MyPerspective app screens mock-up from http://graphicburger.com/perspective-app-screens-mock-up/. The screenshots used in this image are listed at the end of this post.

Why Mailbox Should Be Flat and iOS Shouldn’t

A reflection on flat design

With Google’s material design, Apple’s blurry glass texture, and the rise of the card design across the internet, I think we are now finally starting to leave the flat design era. And it’s a good time to take a look at what’s wrong with the all-flat strategy and also to understand why most designers (like me) love the flat Mailbox, but want to write suicide notes after seeing the flattened iOS.

Affordance

When it comes to design, there’s usability, consistency, and beauty. In a perfect world, you should be able to achieve all three of those regardless of the style you choose. But in reality, the flatter the design style is, the harder it is to achieve the same level of usability.

The reason is: when you go flat, you lose the amount of the design elements you can use. The limit of design elements by itself is not a big problem. There are many beautifully designed items with very little design elements. However, in the world of UI, having too few design elements means you are losing two important abilities in achieving good usability: the ability to create metaphors and the ability to create hierarchies. And those are the two most important weapons we have as designers in my eyes.

Metaphors help users understand the system because they can apply real world knowledge to the digital world we create. It’s the key to “intuitive” user experiences. Hierarchies help the users know what they should do now. And it’s the key to making conversions.

From that standpoint, complex systems, like operating systems, cannot afford to be flat because there are so many concepts they have to communicate to users, and often times there are many elements on a single screen that need to be prioritized. Trying to make those flat is just painful.

Fad v.s. Tone

If it is so hard to make flat designs work for complex systems, why are there so many companies struggling to do just that?

I like John Maeda’s separation of tone and style. By his definition, tone is the “feeling” you communicate to the user with your design while the style is just a trend, a fad, or a set of design elements you choose to use. For example, Apple has used a lot of different styles over the years, but the tone remained quite consistent.

Apple Form Factor Evolution

Unfortunately, not all designers are clear about this. Too many companies are trying to “create a tone” by adopting a style; when they see flat design with its modern, clean, minimalist halo, they all want a share in this. I wish it was that simple. But when Microsoft adopts a flat design, it still feels like Microsoft (can’t help you there, bro).

The Pursuit of Simplicity

Hey, but not all companies are that shallow, right? What about the legit, good pursuit of simplicity? We do live in a time where we don’t rely on metaphors as much as we did in the old days. If you can throw a block of color with some text on it to a user and he or she would understand it’s a button, what’s the point of keeping all those abundant decorations?

I do agree with that. That’s why I feel at home when I use Mailbox. But the flat design as a design trend is more like a fad to me — a lot of designs which are way too complicated to be flat got flattened (looking at you, iOS7).

Ideally, if we want to pursuit simplicity, let’s make our designs as simple as possible — but only after we have considered all the functions of our system before forcing a style on it.