The Downsides of the ‘Flat’ Design Trend


The Downsides of the ‘Flat’ Design Trend

Whether or not you can name it, you’ve seen it. If you’ve visited almost any website or used a PC or Mac in the past 2 years (in other words, if you’ve engaged with technology), flat design has become the prevailing look of choice. Wide images, small color contrast, and simple icons – these are all hallmarks of the aesthetic trend. What began as a cool, minimalist option has nearly become a mandate, as both Windows and Apple now use flat design as the signature look of their operating systems.

Advocates of the Swedish-based aesthetic cite its simplicity and user-friendly nature (ideal goals of any website design) as big benefits. While these claims aren’t false per se, more and more critics are finding fault with flat’s limitations. Indeed, when taken to the extreme, flat design can actually negatively impact your website’s usability.

To understand what’s wrong with flat design, let’s first take a look at why it became so popular in the first place.

The anti-realism

In many ways, flat design was a direct response to skeumorphism (try saying that 10 times fast… or 1 time at a normal speaking rate). The term refers to the realistic nature of website design. Sites and apps used to incorporate stronger color contrasts, serif typography, and generally featured more lifelike imagery. In many ways, the design itself was on display as the start of the show.

However, as providing valuable content to users became a top priority by Google (and as a result, everyone else), design trends started to shift. Designers moved away from realism, and instead embraced minimalism. Rather than distracting people with ornate visuals, they now existed to emphasize the content.

Simple, clear, uncluttered design was intended to improve usability, especially on mobile devices where more and more people were accessing the internet.

However, as flat design ages, it’s beginning to show some cracks in the foundation.

Here are a few key ways in which flat design can hurt your website.

User un-friendly

The irony of flat design is that, while made for usability, it can actually confuse people. It can provide clarity and focus for your content, but the aesthetic often makes desired actions ambiguous. For example, if you have icons on your website or app lacking in color gradation (a common characteristic of flat), then they tend to blend in with the background. Without a distinct border or difference in dimension, it’s not immediately clear what icons are clickable.

Similarly, you lose the impact of visual hierarchy. It takes users longer to figure out where to look on your page if you can’t use color to emphasize an intuitive flow for the eye.

Too minimal

Flat design is not without its visual appeal. To some extent, minimalism makes everything look cool and sleek, and in a way projects confidence (why over-do it with the design when the basics work just fine?).

However, when pushed to its extreme, minimalism just looks… boring. At this rate, we’re headed for websites featuring only plain text on a page. No contrast. No imagery. Just dry copy. Does anyone really want to see that? Content should take the focus of a website, but there’s no reason why you can’t make the context visually compelling.

Too mobile friendly?

With the rise of mobile, brands simply can’t afford not to have a responsive website. You risk losing a huge portion of business if your site can’t render well on a cell phone or tablet. Part of flat design’s purpose is to create a visual language that works on desktops just as well as it does on a 6-inch screen.

However, as demonstrated by Windows 8’s first go-around, this doesn’t always pan out. When first introduced, Windows 8’s interface just didn’t work well with a keyboard and mouse, as it was meant primarily for touch screens. Additionally, while minimalist, drop-down menus are ideal for a cell phone, they’re not as dynamic on a desktop. Plus, flat design.

Less unique

Like any other trend, once it becomes status quo, those who embrace it no longer stand out. Because you have so much competition online from other businesses, your website needs to establish a clear brand identity. Having a flat design will make you look contemporary, but it won’t do much to set you apart from everyone else. If all sites use flat blocks of color with text, then no one will stand out. If you can’t convey your brand’s personality right away through catchy visual design, then no one will remember you.

What’s the solution?

Currently, few alternatives threaten to usurp flat design as reigning aesthetic, but more and more websites are playing with the format. Dubbed “almost flat”, this off-shoot of flat design keeps the emphasis on content by reducing the amount of visual clutter. However, it selectively uses gradients and drop-shadows to make certain elements of content pop. As a result, you can establish visual hierarchies and cues, all of which help improve usability.

To see how any of these design elements might work for your website, contact SPINX Digital. Our team of expert designers can create a visually pleasing and highly usable design aesthetic.

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Sukesh Jakharia

Sukesh founded SPINX in 2005, and takes great pride in crafting custom web and mobile solutions for companies big and small.

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10 thoughts on “The Downsides of the ‘Flat’ Design Trend”

  1. I’m more happy it’s just a trend…a choice. I would get more rattled by those who seemingly just proclaim that this is design from now on, and if you’re not minimalizing things then you’re falling behind in the world.

    I can remember after the explosion of WordPress and Web 2.0 how many sites looked similar…and boring. The ideal solution is to let your imagination run wild and do what feels right to you.

    1. Good point, Alex. If a designer suggests something other than flat design, he or she is often met with looks of confusion by the client. For now, I think the solution is to find a middle ground between defaulting to flat and designing something completely new. Clients tend to respond more if you nudge rather than push them.

  2. My interest was peaked by the subject of this post because I have been pushing to stand out in this way for quite some time. I’m glad to know that there are others who might be joining me. As a media and web developer soon to graduate from my program this is very reassuring. Thank you for the interesting read.

    1. No problem, Alain. It’s important to always think big, even when trends are limited. Thanks and do let us know if you have any thoughts to share regarding this.

  3. Finally, I am not alone in this universe. I agree with everything you mention in your article. I also believe that FLAT design was a product of responsive web design. It is way easier to scale and resize a simple grey box instead of a cool photorealistic button.

    1. Exactly right, Peter. Flat design does have some merits; making relatively easy responsive sites is one of them. But once mobile-friendly websites become standard procedure for everyone, then perhaps we’ll see a shift in design trends.

  4. Just wanted to say thanks for confirming my reservations regarding flat design, and putting everything into context.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your observations and proposals for solutions.

    I am in the process of building a new site to replace my horribly old outdated, and amateur looking site.

    I wanted to go the flat route, but like you said, its already starting to show its cracks, looks very generic and lacks the personal touch.

    Keeping things simple without loosing your individual identity while still making a visual impact is key.

    Thanks for a very informative, well summed up take on the trend.

    1. Thanks, Wessel. Flat isn’t an inherently bad idea for your site, depending on your industry. But if you’re able to try something different while maintaining UX, more power to you! Let us know how it goes.

  5. I recently discovered one very important reason for flat design: performance. I’m building a hybrid mobile app and found that I had to square off all my corners, get rid of all my gradient fills, eliminate all image scaling (ie, responsive images) before I could achieve the performance I was after on a smartphone.

    Using an “almost flat” design requires detailed technical knowledge of how the browsers render elements and the impact of various JavaScript and CSS constructions. Does Spinx have that skill set as well?

    1. Gregg, We offer a variety of options for design. You can reach us by contact details given on our site and we’d be happy to discuss them with you, if you’d like. But yes, flat does generally perform well. As per our belief, no one’s cracked how to make mobile-friendly sites in another design scheme, but it’s only a matter of time.



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