People are missing the point around this flat design movement and a lot of major publications seem to be touting the next wave of design by Jony Ive as a Godsend or a much needed design overhaul.
They’re not quite seeing the whole picture.
While it’s true that the realist design of the native calendars and the to-do lists may no longer be a necessity in mobile design (or digital design for that matter), skeuomorphism isn’t necessarily the leather stitching or the felt design that iOS is so fondly known for.
A skeuomorph is a physical ornament or design on an object made to resemble another material or technique.
So before we get ahead of ourselves and a rally “death to skeuomorphism” mob, it’s important to realize that there’s always a distinguishable in-between that represents the user experience best. An experience that sometimes requires skeuomorphism to identify the context of the application or digital property.
Sometimes people focus too much on the specific type of design implementation, losing sight of the true goal - and that’s to represent the user in best a way as possible. The realist/skeuomorph design was originally made to get people into the notion of thinking that their devices could function as a replacement to real world physical materials. A calendar, a notepad, all things that effectively needed a digital interpretation to coach people into the right interaction. (As a matter of fact, Steve Jobs personally was responsible for pushing through the first iterations of his realist design - and for a good reason at the time).
Now that it’s become the standard, we can begin to shed the unnecessary weight of textures and patterns that sometimes hamper or weigh down the experience. On a technical level, perhaps it’s nice to shed the weight of requiring additional image assets in order to make a point. Or perhaps it would be nice to get a refreshing new look to design as realism did once with iOS.
But in this brave new world of design and the flat vs. skeuomorph war, I think it’s best to take the stance of, “what design serves our users best?” So let’s keep that the focal point of our design decisions and let the design speak for itself.
Let’s also not let this new design trend lull us into a state of laziness. Take all these design examples on DesignModo, while admitted flat, you’ll see the emphasis on “almost.” It means that while the design uses a solid color palette and less definition in gradients (to begin), it doesn’t shed all the elements of the realist design we’re used to. It uses drop shadows, gives contexts to layers within a digital environment. Because even though we’re familiar with how swipe interactions and tap and hold interactions work on a touch device, it’s always nice to get feedback from design even if it’s not the real deal. We deal with layers and depth in real life because that’s how the world is presented to us. Data should be presented to us in the same way; we shouldn’t lose it in flat design because that’s what we believe “flat” dictates. Being married to a design metaphor before the user experience is one of the biggest mistakes a designer can make.
A nice article by Jonathan Libov pointed out that flat design now makes it easier for mediocre designers to put together a semi-professional design interface that could slip by as “acceptable” and “production ready.” But when you begin to look through the differences in good and fair flat designs, you’ll see that the better designs use the right amount of embellishments to cater to the user.
I’m not opposed to flat design at all, I’m going to be one of the biggest proponents of Google’s flat-“ish” design you’ve ever met. But I think the balance is not what kind of design we decide to take, but the design that best serves our users. And today, maybe it is the “almost-flat” that we’re seeing. Who knows what we’ll all love seeing tomorrow.
Here’s to iOS7 and WWDC MMXIII!