Last week I deleted my old currency app and replaced it with Currency. Where the older one tried to look like a calculator, Currency seems to be native to the screen: not trying to be anything else than what it truly is. It has the layout of what could be interpreted as a calculator, but there’s no analogy.

It made me wonder why I had a preference for apps that used real-world artifacts in the past, and why I prefer ‘flat’ apps now. Currency seems to be a good example of what’s happening with interfaces today.

Fictional interfaces

Back in the 80s, when the graphical user interface was introduced, operating systems started to represent imaginary worlds of their own. Metaphors such as folders and windows gave a clue of a third dimension on our screens.

Resolutions became higher, details became more realistic, interfaces became more ‘fictional’.

There’s a reason why I call it fictional: operating systems started to seem like places where you physically could be, and wanted to be. But they were never meant to integrate with the rest of our lives. Just like a movie, its purpose was to bring you into another world, ignoring real life.

We needed this illusion: not only did it make computers more understandable, people developed an emotional bond with it.

It made sense back then, but we don’t have to live in a fictional world anymore.

Today our devices have a closer connection to reality. Checking in with Foursquare, getting directions from Google Maps, sharing experiences on Vine: smartphones and tablets are destined to be an intrinsic part of life.

Technology is so engrained in our daily lives that the virtual and physical worlds have a lot more overlap. As a result, many people simply accept the virtual world as part of reality, rather than something that’s separate from it. —Techopedia

As apps and websites are becoming part of our physical space, the notion of a separate digital space is becoming less relevant.

Going flatter

This shift has a big impact on how we design interfaces. Instead of seeing an interface as a separate world with seemingly physical objects (navigation bars and embossed buttons), we now see the interface — or rather the whole device — as a single object.

As a result, interface designers are becoming more aware of the medium: a screen. Just like plastic and wood, screens have their own characteristics. We don’t like it when a piece of plastic looks like wood and we don’t like it when our screen looks like a calculator (at least not anymore).

Again and again, design history shows that when we try to trick a viewer into believing a material is something it’s not, the value and the timelessness of the design decrease. —Kevin Goldman

In this new context a flat interface isn’t cold and empty. We don’t need real-world artifacts anymore to understand technology or to be engaged on an emotional level. We have started to appreciate digital design just because of its color, shape or typography.

Interfaces aren’t black holes anymore, sucking up our attention. They have become part of our devices, and our devices are part of their surroundings. This is why we like flat design: interfaces should be augmenting our physical world, instead of creating worlds of their own.

@joostvanderree