The world has gone flat. Interfaces with shadows, bevels and gradients are now deeply unfashionable. UI elements that mimic real world buttons, and god forbid textures: brushed aluminium, stitched leather etc, are hunted down, subjected to a good mocking, then executed with evangelical relish. So is that it, is ‘flat’ a one way street, a final logical conclusion, a minimalist dead end where we will remain forever ?
I remember a kid at school who got teased because of his big black plastic NHS glasses, he’d be the coolest kid in school now. If you asking someone in the 80’s or 90’s if flared trousers would ever be fashionable again, their wide eyed reply would probably include the word never. Do you remember watching cutting edge sci-fi programmes as a child, how deeply futuristic they seemed then you look them up on YouTube to be shocked at how dated they look. How is this possible ? Well its the pendulum of fashion and trend, ever swinging, yet near impossible to perceive from a fixed point in time. Humans love the new, we love novelty, we love to feel we are progressing, developing, moving forward (even if we are just actually in a loop). But fashion and design are awkward bed-fellows. Surly modern design with its focus of user experience, clarity of purpose and function doesn’t follow the whims of fashion?
To start to break down this relationship a little we need to look at history. All new mediums tend to mimic what has come before. When film first started, the early pioneers would point a static camera at the stage, mimicking theatre (similar to how the early photographers would mimic the great landscape painters) When the shot to shot ‘cut’ emerged it was considered deeply radical, a real ‘shock of the new’ , with early cinema empresarios worrying it would make their audiences physically sick.
Technology emerged from clockwork and mechanics with hardware that was defined by physical controls: control knobs, levers, switches and the like. The evolution of these ‘control surfaces’ is best seen with HIFI, where we can see a clear evolution in both utility and trend.
When software began to gradually replace and supplement hardware, it made sense for these new ‘virtual’ control surfaces to mimic what they were replacing. We hadn’t seen this stuff before, so we needed visual clues that we could relate to, that helped us understand how to use these systems. So it was entirely natural that skeuomorphic design (making digital interface elements mimic like real world equivalents) would take hold, it was a valuable abstraction that helped teach us to understand digital interface.
We are now in the phase of late majority adoption of digital technology, perhaps 70% of the way into the revolution, and the concept of software interfaces, UI, is now part of our collective conscious – we get it now, and don’t need hand holding. So perhaps it is natural that the backlash against skeuomorphism has been so strong, as well as being misused, it feels kind of patronising.
As we have collectively learnt the paradigms of software interfaces, and the novelty of tapping, clicking and swiping has to a large extent worn off, UI has thankfully taken a big step out of the way and exposed what was and has always been the point; the content. I would suggest that the flat ‘movement’ has been a force for good, after all we don’t need to see picture frames displayed on screens to know we are looking at a picture do we ? But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far ? With Apple’s recent iOS7.1 update, Apple has rolled back a little on their flat quest – no doubt responding to user feedback from those who found it hard to differentiate labels from buttons. If you examine Google’s famously flat UI you will see very subtle gradients and drop shadows on certain UI elements. These elements will not be consciously registered by users, but, when subconsciously processed, will help them differentiate ‘buttons’ from other elements. So my design prediction for the post flat world is…nearly flat.
‘Nearly flat’ (or ‘Almost flat’) isn’t terminology I have invented, it is a meme that is growing in the design community. It’s a gradual realisation by the community that the pendulum has swung too far, and that actually some subtle non-flat attributes can help users. Nearly flat doesn’t require the literal obviousness of skeuomorphic design, but helps provide some sense of dimension and ‘feel’. Nearly flat can provide some subtle affordances (link between actual and perceived properties) and provide important visual clues and functional pointers to users. Essentially nearly flat has more utility as it can dip into a bigger toolbox than a purist flat approach. Soon we will have enough distance from the rage of skeuomorphism to see its value and cherry pick some of the better ideas and approaches, and lets not forget that we always need to make room for experimentation and play;
Post post flat?
Gazing further into the future with our crystal ball, there are a number of factors that will have an interesting affect on the direction of UI, some technological, some cultural.
As the market for ‘wearables’ (smart glasses, watches, rings, even bio-embedded technology) begins to fully emerge and grow, it will lead to an increasing invisibility of computing, and one that will presumably be less reliant on visual displays. We also have to consider the advent of simulated textures on touchscreen: simulated leather effects in UI might be much more compelling if they feels like leather as well…
The most interesting influence on the future however, is cultural. The skeuomorphic references in our modern flat UIs are actually alive and well, persisting in our iconography. Just glance through your smart phone icons to see how many of them refer to physical objects. But soon (if not now) there will be people who have never used an envelope, had a physical notebook, or drawn a picture, let alone seen a leather bound address book.
One thing is for sure, a new visual language will emerge that will make our current flat design look oh so dated, we’re a fickle bunch aren’t we?