The flat design trend - where to from here?

I’ve always subscribed to the Swiss style of less is more, so wholeheartily embracing this era of flat interface design. Given the design excesses of the past decade, it’s interesting to see how we’ve come full circle to reach this point. But I can’t help wondering – where to from here?

When I started designing websites back in the year 2000, all the world was flat. This was more by technological limitations than by choice, or possibly because we hadn’t considered there was any other way. Web 2.0 exploded in 2004, giving rise to a ‘richer’ user experience of gradients, rounded corners and 3D buttons. I spent the Web 2.0 years working in-house for investment banks, designing financial services websites. That’s a whole lot of beveled edges and drop shadows!

From here a host of web design trends emerged, first embraced, then vilified by the design community. Skeuomorphic ornamentation like hand stitched edges, forked ribbons and leather-effect binders had arrived! Designers argued that they were bringing realism to the web by introducing ‘visual metaphors’ or elements from everyday life, thus making interfaces more engaging and intuitive.

It always surprised me how wholeheartedly Apple embraced skeuomorphism, given their clean and minimal design ethic. iBook’s faux wood bookshelf and iCal’s moleskin ‘hand-stitched’ leather binder, while initially enchanting now seem terribly passe. This month, Apple profits fell for the first time in a decade and many commentators see their failure to evolve as their downfall. It suddenly seems as if Apple have lost a bite of their cool.

Flat design is quickly being adopted by market leaders. Facebook and eBay have introduced flatter versions of their logo and icons. Microsoft, traditionally the uncool laggard of the biggies, struck a winning blow with the flat interface of Windows 8. Rumour has it that Apple are now embracing the flatlands with iOS 7.

There is something about this design ethic that feels honest. Giving users what they want without the additional noise somehow seems kinder, more straight up.

Layervault, an early champion of flat design have gone as far as calling this “The Honest Design Age”. This sentiment is echoed by many across the web.

These changes aren’t all about fashion. The increase in web browsing on smartphones and tablets is forcing designs to adapt for responsive scalability on the small screen. Clear, crisp typography is also evident as part of the flat design trend with fonts like Open Sans and Promixa Nova leading the way with carefully crafted glyphs. It’s interesting to see the trend in mobile usage from my own site stats – up 18% in the last year.

I can’t help wondering where do we go from here? When everyone jumps on the flat design bandwagon will it suddenly look bland and, well…flat? Will my skills in creating a hand-sewn leather border ever be back in demand? It’s harder to stand apart from the crowd in a flat world.

Like the Mighty Boosh, I can’t help feel that we designers have taken retro to its logical conclusion.

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