Why designers should ignore petty arguments and get back to work—making meaning.
As I write this, the UX/UI design universe is in an uproar over ‘Flat Design vs. Skeumorphism.’ As if designing interfaces was simply to pick between these two feuding parties.
At one level I’m amused. At another it betrays a view of design that is at best superficial, at worst mindless and derivative.
The current darlings of the design world seem to reveal a pendulum swing in the direction of ‘flat design’ (Apple no longer at the top of the list). The interaction design community seems a little late to the party if anything. Bold colours, clean lines and heavy reliance on typography were an established design trend prior to Microsoft or Google’s recent changes (browse through those design awards periodicals).
Part of the debate is over whether ‘flat’ elements properly inspire clicks and taps, but frankly I don’t buy it. What inspires clicks and taps are elements that are clear in their function. Beauty in its many forms can help; but clear icons and text will help a user more than the current fixation on shapes, colours and gradients.
So I’m amused that ‘Flat Design’ is seen as this sort of revolution in interaction design, when—on some levels—it’s just a slow response to what the branding & advertising world has been up to for a while.
What’s really significant is how the conversation has strayed from a meaningful discourse on why designers are involved in the creation of interfaces at all.
There is more to design than decoration, and simplicity is a lofty goal. But good design is not just to streamline, but to enrich.
In ‘flat design’ the reduction of form and detail elevates and enshrines the content. By stripping down visual information in a layout—be it a mobile app or a shopping bag—the content becomes the item of importance and carries the full force of meaning.
This reduction makes sense when applied to operating systems and other ‘neutral’ software platforms. Reducing the importance of interface elements allows the emphasis to remain on the content—where the value lies. In this sense Windows 8 is on the mark. Where the principle begins to blur though, is where the operating system actually is the content—or is part of it.
This is where Apple had it right at the launch of iOS. The device itself was a pure, distilled, neutral form, and the iOS interface was its content. (Keep in mind the App Store was in its infancy, and very few quality mobile apps existed).
Considering ‘interface as content’ gets more obvious in game interfaces. A video games’ success rides completely on how enriching an experience is. Interfaces for games are a delicate balance of inobtrusive controls and rich interactions. The interface is part of the experience, not a neutral delivery platform for third party content. In this context it is often outright inappropriate to have a neutral interface—never mind ‘flat design.’
Design at its best draws an optimum relationship between content and form. The relationship isn’t on either side of an arbitrary division between skeumorphism and ‘flat design; nor is it embedded in some trench between opposing ideologies. It is at the point of richest meaning.
Let’s do our jobs to add meaning to the world, not just grease the wheels of technology.