Reflecting on the Undesign Trend

Since the launch of the first website in 1990, web design has been a constantly evolving art form. It exists within the limits of the technology that supports it, changing with the tastes of the moment, and with the needs of those it serves. As such, web design has gone through many trends over the past three decades, from the most stripped-down layouts of the early days, to the dynamic layouts of the modern era.

But something strange has happened in recent years. It seems as though design is backing off, giving way to simpler, more predictable interfaces. For the purposes of this article, I’m choosing to call this the “Undesign Trend,” which can be roughly defined as the move towards flat minimalism and standardized user interfaces. I’d like to take a look at where it came from, and where it might be going.

Wacom went from a sidebar and grid combination to the more conventional header and buckets.

I began to notice this trend towards simplicity when I took a walk down Memory Lane, revisiting some of the sites I had designed in years past. Back then, as recently as 2014, us designers were constantly upping the stakes with our work, trying to out-do each other and our past projects. Embellishments abounded. Predictability was scorned. Why put the logo in the top left, when you could put it bottom right? (Not that I would ever do that.) And out of this free-spirited chaos came some good work, some missteps, but always something very unique with a clear personality.

Backupify, then and now.

When I think about the work that went into those projects, the scrutiny, the revisions, the pressure… It’s a little disheartening to see it get washed away. When I looked up the current versions of the sites in question, they all seem to look uncannily similar. Straight lines, sharp edges, flat colors. You could change the logo, and it wouldn’t make a difference. A high-functioning template. The personality was gone.

CloudBees, swapping out a parallax slider (and textures) for something more conventional.

But I understand it all too well. Those days of embellishments were a time of excess. We designed for the sake of delight rather than utility. And though design is important, it should never supersede function.

The move to strip down and scale back design elements came from two fronts: The emergence of Flat Design, and the proliferation of mobile devices.

Flat Design is a design language that began in the early 2000’s, introduced gradually in Microsoft’s user interfaces. It found its way into popular consciousness with the Metro UI of 2010. After that, the imitation game began, and Flat Design took hold. It took hold because designers were desperate for change. They grew tired of the ubiquitous skeuomorphism that existed at the time, and the gaudy 3D effects of Web 2.0. Flat Design was a backlash against all that.

Nike, ditching the gradients and shadow effects in their current design.

But that’s only half of the equation. As design trended towards simplicity, the explosion of mobile devices after 2007 created a very real need for positive and predictable user experiences. People sitting at a desktop have time to explore a unique UI, but those using their phones on a subway platform do not. Discoverability and delight became a liability in many cases, and standardization became law.

The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, dropping a very unconventional navigation in their current website.

And it hasn’t stopped with web design. Even brands are transforming, becoming flat and simplified. Companies recognize how versatile their logos need to be, and that the simplest shapes have the broadest range. Some have done this well, others have taken it too far, sacrificing their identity for simplicity. But that’s probably a topic for another article.

Even though I’m using the term “Undesign” to explain this trend, I’m not suggesting that design is going, or has gone away. I am pointing out that excess is being scaled back, and standards are being set. It’s simply a new constraint for designers to work within, a constraint that exists for a very important reason: usability. After all, graphic design is functional art, so it makes sense that it changes with the needs of users.

EA Games, moving away from the background hero image to the banner/buckets motif.

So where does it go from here? The best designers are exploring the limits of Flat Design, bringing delight back without sacrificing usability. But the limits and standards of modern web design only serve to emphasize what’s been true from the beginning: Content is the true differentiator. So no matter how layouts and interfaces evolve, and get dressed up or dressed down, quality content always comes first. So when considering a design or a redesign, remember to ask, “What will serve the content best?” Then undesign away.

Originally published at