Flat Design: User Interface Takes a Back Seat

5 minute read
Boris Kraft avatar

Customer Experience, Flat Design
Windows 8, Google Now, Facebook, iOS 7 ... "Skeuomorphism" -- lifelike 3D effects such as push buttons, linen, fake leather and trash cans -- has definitely fallen from grace. Enter Flat Design.

"Flat Design" is the buzz-phrase of the moment with The New York Times, Forbes and many other titles exploring this latest trend.

With the latest release of Magnolia 5, we could certainly be accused of jumping on the Flat Design bandwagon. But our choices in building a completely new UI were made well before the recent hype explosion around all things flat. And I believe these choices reveal some interesting insights into current trends and what, if flat design is just another fashion in UI design, will come next.

Throwing the Trash Can out with the Trash - A New Design Approach

Even when we first started redesigning our own UI in late 2011, skeuomorphism was starting to look fairly tired. It did, and still does, serve an important role in guiding new users through an interface: a button that looks like a button is clearly there to be clicked or tapped. And bringing in familiar objects, references and textures from real life, undoubtedly sets newcomers more at ease in the virtual world. But as most people assimilated the common language of navigating the web and apps, 3D chintz and "death-by-dropshadow" was starting to look increasingly unnecessary and, well, tacky!

Web design, and particularly the simplicity of mobile-first and other reductionist design concepts, was starting to reveal a new way forward. Software applications were starting to look very outdated by comparison. From the 90’s onwards, the predominant paradigm in software design had been “more is better.” This was largely based around the need to add new features to sell your latest release. Software’s ever increasing complexity almost compelled assistive UI design.

Web and mobile apps changed this. They were simple, task-focused and intuitive. The best apps can be customized and configured with all or at least most of the functionality and options of desktop software, but in everyday use they deliver only what is needed, nothing more, nothing less. If an app needs a “... for Dummies”guide book or an O’Reilly “Missing Manual,” then there is something very wrong.

Enterprise Software: Borrowing from the App World

But what of enterprise software? Well for Magnolia, our move towards a simple, clean and, yes, “Flat” UI was driven by a combination of factors. Some of these were certainly aesthetic. Our Swiss/Germanic routes and a general passion for design of all forms within the company, drew us towards influential modernist, reductionist movements such as Bauhaus and Swiss Graphic Design. The concept of reducing everything back to the bare minimum and then add back just enough to give your design unique, but timeless character and identity, felt comfortable, even natural. It looks good.

However, we also had compelling technical reasons for the choice of a more simple, flat design. Firstly, Magnolia 5, as with many of the wave of new flat design UIs, was built from the outset to work on mobile devices. Screen size limitations certainly play a part here, enforcing the need to remove any onscreen clutter. However, building for mobile now also means building for the expectations of a generation that has grown up on apps and social media. They expect task-focus, they demand intuitiveness and they find endless drop-down options antiquated.

In building for mobile as well as the desktop, the need for simplicity in features and options both allowed and encouraged us to explore a parallel simplicity in the look and feel of the UI.

Learning Opportunities

It will be news to no-one working in web industries that content is king. People no longer marvel at their new office applications, or at pretty much any application. Applications are simply a means to make and consume content. If they do this well or in a new way, if they enable innovative and exciting forms of content, they can still be a great application. But the software application itself should definitely sit in the back seat. Functionality no longer needs to be in our faces or on a big 3D button for us to appreciate it.

Particularly with a web CMS, the content has to be at the center. The app for creating and managing this needs to melt into the background. The UI needs to provide access to the right functionality at the right time, but nothing more. It needs humility and honesty while maintaining power.

The current incarnation of flat design is almost certainly a trend. While its clean, elegant minimalism currently appeals to many lovers of pure design aesthetics, design fashions move on. And, in the mass consumer market, the jury is still out on whether the complete obliteration of skeuomorphic assistance for the end user even works.

However, the increasing move to relegate the user interface to a back seat is almost certainly a permanent one. The UI still needs to be there in some form, but that form is changing. It is becoming less of a static frame for an entire application, and more of a series of consistent, task-focused apps. The UI is evolving into a set of increasingly subtle tools and, most importantly, they are becoming more dynamic: adapting to the context the application is being used in and the individual user.

Title image courtesy of deMatos (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: For a look at flat design from a mobile app perspective, see Standing Out in a Crowd of Mobile Apps

About the author

Boris Kraft

Boris Kraft has been creating and selling software since the age of 16. He is the co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Magnolia International, a Swiss-based open source CMS vendor.