Flat design is the little black dress of user interface: simple, versatile, ubiquitous. Itâ€™s become an iconic style of the 2010s and itâ€™s popularity has been fueled by itâ€™s functionality and content-focused application.
While flat design is beloved by many tech start-ups, blogs, boutique retailers, and is the go-to style of almost every SquareSpace website, itâ€™s not the silver bullet for everyone looking to create a better user experience.
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What matters most is if flat design is right according to your experienceâ€™s goals. Factors such as information architecture, brand, audience age, and preferences can indicate whether flat design is appropriate. Building any digital experience is strategic. To succeed, you need to be highly focused and create a framework in which to accomplish your objective. The type of design you choose is an essential part of building that framework for success.
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The Advantages of Flat Design
The most widely recognized use of flat design is Appleâ€™s recent visual overhaul of iOS. The 2013 release of iOS 7 was originally panned by critics as being â€œoverly simplistic,â€ but time proved that this approach can be extraordinarily successful. For iOS and other digital experiences the primary advantage of flat design has been the general flexibility and clarity that it gives to the user experience.
Responsive – One of the most important benefits of flat design is that itâ€™s advantageous for a responsive experience. With big blocks of whitespace, large typography, and vibrant colors, the visual compartmentalization allows a flat design to transition easily between a variety of different environments and devices. Whether on a phone or a desktop, flat design works across devices with little disruption.
Faster – Flat design can also resolve common technical issues by reducing the need for complex elements such as intricate graphics that result in more complicated coding. From a developerâ€™s perspective flat design can be much easier to work with because they are much easier to transfer from a PSD or Sketch file. In short, flat design reduces the maintenance of an experience without reducing its quality. This speeds up developer workflow and also benefits site loading time.
Content-focused – A core tenet of building any experience is to remain content-focused. With simple typography and improved readability, flat design is naturally suited to emphasize your content by striping away distractions and other extraneous elements. The added focus given to content ensures that the words or graphics you choose to display are clear, concise, and communicate your message effectively.
Simple – Flat design also works well within the principle of â€œkeep it simple, stupidâ€ (KISS). By keeping information, products, and design to a minimum, people will be able to navigate your experience smoothly. Removing clutter and adding big, easily identifiable buttons makes it less likely that a user will get lost or have difficulty trying to find certain information.
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The Disadvantages of Flat Design
Too simple – The most common criticism of flat design is that it can look overly simplistic. By removing bold features like shadows, underlines, and gradients a website may look too sparse. Just because flat design appears simple, doesnâ€™t mean itâ€™s easy to executeâ€”flat design is deceptively hard to do well. BJ Fogg at The Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab surveyedÂ 2,600 participants and found that a websiteâ€™s design was the number one criterion for evaluating credibility (46.1%). When it comes to web design, even simple should be professional.
Overdone – Thereâ€™s also a risk that your website could appear boring or devoid of originality. Due to the popularity of flat design, your experience may not stand out among your competitors. This is problematic for some businesses more than others, but nevertheless itâ€™s important to find your own look that can uniquely delight your user.
Lack of visual hierarchy – As I mentioned before, flat design is more content-focused than other styles because of itâ€™s simplicity, therefore the content needs to be crisp. Flat design typically lacks a distinct visual hierarchy that can help improve certain forms of information architecture. If you have lotâ€™s of content and elements that need to be displayed, flat-design may not work well. Think of Amazon where they need to display a complex matrix of product information, flat design would be a hinderance for the experience because it relies heavily on visual indicators to guide the experience.
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So is flat design right for your site?Â Most likely the answer may not be black and white (forgive the design pun). If you have a massive amount of content on your website that needs to support complex information architecture, then flat design might not be your best bet. However that doesnâ€™t mean elements within your experience cannot take on flat design principles. You just need to be judicious with your application. A common way that flat design has been applied to all sorts of digital experiences is iconography.
Another reason flat design might not work is if your experience includes a significant amount ofÂ advertisements. Although you can have style guidelines for the advertisements that appear on your site, more often than not they will disrupt and distract from the experience if you have a flat design.
A childrenâ€™s website might also be an area where flat design is not the best choice. The typically short attention span of younger audiences makes the minimalism of flat design boring because it lacks abundant visual stimulation.
The popularity of flat design marks an important turning point in our relationship with digital experiences. Prior to flat design, skeuomorphism (the principle in which design elements mimic aspects of the physical world) was the guiding principle for creating a delightful user experience. However younger generations that have been immersed in digital experiences are less sentimental towards physical representations, and desire design that embrace the limits and opportunities of the screen.
Although flat design may not be the best choice for your digital experience, itâ€™s popularity indicates that user experience preferences are shifting towards design that takes full advantage of the digital environment. This increased familiarization with the digital environment coincides with a huge accumulation of digital content vying for attention. Users want clarity and simplicity in a space that has become overwrought with distractions and nuisances.