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Recently I’ve been building a few apps for fun in my spare time.

Doing so has got me thinking about various design elements, and where online design might be heading.

Currently flat design is ruling the roost, but it may not always be that way...

Before I go any further, I’m playing my Get Out Of Jail Free card. I’m not a web designer, so some of the turns I’ve taken on my path to enlightenment may be wrong.

However, I wanted to put this down in the hope of opening up a wider conversation as I think it’s fascinating that marketers are increasingly having to gen up on UI, UX and technical design.

For any actual designers reading, please do weigh in on this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Flat design and iconography

The main difference between skeuomorphic and flat design is that flat doesn’t try to mimic solid, ‘real’ objects.  

In effect, it removes the idea of iconography from the design. You don’t need a little 3D rendered button to click on an element, you just need to click. 

For context, it’s worth knowing something about the history of flat design, which has roots in the 1950s, and the International Typographic Style (also known as the ‘Swiss Style’).

According to Wiki, it “emphasizes cleanliness, readability and objectivity.” In other words, big, clean images combined with Sans Serif and Helvetica fonts.  

Here are a couple of classic examples:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0004/9150/arminhofmann-blog-half.jpg

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/0004/9153/frutiger.jpg

And for comparison, Windows 8:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/0004/9152/windows_8.jpg

While it can still promote some confusion for users, it’s becoming more common and familiar, and as users we are developing new common gestures to cope with this, just as a system of gestures and responses evolved to deal with touchscreens in the recent past.  

By removing iconography, flat designs become simulations, or particularly, simulacra. 

The rise of simulacra

Simulacra are “copies that depict things that either had no reality to begin with, or that no longer have an original”, and you already see them all over the web:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/0004/9154/save.PNG

(Interestingly, I actually had to write this article twice after forgetting to click that earlier). 

Annihilating mechanics

While these simulacra are certainly elegant, the philosopher who originally came up with the idea, Jean Baudrilliard, noted that they have a particular aspect which in design is both useful and disconcerting. They serve to ‘annihilate mechanics’.

They remove all the cumbersome clicking and grinding that actual, physical devices rely on.

Offline, cars are probably one of the best examples of this. Think of all the technology rammed into a new automobile, and how hard it would be for the average person to fix, compared to a car from 20 or 30 years ago. 

Online, this is great. No need to animate a click, which means your page loads quicker, and everything looks lovely and smooth. 

On the downside though, things can run a little too smoothly for the users liking. Without a satisfying clunk, we’re not always sure if an action has actually been accomplished (or if one has been accomplished by accident). 

In psychological terms, this is the fear that there is nothing underneath that lovely flat square. A fear exemplified recently by Virus Shield, an Android app that promised to safeguard your phone, but actually just featured an animated ‘X’ that turned into a tick.

It did nothing else, and by all accounts made $20,000 before it was pulled from the store: 

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0004/9148/fake-antivirus-app-blog-full.jpg

What does the image conceal?

Trying to get under the hood and, to mix metaphors, work out how the magic happens may partly explain some of the current lust for coding. Everybody is doing it. If you don’t then you have to just assume that your iPhone works by magic (I am aware that huge piles of money also figure in the desire to learn to code, but that’s a discussion for another time). 

This ‘fear of nothing' is at the core of another design movement, one that coincidentally, almost directly followed the Swiss Style: Postmodernism. 

Nothing = despair. What can fill the void?

I’m not going to delve too deeply into postmodernism here, but let’s just say that it revolves partly around the idea that nothing is new. We’ve seen and done it all before.  Which is either utterly, existentially terrifying, or... quite liberating. 

To address the terror, we need something to ‘fill the void’.

Otherwise we’re all slaves to small pieces of glass we carry around that may not actually do anything. There’s a lot that can be done about this.

From a user perspective, coding may be the best way to gain an understanding. For marketers, it might help to invest in content, meaning we can calm users and reassure them that these random apps will lead to a warm, human experience, rather than a nightmarish void. But I’m digressing. 

Systems become ‘weightless’

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/0004/9147/balloons.jpg

The good side of all this is that the systems and UIs we design no longer need to be tied to any particular form.

To borrow another philosophical term, they become ‘weightless’.  Objects on the screen are liberated from ‘the constraints of the figural’.

So rather than a small floppy disk icon, I could just as easily have a flock of starlings, or a lightning bolt. It’s an intriguing idea that features heavily in classic design’s next major movement: Futurism. 

Futurism allows for this 'playfulness of form'. Why have a square app icon when you can have a flashing star or row of dancers?  Novelty and newness are the order of the day. Wouldn’t you rather squeeze a steel globe than push a button? 

But there’s a problem (isn’t there always).

Online, users need a certain amount of standardization. Otherwise, no one knows what the hell they are doing.  

Flat design works well because it relies heavily on grids. Objects are tethered in place.

Part of this is evolution, part intuition. As users, we know roughly where to look when we want to accomplish something. This alone means that Futurism, while not lacking totally in form, may be unsuited for web design. 

Form that communicates concept

So where is design headed?

Discussing this in the office bought up a particularly interesting point: How would you design a UI for a device without a screen?

As the Internet of Things grows, we’re going to need ways to communicate with more than just screens. Your house needs instructions. Cans of Soup may need to send you a text. In short, we’ll be dealing with digital appliances as often as we deal with actual ‘computers’. 

I’ve been thinking about it and (bear with me on this next bit), the best solution I could think of was a garden.

Gardens have form and meaning. Whether these are described in the formal lines of Versailles, or the meandering, organic forms of a Chinese Element Garden.   

