Within the last year, many familiar brands, such as Apple, have scrapped their existing skeuomorphic UI design in favor of of something simpler and flatter, creating a debate over both the purpose of skeuomorphism and the potential longevity of flat UI. So if you’re new to the debate, where do you start? Let’s start at the beginning.
What is Flat Design?
Flat design in print in nothing new. Swiss/International Style sought to pull the world out of clutter and disorganization through the use of grids and simplified shapes as early as the 1950’s. Since then, designers of all disciplines have embraced a philosophy similar what what industrial designer Dieter Rams outlined in his ten principles of good design: "less, but better".
Flash forward to the launch of the first iPhone in 2007. Smart phones were just starting to disrupt our social patterns and become integral parts of our day, using skeuomorphism to adjust us to our new mobile lives.
What is this skeuomorphism business anyway?
Skeuomorphism is the ornamentation on an object copied from the form of an original object. While skeuomorphism has been around for a while in surface and fashion design (pleather, anyone?), it has also been used in smart phone interfaces to ease users into features and functionality that have real world counterparts.
The release of the new iOS 7 and Windows 8 interfaces have pulled us into a new era where skeuomorphism is deemed archaic at worst and unnecessary at best. Flat design has become increasingly prevalent and adaptive to meet changing user goals.
So what has flat design changed to meet these goals?
Flat design has brough content back to being front and center. It favors hierarchy and ease of informational access above all else. Take for example Google Now, which prioritizes content over ornamental style by streamlining the interface and stripping it down to only what is necessary.
Flat UI design is truly about "how it works."
Today’s Flat UI has come to represent Steve Job’s thoughts on design and tech: "Design isn't what it looks or feels like. Design is how it works." Focusing on responsive design and smart transitions over ornamentation allows the user to connect with the content in new and innovative ways. What Flat UI is lacking in ornamentation it makes up for in functionality. Apps such as Taasky and Clear use intuitive transitions to help users keep track of and organize their schedules. The recently released Yahoo! News Digest app engages the user with condensed content and unexpectedly playful transitions. Similar functionality, such as the pull to refresh action, have already become an expected part of our digital routine.
Regardless of which side you stand on in the flat vs. skeuomorphic debate, it’s hard to deny that the recent applications of flat UI are ushering in new and exciting ways of organizing, presenting, and experiencing content by cutting out superfluous information and prioritizing the essentials.