From Microsoft’s Metro user interface to Apple’s move to minimalist design, flat design is everywhere: from web design to logo design, all the way to print design, too. Vector logos and icons sit crisp on solid, gradient or image backgrounds with plenty of whitespace around them, conveying meaning quickly with simple, solid colour instead of with complicated gradients, shadows and bevelling to imitate real-life objects.
The beginning: skeuomorphic design
In the beginning, when personal computers were first introduced, they needed to feel like the real world, to be familiar even though it was new. Computers needed to be easy to understand and use. Hence the rise of skeuomorphic design in the tech world, including 3D and shadow effects to imitate familiar objects. For many years, skeuomorphic design was the golden standard, explaining why even to this day we can’t shake the floppy disk icon that represents the “save” button – the metaphor is strong for those of us that have used floppy disks (yep, I was the last generation that did… that dates me a bit!) but not so for younger generations for whom it has generally no meaning anymore.
Skeuomorphic design had a tangible look, like all things in the real world, to remind us of an application’s purpose, to create an indelible understanding in our minds of what actions represent.
2013: flat design takes on the world
In 2013, Apple released its flat-style iOS7, and… the world was divided. However, to generate more money on the AppStore, you now needed to fit with their visual aesthetic to be featured. Product owners were therefore forced to go with Apple’s flow in all things, from app logo design to web design, to printed design, in order to stay coherent and competitive.
A year later, Apple released their Material Design guidelines, which can be regarded as Flat 2.0 in that subtle shadows and gradients have been re-introduced into the equation to mimick paper and ink as a “natural” environment for the brain to process. The world was taken by an even bigger storm. As the giant that it is, those guidelines became regarded as the standard in the industry. To stay afloat and relevant, many converted to the trend and haven’t looked back since.
But, obviously, to become so prevalent, the flat design aesthetic needs to be useful. And it is.
The human brain can comprehend 2D objects more quickly than 3D objects: there is less information that needs to be distilled into a coherent image for the brain to decipher. Indeed, the brain apparently processes colours and shapes first then sends the rest to be computed downstream. The more basic the shape and colour scheme, then, the more quickly the brain can take in the meaning of what it sees. The current direction in the world of design is towards more abstraction, less text, and a mobile-first mindset. On an iPhone or Android there isn’t a lot of room for an app logo (the retina 2x size of an app logo is 180x180) so it needs to be easily recognizable at any size, and that means simplicity is key.
Yes, flat design may seem too simple and lack the elegance of a realistic image, but printing a flat logo can potentially save a company millions of dollars in printing expenses. Think about it: printing gradients and shadows means printing thousands of colours, whereas printing a 2D logo with solid colours means you can return to printing using spot colours which can considerably reduce material costs and printing time. A flat design will also reduce bandwidth usage for screen users, as there aren’t millions of colours to reproduce on screen. This means that your website will load faster, resulting in better SEO ranking potential.
We’ve become mega-consumers as technology has taken over our lives and saturated our digital world. We now get a massive influx of (often useless, or fake) information on a daily basis, too much for our brains to process or remember; we’ve become flooded with what some call information overload. Indeed, the internet is changing the way we think, the way we work, the way we communicate. What results is that companies are now forced to remove all clutter from their visual presentation, whether it be their logo, their website, their messaging, etc, so that their message is clear and concise. Otherwise, users and customers will simply go elsewhere to get their news, their product information, their entertainment, their cleaning service, or whatever else your company offers. A clean, crisp and uncluttered visual will go a long way to create a space where your user or customer will feel free to breathe and browse without being bombarded with superfluous information that doesn’t belong on the digital space. Moreover, your brand will create a lasting impression through its lack of useless litter.
Also: less is more. Imagine all the business decals on cars and trucks that you’ve seen in the past or even today. Was there one that stood out to you for all the right reasons? Was it because it was designed with everything and the kitchen sink in it, or because it was a simple but starkly beautiful design that wasn’t so busy you had to squint to even understand what the business was all about? I’m guessing the latter. And you might even remember that business’s name to this day because of it. You might call on them first if you needed services they offer. A clean design tends to foster trust more than a cluttered design, a study shows.
To recap, graphic and web designs need to be simple, authentic, creative, clean, effective and beautiful. Flat design helps to promote those aspects in all ways. One of the benefits of flat design is that it is easily recognizable and incredibly versatile, as it can be used in all things from signs, stationary, embroidery, web design, embossed on wood or etched in metal, etc. It is cheaper to choose flat design over skeuomorphic imagery and will cost less bandwidth usage to your users and customers, helping you rank higher on search engines. Flat design helps remove useless clutter from users’ brains, helping them better remember your business and what you offer through your clean, crisp design aesthetics.
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