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The End of Flat Design

Posted by Zach Blank under Design


Flat and dull. These two words perhaps best describe the essence of the biggest design trend right now, better known as flat design. Designers have been using solid, desaturated colors to express ideas, brand companies, and fill the visual demands of their projects in great volume, and as a result we see this technique manifested in almost every corner of our culture. For example, I wrote this post while traveling, and at one point I looked outside to give my eyes a break, and there was a billboard, with flat design fully implemented in the iconography and copy. This ought to prove my point: It's everywhere.

Of course, being a designer, I love the clean, simple feel of this trend, and I believe it does allow for ideas and information to be conveyed in a very efficient way. But the truth is that beneath the sharp collateral, web and logo designs that we see everyday, flat design is a trend. And as is with all trends, it will go out of style, and something else will replace it. But why will this flattened appearance lose popularity with designers?

Well for starters, everything we design is beginning to look the same. Solid, desaturated blocks of color will, and already have lost a lot of their power to help a piece stand out, due to overuse. Imagine a town where everyone wears tie-dye shirts. If a few people decide to wear something solid, they'll stand out. People will probably begin to thing it's cool, and do the same. As the volume of “solid color shirt people” increases, the idea will become accepted and more or less normal, but the initial novelty will disappear. This is where I believe we are with flat design. It has been used by so many that it inevitably becomes “normal”. This is wear something will shift eventually. Designers are creative people. They won't stay within the confines of what everyone is doing forever. Creativity will prevail against tradition, and flat design therefore cannot last forever, no matter how good of a solution it is to communication needs that we have today.

This can be explained by the confining nature of the trend itself. Flat colors aren't natural. We don't really find them in any natural or organic objects and scenery, and they aren't really a part of the man-made, physical world either. Even things we'd normally think of as flat/solid, like a painted wall, in actuality does have texture and shading. At some point, we will require the freedom to use more difficult techniques to express what we see around us. And once that ball gets rolling, it won't stop.

That's not to say that flat design is necessarily on the way out yet. It's hard to break old habits, and influential companies are still practicing the use of solid colors. Apple just released their iOS 7 beta, which relies heavily on a flatter interface. Although it is fairly controversial in the design community, people will eventually quit making their complaints and cheesy “re-designs”, and it will preserve the trend in the long run. We may still see a lot of flat design in the future, but already I see signs of its retirement in the works. In a few years, something new and entirely fresh will hit the scene.

Until then, we'll enjoy telling people that gradient overlay layer styles are nasty while we still can.

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