Is Minimalist Design Dying?

Written by Natascha Meharabi, UX Specialist, and Mauricio Pommella, Design Lead at Apply Digital.

Minimalist and flat design have been dominating the digital landscape for quite some time now. Flat design was initially intended to simplify the user experience, but lately there have been many studies arguing against the use of flat and minimalist design. While there is much truth to those studies, there’s actually more to the story.

Why did minimalist design come about in the first place?

Minimalist design took hold as a response to skeuomorphic design that dominated mobile design, especially in the early versions of iOS for iPhones. Skeuomorphic design is design that mimics real life and looks like a physical, real-life object. For example, a calendar app may look like a wall calendar, or a note taking app may look like a notepad, spiral coil binding included.

An example of skeuomorphic design where everything looks as it might in real life. Image Credit: Zoe Love Design

Skeuomorphic design helped the first mobile users through the learning curve of understanding how to use digital products by mimicking real life. This type of design was often cognitively overwhelming, with so many colours, shapes and embellishments included. It brought a lot of clutter and useless details that eventually became less useful to user’s experiences.

In 2007 Forbes magazine announced the death of skeuomorphism. Apple, followed by Google, began to use flat design instead. This freed interfaces from clutter: there were no more bevelled edges, gradients and reflections cluttering the screen; and the age of flat design was born.

Layers used in Google’s Material Design are great indicators of page hierarchy usability. Image credit: Material Design

But is minimalist, or flat design, ruining user experiences?

Many studies (from Neilson Norman Group, for example) have shown that in some cases, flat design has been taken too far, and some of the key characteristics of flat design are making experiences more difficult for our users. A few notable examples are:

  • Removing certain style elements like shadows on buttons, which can created increased vagueness. It fails to communicate when elements are clickable.
  • Reducing contrast and increasing the use of greys. This can make important information on a page illegible, undiscoverable and has major accessibility implications. Often, a response to content-heavy websites is to reduce contrast of those elements to give the impression of ‘minimalist’ design. However, if the content is essential, this will end up annoying users.
Even with a slight shadow added, the buttons on the left are much stronger signifiers to the user that they are clickable. The buttons on the right, typical of flat design 1.0, are more questionable. Image Credit Sketch App Resources.

When information is hard to find users often think it’s being hidden from them and can cause distrust to develop. Weaker signifiers on a page showed that people had to look around more and spend longer on a website to identify what the main CTA’s were. This has been captured by heat-maps, average counts of fixations and average task time.

Minimal designs have the danger of losing visual hierarchy — which is essential to the UI of a website. It helps to guide a user’s eye around a page and lead them through the product’s narrative.

So should we stop using flat design?

Flat and minimal design are often used mistakenly interchangeably. The definition of minimal design is to strip out all non-essential elements from a digital product’s design. It is to reduce the visual impact of redundant elements and so reduce the cognitive load of a user. Flat design has evolved more as a ‘trend’. The problem arises when designers don’t think about the consequences of removing design elements, and fitting in with the ‘trend’ of flat design overshadows the user’s experience. You have to remember, you are designing for users, not for other designers. If shadows are essential to indicating a button is clickable, you should keep them, not remove them.

That being said, flat design isn’t useless, and there are many merits to using it. You just have to be more thoughtful in the way that you use it. The emergence of ‘Flat 2.0’ or ‘Semi Flat’ design has brought back a resurgence of some of the skeuomorphic elements; including adding shadows, 3D buttons and coloring links in a page.

It doesn’t look like minimalism is dead, and if used correctly, it will enhance a user’s experience. Flat design, where there is a lack of visual cues is, on the other hand, may be on the way out. Context is key. For example, in news websites where users expect a lot of information to be provided, those websites that strip down the number of stories shown will frustrate users.

Summary

The trend of ‘flat design’ can negatively impact a user’s experience — as shown by multiple studies. However, minimal design, when used correctly, like in the development of flat 2.0, combines the positives of both skeuomorphic and flat trends to enhance a user’s experience; both reducing clutter and cognitive load while making it obvious what actions can be taken on a page.

Apply Digital is a Digital Product Studio. Apply partners with organizations to concept, design, build and manage digital products and services. By leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning, they create “smart” digital products that achieve business goals and provide utility to end users. Apply has built a world-class team of researchers, UX specialists, designers, strategists, developers and data scientists to create compelling, ROI driven products. They have offices in Vancouver, BC and Toronto, ON. To learn more about Apply Digital, please visit applydigital.co.