Website or App development

Moving Design Forward

by Gwynn Kirk, Designer & Editor

In my last design article, I talked about how flat design has come to be the standard for a majority of new apps and websites today. While the initial iterations of flat design were good – lightweight, free of distractions, sleek, adaptable – following the trend of flat design itself has led to designers sacrificing user experience for “the look”.

Ars Technica wrote a great wrap-up article this past summer on the subject with the perfect title, “The software design trends that we love to hate”. At the top of the list was an example of how, in the great migration from skeuomorphism, the rise of “too-subtle” touch interfaces became popular. Is it a button? Is it text? Or is it both? It seems that many designers are assuming that their designs are more intuitive than they actually are. Instead of creating designs that are more straightforward about their functionality they are creating ambiguous interfaces so as not to take away from the minimalist, flat aesthetic. Flat design can be unforgiving in this way – without the visual cues that came with older design trends, how can designers indicate an element’s function?

Another issue that has come up in flat design is the tendency to hide essential elements such as the navigation menu. Designer Meng To describes this well in his aptly titled blog post called “Simplifying for the wrong reasons”. When Microsoft (which so far has been highly regarded as the innovator of flat design) made the decision to hide their navigation menu in Windows 8, users ran into a more complicated process than they were used to. This may have been one of the leading causes of the low adoption rate and subsequent relative failure of the operating system. Interestingly, Microsoft has just announced the upcoming launch of Windows 10, which will come complete with the ‘new’ Start menu back in its familiar spot.

Flat design was also supposed to be the answer to making responsive websites for the different screens used to view them today. To a degree, this does work, since the “boxes” that come on content-heavy pages can easily be rearranged to fit on a smaller screen. However, this has led to many websites looking a lot like each other – even like their competitors. In a recent article in Mashable, the designers interviewed acknowledged that they need to start thinking differently when designing for different contexts. Responsive design now needs to account for screens of all different sizes, whether it is on some of the smallest mobile screens to the biggest desktop displays.

Critics of flat design, many of whom are also designers, are acknowledging that flat design has made designers afraid to break from the norm. With nearly every app, OS, and website made to look flat, any new design concepts can seem old, out of step, and less desirable. Flat design worked for a while, but as the trend described by designer Kelly Sutton in the above Mashable article as “the great flattening” begins to wind down, designers need to find ways to adapt.

I think this is a great sign: designers are starting to speak out about breaking from the “norm”. We should not wait for the big tech companies to set new design trends. Scott Dadich’s recent article in Wired was a great example of a designer doing something “wrong”, or as he put it, “intentionally making ‘bad’ design choices” and yet getting ‘good’ results. He then focused on technology design. How would “The Wrong Theory” work in this case? “What happens after you\’ve learned how to make technology that is supremely appealing and functional? A whole new range of opportunities opens up,” Dadich says. The next step in technology design should come from the creativity of designers, in a way that still keeps  the user in mind. Be “style agnostic” – consider the pros and cons of stylistic decisions and offer your clients a design that works for them.

Image: Design Tools by Michael Angel Avila via The Pattern Library.

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