Flat design–and the ensuing rejection of excessive visual chrome and skeuomorphic metaphors–is easily one of the best things to happen to interface design in the last five years. On the whole, our websites and apps and operating systems are better off for it, as they’re easier to comprehend and scale better across multiple screen sizes. But flat design is still totally overrated.
The issue isn’t as much with the theories and ideas flat design is rooted in, but rather the attitudes that surround the design practice. Motivations range from cynical to overly idealistic, but an all-too-common belief has emerged from the likes of startups, marketers, and critics who suggest that flat design has the ability to take a not-great product and make it great (or, at the very least, appealing). And that just isn’t the case.
Can it make an app better than it was before? Sure. Does it make a service feel more current? Absolutely. But without addressing other underlying issues, applying flat design principles to a bad product is akin to taking a broken-down car and giving it a fresh coat of paint.
Consider Spotify’s big redesign last year. The music-streaming company has never been particularly forward with its approach to design, so there was a fair amount of excitement from users when the flattened look arrived.
But once you got past the novelty of Spotify in two dimensions, the overall experience of consuming music through the service was the same, and many of the more significant issues unrelated to flat design remained; the shoddy information architecture that makes the service confusing to navigate; the sometimes slow and unresponsive search engine; the inconsistent feature set across platforms that provides a different experience depending on what device you’re using; the complicated handling of local files. Despite attempting to play catch up with competing service Rdio in the design category, Spotify still feels light years behind.
The problematic flipside of this attitude is that people assume that anything not flat is bad. The large number of texture and drop-shadow-based atrocities committed upon the general public in recent history doesn’t mean it’s impossible to tastefully work three-dimensional elements into a design.
One good example is Google’s Material Design, which is most visible in the latest version of Android. Material Design has plenty of issues, including consistency across Google’s products and execution of the little fit and finish details (hence its place in our World’s Most Overrated Design bracket). But you can see how it takes things like depth, and layering, and–GASP–drop shadows, and makes them look just as contemporary and innovative as the flattest of flat design. And unlike Spotify’s redesign, Google didn’t just give Android a visual refresh; it significantly rethought the way that information is presented and interacted with throughout the OS.
Even Apple, indirectly responsible for this explosion of chatter around the flat design, is not opposed to revisiting the past from time to time. It, too, has played around with depth and layering, evident in its blur and parallax effects, providing a reminder that flat design is more of a best practice, and not dogma.
At the end of the day flat design shouldn’t go away nor should it be ignored as a general philosophy; if you’re already planning a redesign of your product, and there are no other major glaring issues, embracing flat design is a fine idea. But if you do so in a militant manner, or with the expectation that flat design going to cover up critical problems you don’t want to focus time and money on, you’re going to quickly learn it’s no design savior.
More Essays On Overrated Design
It’s Time For The Minimalist Poster Trend To Die by John Brownlee
What Champions Of Urban Density Get Wrong by Inga Saffron
The Case Against Open Design Competitions by Kriston Capps
Hate Your Soulless Office Tower? Blame The Seagram Building by Martin C. Pedersen
You’ve All Been Had, Keurig Coffee Is The Devil by Mark Wilson
Beats By Dre Isn’t Great Design, Just Great Marketing by Devin Liddell
Please Stop Making Stupid Smart Jewelry by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan
Delightful Interaction Design Needs To Die by John Pavlus
The Thinkpad Is A Lasting, But Overrated, Design by Mark Wilson