We mean visual content made entirely of two-dimensional lines, shapes, and colors, without the use of shadows, gradients, or other techniques employed to make imagery appear dimensional. Flat design’s emergence as the dominant user interface design language was initially born of a desire to create “Digitally Authentic” experiences.
Dimensionality in digital design was initially introduced to lead the user to take certain actions. For example, if buttons on websites appear pushable, we’re more likely to click on them; if fields that look recessed or shallow appear fillable, then we’re more likely to type in them. Earlier websites, lovingly called Web 1.0, tended to trade on this desire for dimensionality with dramatic effect—recall the large rotating multi-colored text of the mid-2000’s that populated so many DIY websites—which has now become cool again thanks to post-irony and cool-kid design trends in fashion, food, and music. Naturally, the pendulum had to swing and swing it did. In the past five-to-ten years we’ve seen a near-dominance of flat minimalism.
A friend and colleague of ours once called this fetishization of simplicity the “nobody in here is allowed to fart” effect of design, when the layout or actual content is so clean—likely due to a well-intentioned desire to appear balanced or calming—that the execution is entirely devoid of personality or feeling. Much has been said and memed about the sans-serification (a word we made up) of large fashion house’s brand identities. A lot of ink has been spilled over the ubiquity of blobby illustrations for the tech world resulting in a kind of Mattisian sameness. It is somewhat surprising that in the age of the screen—the dominant placement for so much of what is designed today—we observe a preference for flatness.
Thankfully, there appears to be an alliance forming that trades on the best use cases for dimensional design and the aesthetic simplicity of flat style. Consider the popularity of parallax scrolling websites where in content blocks are designed to scroll over one another to create the illusion of depth—a different kind of dimensional design aesthetic that does not require blocky buttons or drop shadows. Designers and commercial artists are moving away from the false-promise the “clean brand” in favor of a range of treatments and styles remixing gritty, DIY, expressive, and nostalgic sensibilities with modern minimalism.
The beautiful thing about the present is that audiences aren’t so unwieldy and amorphous that brands have to speak to and please everyone. Another piece could be written on the democratization of branding—the idea that a meaningful and beautiful brand identity does not have to be attainable only by very large corporations. The internet has enabled millions of storefronts to open, all of them requiring signage. The independent brand designers and small agencies of today are the sign painters of yesterday, and that is a very cool thing (we still love hand-painted signs and often design for them in our projects).
Simple flat design can be astonishingly beautiful in its uncanny ability to communicate a multitude of ideas in as few moves as possible. It can also be limiting in terms of the possibility for creative expression. Flat means safe: it means fewer shapes, fewer hours, fewer ideas. But it also potentially means greater accessibility and legibility, greater use-cases and adaptability. Dimensionality is a noble lie that can have functional user benefits. The lesson, for us, is to never stop looking at and learning from what designers create and how people interact with what is created.
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