The design disease

Flaws in Flat designs and other trends

August 13th 2013 - Opinion

Image: PNNL

There is an epidemic in the design industry. The sickness takes many forms and can affect any one of its citizens at any time. The symptoms, if not caught early, can lead to catastrophic consequences. The disease is known by many names but the one I shall call it is “ego”. It can attack anywhere, anytime and usually starts when someone triggers a debate by voicing his or her opinion. A bit like this one.

Don’t get me wrong I think discussion is a good thing and encourage it, but I feel that we waste a lot of energy on things that do not need it. Take the debate on Skeuomorphic Vs Flat design. I know I should just walk away, for my own sanity and wellbeing. But that tooth needs prodding.

Partly I feel the problem is that we do not thoroughly reflect on what Skeuomorphic and Flat design represents, one thing for certain is they are not antithetical. There is a mood on the web that Skeuomorphic is bad because a designer at Apple got it wrong on a few occasions and Flat design is new and modern. It’s not. They are both incomparable as Skeuomorphic is to do with creating a visual metaphor in order to help the user understand something new by referencing something they are familiar with. Flat design however is a stylistic treatment and in some cases can cause issues for users.

Just to give you an example, Stickies, the native Mac app would be considered Skeuomorphic as it give the user the feel that it is for Sticky Note paper implying that the App is used for writing quick notes and NOT essays. However stylistically it would be considered flat design in that it lacks depth with its minimalistic visual approach.

As an aside I hate them term flat design, as it is lazy, by definition isn’t everything we design flat? Besides why do we feel the need to invent new terms when surely what we mean is plain design. If a new paradigm is required then wouldn’t it be much more accurate to name it after movements like Pop Art, Art Nouveau, Jugendstil or even Block design.

When Microsoft showcased Windows 8 everybody laughed because it didn’t look like iOS, which equally I thought, was wrong. Ironically now it seems Microsoft stylistic choices are being mimicked. I wonder what Steve would say to that.

There is nothing wrong with designing an experience to resemble something familiar, choosing a bad texture to give it that impression is just choosing a bad texture. Metaphors can help the user. I understand that simply digitizing analogue sometimes feels like we are taking two steps back. But that doesn’t mean it should trigger a style trend as a justification to design “flat”.

I think the real issue is that designers in our industry feel underrated when compared to designers of other disciplines. Just go to any Design Museum and you will see what I mean. Its true the medium itself doesn’t allow for us to receive that sort of appreciation from the masses. Anyone can appreciate a great tangible product but a website or app is perceived as something you order stuff from or kill time on as great experiences are hard to see. But then that’s information design for you. I’m pretty sure road sign designers feel the same way. But that doesn’t mean we should invent quick fixes to solve creative problems. After all we have nothing to worry about, as we are modern day magicians.

At Design College, years ago, we were told not to use system fonts as it was amateurish as every choice you make in the design process should be considered and have a purpose as opposed to being just decorative.

The creative process is a beautiful thing. It is the unknown journey of discovery that has many rewards, so long as we don’t pollute it with self-imposed design limitations. Lets not ruin it by deciding upfront to go photorealistic in order to get few hearts on or flat because it will make us look cutting edge. Surely the only thing that matters is the users needs and not our ego. But then again this is just an opinion.

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