That, at least, is the overall intent of flat design, right? Rely on typography and layout to convey hierarchy and complexity rather than less meaningful elements such as shadowing and glossiness. However, despite the popularity of particular design trends such as flat or skeuomorphic design, we must not lose sight of what the customer sees. As a profession, User Experience talks a great deal about empathy. We pride ourselves on being able to see the world through our users’ eyes. With that understanding comes a responsibility to guide our customers toward designs that are appropriate for their tasks. Flat design might be trendy, but it is not necessarily going to be the best design style for every task at hand. Inevitably, if you start your design process by choosing what style you’re going for, you are starting in the wrong place.
Flat Design Does Not Mean Usable Design
In the world of UX design consulting, a deluge of requests for flat design has already begun, and it is not going to stop anytime soon. Dozens of my clients are already requesting that I remake their application, Web site, or product by creating a flat design. However, while flat design is crisp, clean, and, in theory, relies on core design elements to make user interfaces usable, implementations that employ the concept of flat design are not inherently usable.
We still need to think about things like usability, layout, typography, data density, and all of the core principles of design to ensure that our user interfaces are actually usable. We need to keep all of these principles in mind as we handle the inevitable flurry of requests that we create flat designs for our clients. We need to think of all of this as we counter our clients’ naive belief that a flat design is all that matters—and will act as gravy, covering up bad data design or the fact that we haven’t followed basic tenets of usability.
One of the biggest drawbacks of flat user-interface designs I can see is that, when they are done badly, they can be rather boring and uninspired. If we look beyond the two-dimensional surface, we can also see that flat designs give a sort of sameness to user-interface elements. When this happens, designers are truly treading in some dangerous territory—especially when the goal of a user interface is to help guide and direct users through their tasks.
Our clients certainly do not want users’ staring at assorted muted boxes on a screen, wondering what might happen if they click or tap something—or whether anything would happen at all. We don’t want users to waste time figuring out what they should be doing with a user interface simply because nothing expresses a visual hierarchy.
I have heard recently that some advantages of flat user-interface design are that this style gives a clear sense of hierarchy and lends itself to distinctive placement of user-interface elements. However, in practice, we are starting to see quite the opposite. This is not because flat design is essentially a bad paradigm to follow, but because there can easily be bad implementations of flat design—just as with any design trend.
We should not be choosing to create a flat user-interface design simply because flat design is a popular trend. We should choose flat design to solve performance issues, for its design aesthetic, or because of a desire to rely more on typography and layout than on more superficial design elements. We should use flat design because it is a lot quicker to implement a flat design and frees up time, so we can really focus on solving information architecture and other core issues with a design.