How does one define ‘flat design?’ It can be confusing to classify it so let’s start off by saying that it’s a design philosophy where conventional design features – like extra visuals and cues — are removed for the sake of clarity and simplicity.

You can call it ‘modernist’ design, if you wish, like the ‘modernist’ architects and designers of the 1930s who first advocated this type of design in the field of architecture.

In flat design frills and unnecessary design elements are forsaken and the focus is on functionality in user interfaces rather than style. But natural colors – lots of them – are featured in flat designs and they give it a distinct appearance.

To understand flat design better it would be good to know what skeuomorphism means. Skeuomorphism relates to the use of visual deception — or the usage of ornamentation to give something the look of something else.

False wood panels in cars or a fake façade in architecture are examples of skeuomorphism.

Flat design, on the contrary, aims to do away with these trimmings. Designers who support flat design philosophy argue that a graphical user interface (GUI) must shun gradients, reflections and shadows as well as edges that don’t meet at angles of 90 degrees. It must support digital interfaces and move away from the analog world.

Flat pages should focus on visual clarity and parallax scrolling to communicate, flat designers say. Google Now is a terrific flat design example; it makes use of a simple system to show information categories.

It shuns cramped information stored in static icons; instead it shows it on traditional, easy-to-read cards. Windows 8 is another fine example of flat design. It favors the use of typography and not graphics to help readers comprehend the kind of content.

Simply put, flat design is a response to the difficulties that skeuomorphic design faces.

Let’s take a deeper look at skeuomorphism to understand flat design better. In the early 1980s, when the concept of desktops and icons was introduced, skeuomorphism was a necessary tool because computer interfaces were entirely new ideas for most users.

But as PCs became more commonplace over time, the number of people needing those icons diminished rapidly and skeuomorphism ultimately developed into a strained and rather unnecessary style.

It also turned into a kind of outcast that was at first shunned and then forgotten by designers who grew up in a world where computers had become very much a part of everyone’s life.

Advantages of flat design

1. Distinct, clean visuals. It’s distinct nature and clear visuals are what make flat design stand out from the other types of interface design. These features make it look very attractive. Plenty of color, elegant typography and its striking character give it a life of its own. Fundamental geometric shapes also make it different and advantageous.

2. Bright colors appeal. The bright colors that are used in flat design are very appealing and they lift your spirits. They give the site a feel of positivity and boost users’ mood which results in better engagement with them.

3. Clear-cut mobile interface. A simple mobile design is one of the finest flat design applications. These designs don’t require users to zoom to find links. It’s easy to tap large, bold buttons on mobile gadgets.

4. Great typography. As all frills are removed or not used, flat design focuses on typography. In the absence of decorative or ornamental stuff, the spotlight is on typography and stunning, highly readable type takes precedence and blooms in flat design schemes.

5. It’s trendy. Flat design is cool, it’s fashionable and it catches the eye of bloggers thus helping in your design’s promotion. Designers also say that it’s great fun. So what are you waiting for? Jump on to the flat design bandwagon!

Disadvantage of flat designs

1. It can be too simple. Flat design can be criticized for its simplicity. These critics may say that a complex message is hard to put across in flat design. Supporters of skeuomorphic design claim that the decorations give the design practicality for easier tool usage.

2. Matching colors are tough. Anyone familiar with design will tell you that matching colors can be a tough job. One has to virtually be an artist to be efficient in this. And the work gets harder when plenty of colors, say 4 or 5, need to be matched.

3. Concerns about usability. Flat design may fail in intricate and complex user experiences. Users are unaware all the time where they need to click or tap and all are not necessarily happy with the flat design interface.

4. If typography is weak, it’s obvious. But the typography that’s used must be great. Like the color scheme selection of typography is also a professional job and requires an artistic eye and feel. Therefore, bad typography will also stand out — in a very negative way!

5. Will trend last? A disadvantage of flat design is the often asked question: How long will it last? That’s the thing with trends – their shelf life is short; they get overtaken by a new trend. Authentic flat design is already being ‘modified’ with long shadows. So, if you want your website to be long-lasting, think of something less trendy.

Summing Up

In conclusion I can say that the bottom line is: good design is something that’s easy to use. A design can never be perfect. It’s more than mere looks; it must be functional and compatible with the nature of the goods or services of the business.

The best concept, I think, is to fashion every design according to the requirements of every project. The message you want to send out must be properly conveyed by your design. In sum, usability and functionality must be the primary objectives of good design.

So what does the future hold? As we have seen, trends by their very nature and definition belong to the present. What’s trending today cannot be trending some years down the line. It’s like fashions; what’s fashionable today may be passé very soon.

User interface and web designing, however, has a longer life span than fashions which have their fixed seasons. But the speedy pace of development in the web world means faster movements in design trends too.

Feel free to share your thoughts on this very topical debate. I’ll be happy to read your comments and add to my knowledge from them!

Post contributed by Alan Smith, an avid tech blogger with vast experience in various IT domains, currently associated with SPINX Inc., a Los Angeles, California based website design, web development and internet marketing company. Follow Alan on Google + and Twitter.

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  1. I am with you, Flat Design is trendy (which looks like the advantage), but not that usable (disadvantages), nor that intuitive as skeuomorphism (are ALL users really more used to smartphones now to know where there is a button or not?). It’s a shame that some once good designs are now transformed to their flat counterpart which made them lose their brand and dilute into the masses.

    I agree that it looks cleaner, but first impressions are not always the best. For example I recently heard a bad review regarding Windows Phone: The big home buttons were bad after all because user had to scroll all the time to get to her content.

    I hope in some months there will be some popular apps that will take the best of two worlds to make a new trend again.

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