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The Thing They're Calling Flat Design

Date: 12 July 2013

Flat Design, Swiss Design, International Style – whatever you call it, people are going mad for the new (again) trend.

Actually, “flat design” is nothing new. Like so many things it’s been around before in different guises, carrying a different name (and no, Microsoft didn’t invent it). Personally I’ve always been a fan of this type of look, the stripped down aesthetic that isn’t minimal, but does focus wholly on the necessary, and does away with the rest. I actually quite like the term that Dmitry Fadeyev used in this weeks Smashing Magazine article, Authentic Design. The term, to me at least says it all – this isn’t minimal design that ruthlessly gets rid of as much as possible, and can often seem soulless and cold. Instead authentic design focusses 100% on all the things that are needed to address the design problem at hand, and removes anything extra. Drop shadows are OK, as are the odd gradient, if it means it all adds up in someway to make the design better. I have to say though, my guilty secret is that I kind of like “longshadow”, that’s gained popularity since the release of iOS 7. The play on flat design, with literally long blocky shadows shown at 45 degress isn’t for everyone, but then what is?

When Microsoft entirely rebranded Windows with their Metro interface, the idea behind authentic design was clear to see. Most recently Apple have reinvented iOS, and have applied the theory of authentic design to iOS 7. They’ve faced some stick for it too, being accused of copying and imitating the likes of Windows and Android, but I think that’s a shame. I would much rather tip my hat to Jony Ive and the team for what they’ve accomplished, and can’t wait to see what’s next.

Dieter Rams is one of my design idols. He’s the guy behind the last wave of authentic design in the 1950’s and 1960’s at Braun, and Jony Ive even took a bit of inspiration from the work of Rams when he designed some of the Apple products (actually, quite a lot). Swiss Design, and later International Style, goes all the way back to 1920’s Germany, Russia and Holland. The likes of Max Miedinger, Josef Müller-Brockman, Adrian Frutiger and others all contributed to Swiss Design long before the Metro interface and Apple’s unibody laptops (which are a modern day example of outstanding authentic design in a product).

I started this post calling flat design a trend. To me, flat design, or whatever we like to call it, isn’t a trend. It’s really something more than that – the theory and ethos behind Swiss Design has deeper reaching meaning and forces us as designers to consider each and every part of a design. It pushes us to question whether we should use certain elements on a screen, page or product, and if we do how can we make sure that the element is used in the absolute best possible way. Dieter Rams came up with his now well-known 10 Design Principles, which can be applied to any type of design (not just product). I sometimes like to refer back to them when I’m stuck on a project, or just need reminding of why I’m doing this design thing anyway. My favourite (though they’re all just as important as each other) is the last one, and is often the hardest to achieve

  • Good design is innovative
  • Good design makes a product useful
  • Good design is aesthetic
  • Good design makes a product understandable
  • Good design is unobtrusive
  • Good design is honest
  • Good design is long-lasting
  • Good design is thorough down to the last detail
  • Good design is environmentally-friendly
  • Good design is as little design as possible