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/0004/9155/daily-garden.jpg

Entering a garden we are confronted by an inspiring array of elements, each unique to its location, but all placed to direct and communicate with the visitor, conveying subtle ideas, or even political or religious commentary purely through form. 

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/0004/9149/garden.jpg

It’s far from an ideal analogy, but I do think the idea that UIs may evolve in the next few years to communicate concepts through varied forms is at least worthy of consideration,. 

We haven’t seen the last of more traditional design work by a long shot. I’m certain ‘click here’ will be with us for many years to come, but as devices and usage evolve, it’s going to become more important to find new ways to communicate with users. 

I’d love to hear what you think about this – are we headed for a connected web full of fireworks and bouquets, or do proven, formal grids just work? Please do let me know what you think.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I‘ve got some begonias that need pruning...

Matt Owen

Published 16 June, 2014 by Matt Owen

Matt Owen was formerly Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up on LinkedIn.

203 more posts from this author

Comments (8)

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Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

I think the main difference between skeuomorphic and flat design is:
* a skeuomorphic UI simulates lots of virtual 3D objects
* a flat UI is the skin of a single object

It's not surprising therefore that skeuomorphic UIs are successful when they simulate objects on large flat screens that are not touched by the hand. But flat UIs are most successful on small tablets and phones that are already 3D objects held directly in the hand.

Microsoft's flat UI for Windows 8 is a good example - it's widely loathed on desktop PC screens, but generally liked on phones.

So when designing an App or Website, you should decide exactly how users will encounter it.

over 2 years ago

Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Head of Social at Econsultancy

Thanks Pete - that's an excellent point, and I think again it brings up the question of varied device UIs. It will be interesting to see the effects of wearables on this in the next couple of years as well.

over 2 years ago

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Neil Turner

An interesting article but as any UX designer will tell you UI does not equal user-centric design!

I agree that we will continue to see more varied interfaces and a move away the constraints that a skeuomorphic design can impose. It will also be interesting to see where kenetic feedback will take us, aside from the obvious video games (e.g. Xbox kinect).

over 2 years ago

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James

User-centric design is not how whether the UI is skeuomorphic or flat - it's how the product works and how well it delivers the functionality.

Design choices are secondary - just because flat "is in" doesn't mean it's good for everything. Same goes for transparencies - they have a very narrow application paradigm where they're useful.

over 2 years ago

Alex Nichol

Alex Nichol, Multi-Platform Director at Future&Co.

The title and the content of this post don't really align.

User-centric design is about creating the most efficient and satisfying experience for an end-user, by focussing on their goals and expectations above and beyond the needs of the developer/publisher.

I may be interpreting it incorrectly, but what you seem to be talking about in the post is the pretty much the opposite: creating something unique and meaningful by (and for the sake of) breaking from established design patterns.

This isn't design - it's art - and certainly not user-centric.

User-centric design will continue to follow technological innovation and our understanding of it. Early UI conventions - such as physical folders and 'windows' - helped non-geeks to understand computing paradigms by drawing parallels with well-known real-world equivalents.

Mobile operating systems did exactly the same (skeuomorphic design), until they became so ubiquitous that *everyone* was technically a geek, and no longer depended on real-world analogs.

User-centric design will continue to evolve in tandem with technology, adapting to take advantage of new devices and physical interactions (touch-screen, motion detection, eye tracking, voice control etc), and to deal with the technical limitations of display (myriad screen sizes, mixed resolutions, inconsistent network connection, limited power for complex animations/graphics etc).

These are the real drivers of user-centric design.

over 2 years ago

Matt Owen

Matt Owen, Head of Social at Econsultancy

Neil. Alex and James - thanks very much for your comments, yes I agree, and apologies if my writing has skewed the parameters a bit throughout. I suppose my own thinking is that design elements and the evolution of UI may converge more fully going forward?

I could be completely wrong of course, but it feels to me as though as we see more devices we'll begin to see this evolution, and I also think that while flat design is both attractive and useful, it may become... boring(?) eventually.While that's not necessarily a driver for change (if it ain't broke...) designers, and particularly marketers, might find it attractive to work with more esoteric ideas?

As I say, it's all a bit 'thinking out loud', but it is interesting to discuss - thanks again for your input, fascinating stuff!

over 2 years ago

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Peter Sheppard

Very interesting article which asks many questions I myself ask. My view would be that there isn't going to be a 'one or the other' approach in the future. If the current situation shows us anything it is that personalized experiences are going to play a big role in the future of design and most likely users will access content on the web through an interface of their choice, rather than being given one to view it with (the traditional website).

I firmly believe that the (not too distant) future will mean businesses / entities will make content available without structural form (except on their own platform maybe), and users will grab that and display it how they like, through their app, on their device (be it a phone, watch, glass wall, fridge, car dashboard, etc.).

If this is indeed where it goes then the concept of having a set and recognized approach for a 'save' button, for example, becomes less relevant as each user can have what they want. Exciting times.

over 2 years ago

Alex Nichol

Alex Nichol, Multi-Platform Director at Future&Co.

Thanks Matt - that's kind of my point. If it's driven by a marketer's desire to work with something more 'esoteric' (i.e. different, obscure or innovative) then it's not user-centred; it's ego-centred or brand-centred.

Perhaps if the article had been title "What is the future of user interface design?", it might have been less contentious.

If the future of user-centric design is to be sacrificed to satisfy a marketer's need to be seen as different or innovative, then we're all in trouble.

over 2 years ago

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