. If you haven’t read them and are interested in the history of trends in the digital design world, they are certainly worth a read.

The problem is I disagree with him completely.

His arguments mainly centre around how the rise of flat design or the ‘modern minimalist’ movement ushered in by iOS7 and Material design have desensitised and devalued the work of visual designers in the digital world.

As a previous architecture student I see a lot of similarities in the sweeping rise of the modern minimalist (flat) design to the tabla rasa created by the European modernist architects in the beginning of the 20th century. In the case of the architects, they rejected the superfluous and elaborate ornamentation that were prevalent in the beaux arts, art nouveaux and art deco styles that preceded them. They believed (and still do) that the pastiched character added to the building through these preceding styles was misappropriated and disingenuous in modern times. Instead their principles were based on form following function and utilising the new building techniques of concrete, steel, glass and mass reproduction.

The same has happened in the web world albeit 100 years later. Before the rise of ‘flat’ design the digital world was crammed with skeumorphic design cluttered with ornamental and superfluous features that gave character to the product but were actually just distractions from what the user wants: a product that works. Obviously the visual style in flat design is nothing new as Ludvik Herrara kindly points out. It is merely a continuation in a century of modernism in different mediums, particularly the work of the Swiss school. I’d say its recent proliferation in UI recently however is due to a shift in attitude in public expectation from 5 years ago. Users don’t want to look at the detail, they want to use the detail. When more and more of our lives are taken up with software interaction, it is no surprise the UI features are consistently being scaled back in oppressiveness, whilst the content has come to the forefront.

Results for skeuomorphic on the left, flat design on the right. One could not be said to be more expressive or meaningful than the other.

As much as Eli laments the fall of the highly detailed and skeumorphic fashion of yester year, he ridicules the fashion of the flat design movement of today. Both are still fashions. The difference is one is more appropriate for now. Looking at popular dribbble shots from 2015 and 2010, or Skeumorphic compared to flat, it would be incorrect to say that one shows more character, meaning and skill. No more than comparing a Matisse with a Manet. To say flat design has devalued a designers work is wrong. Although the time spent technically drawing a 2010 app icon compared to one drawn today would probably be a fraction, I’d like to think the labour of thought process hasn’t changed. Yes, there will be non designers who are taking shortcuts with the affordance of free UI kits and flat colour palettes and self building websites, but their work will still be spotted as amateur when compared to the design experts. To say users wont be able to tell the difference is a dangerous underestimation.

Eli is right that the perceived importance of craftsmanship in visual design may have decreased in popular opinion since the arrival of flat design. And I agree the importance of other areas in the digital design process such as UX and animation have exploded. But I don’t think this is a negative thing. Of course it is terrible for people who have potentially lost their jobs, but if any designer has lost their job because their sole job was to accurately render the texture of a basketball on a 120x120 app icon I would be very surprised. A designer should be more than just a technician.

What even is a real button anyway?

Another key theme in the argument is that the ‘expressive’ textured and shadowed design style is the foundation of a ‘user-centred experience’. Again I’d disagree, especially when we take the affordance given by button design as a focus point.

As smart phones have slowly taken over the world in the last 10 years the argument of skeumorphic design being needed to make users instinctively know how to work their way around a website is becoming increasingly moot. As new generations grow up with the prevalence of the web in the world, they increasingly don’t need buttons to look like physical buttons for them to realise it’s interactive.

Apart from your keyboard, tv remote and light switch how many physical buttons do you press a day? Now how many buttons on your smartphone and laptop screen do you press a day? It’s pretty clear that the patterns being built in software are much more likely to last the next decade than the real buttons on my tv remote. Why should we be constrained by designs of the past? We shouldn’t be thinking ‘we can give affordance the same way we have done for the last century’. We should be thinking ‘how do we give affordance for the next century’. Admittedly when iOS7 emerged, Apple hadn’t perfected this, but to make a shift happen, someone has to be brave enough to take a step down an unknown path.

Modern minimalism is here to stay. It shouldn’t be seen as the fall of the designer. It should be seen as the designer reacting justly to the new possibilities, technologies and expectations of the modern world.

For mostly modern minimalist designs follow me on dribbble or on twitter