Flat design is not a fad, it’s the new normal

Photo by Saulo Mohana on Unsplash

Apple has a habit of doing next generation things too early and with a quiet stubbornness force the technical world into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Apple decided that you didn’t need CD drives in your laptops, and then it was the USB’s turn to leave the thin slots around your MacBooks. Now Apple is saying that you don’t need a phone jack.

In 2013, when Apple pushed a drastically changed UI with their iPhones, it was a software version of the same story. Apple said the pesky world of skeuomorphism was out the window. You don’t need your magazine rack to look like shelves and your wallet to have fake stitches around it.

People saw that as moving towards a “flat” design, where gradients, shadows and other unnecessary aspects of the design were removed for simplicity. Before Apple was thinking about this the quantitatively minded engineers at Microsoft and Google have been making a move towards better UI and visual design by moving towards a simplicity of square objects with bright colors.

In reality Apple was not just flattening, but doing a lot more things with that design. Some of which were anathema to what we knew to be good design principles. Apple removed all affordance indicators from clickable things. They no longer looked raised from the background and they no longer had gradients or borders. Most clickable things were simple a blue text with an incredibly thin font that even Apple designers had to make thicker in future iterations.

What was Apple thinking? How could users know that a button is a button, if it doesn’t have any indicators that it’s an object that is slightly rounded around the edges and raised from the background? Yet millions of iPhone users did fine. Many didn’t even complain and they found the right things to tap and moved on with their lives.

What was going on here? Are our UX intuitions wrong? Is Don Norman wrong in asserting that highlighting affordances is a good UX practice?

I think the answer is that both are right. Apple is right in pushing the envelope aggressively in this design paradigm and Don Norman is right to ask for affordances. As with many pioneers, Apple is pushing us too far and the industry will readjust by going back to some of the older standards with a new twist.

This is in fact exactly what Material Design is. Google is embracing flat design but adding back shadows, layers and affordances and a host of new things like animations that reflect origin.

Use of shadows in Material Design, image from Google.

The bigger picture here is that digital design is finally defining itself without the strong tethers of the physical world. In the early days a beautiful notebook would have cloth stitches, a binder would have the silver rings. In digital world, all you need is a light background and what is even a binder? In this magical world the screen is not a finite rectangle but you can swipe and scroll your way into different screens. Physical page numbers don’t matter because pages don’t exits anymore, we have infinite scrolling, on demand loading of items.

That’s not to say the online world is not spatial. We still need shadows to show which things are in front and which are behind. We still need to have a sense of what is clickable and there is very little visual cues better than an object slightly raised from the background. But we need much much less of all the other visual cues and unnecessary textures and details of the physical world because their affordances have given way to a new understanding of what affordances are, especially for generations that have never used the analog equivalent of these.

Flat is native to digital world, it is how things are. That is until the not too distant future when what is digital changes and we have this conversation all over again.

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