Hey Designers: We Design Too Much

The truth about flat design

It’s true. As Designers, we design too much. And I, too, am guilty as charged. Our practice is to find rhythm, balance, and unity with different elements so that ultimately the final product is an elegant and useable result. As design trends come and go, we adapt so that we are never the last ones living in a passing fad. Right when design is finally breaking through and getting the respect it deserves, the absolute best UI design trend is being adopted: flat design. And it’s here to stay.

Thinking back to when my family got our first Mac in 1997, it’s riveting seeing how the aesthetic and interaction models have evolved over the years. There was tangible hardware and intangible UI, which nowadays can virtually be associated as one: the tangible. Apple’s mentality was so progressive that they didn’t let any existing notions or standards suppress their vision. This introduced a brand new visual design in OS X. Inarguably, Apple has influenced almost the last two decades of design more than any other company in the world. We were enamored with the temptation to touch their gel pill buttons–circa 2001–and to watch the dock magnify as you slide the mouse over the icons. It was gorgeous. Come 2014, we are now in a world where desktop computers may as well be non-existent. There are generations using mobile devices that we didn’t think would ever be able to intuitively figure them out. It’s not just the millions of brilliant engineering hours that went into developing those devices, but also the intricate design methodologies as well.

As we work through the process of designing, it’s like we’re in a constant battle with a Rubik’s Cube. We keep massaging the color and shape until it is genuinely uniform and aligned. It’s a never-ending game of trial and error. These are very tedious tasks, and it takes a very unique mindset to be able to develop the ideas and then parse through them effectively. It’s really hard to make something that’s very complex into something consumable. That’s why we’re so specialized in what we do. But through this process, things can still become over designed. We get excited to reach the finish line with something to show the world. We start putting boxes within boxes, drop shadows under those boxes, add a gradient to the buttons, all amongst other decorations throughout the UI. It’s our way to create the hierarchy of the elements. This is where we make mistakes. I say flat design is here to stay because in a world where app experiences consume hours of our lives per day, it is the most pure and authentic design style possible. It lets designs get out of people’s way, and just simply lets them see what they are trying to see. People aren’t burdened with the cognitive load that unnecessary UI elements provide. A photo is best represented by the emotional beauty and color of the photo itself, not what’s around it. The moment the polaroid frame with texture that is popping off the screen at you takes the stage, the photo itself loses the attention and love is lost.

“A photo is best represented by the emotional beauty and color of the photo itself, not what’s around it.”

In a previous story I wrote, Stoplights Suck, I mentioned that we need to design clear paths and experiences for people because the average user doesn’t know what to expect is coming up next. There are many ways to accomplish this, but one of those places to start is the visual design. We just simply need to get out of people’s way. People think now that Apple has adopted the flat design methodologies, it can mean to take your existing app and just get rid of the shadows and gradients. This is where we mess up. We’re still too over-designed! Flat design means we need to make the experience as simple and straight-forward as possible, too. Don’t put anything on the screen that doesn’t provide a benefit for people. For example, people no longer need chat bubbles in text messaging to feel like every message is in a physical bubble reflecting and refracting the world around it. The most elegant solution is to keep the chrome around the actual message itself as minimal and un-intrusive as possible. Then the delightful moments can shine through the brilliant interactions and motion. Both of those are still far too under-valued by designers today. The best UI is no UI at all.

We want the magical moments to shine whenever possible. It’s not the design of the app you’re in, but about how it connects to all the apps around it as well. We want the entire experience of turning on a device through turning it off to be an amazing experience–not just individual apps. Design for the greater good of the ecosystem. And remember, good design is not just about people gawking over how beautiful it is, it’s about how simple and effective it is to use.