20 May Flat design is not a style
For decades, software companies dictated the design aesthetics of desktop user interface’s portable devices and the Internet. Designers fiercely fought to overcome cultural comfort zones and misunderstood concepts of beauty and creativity as well as plain ignorance. Designers tried tirelessly to influence clients to see design at its best — an elegant representation of a well thought out function driven by user needs. And when these aspects work well together, they will consequently open up and nurture great business opportunities.
For the longest time, visual design in Silicon Valley was not expectable without an array of stylistic character such as beveled button and drop shadows. A plain design to the client felt naked, unfinished and incomplete. In lieu of education, people judged design by personal taste. But it is challenging to qualify somebody’s personal likes and dislikes and because there was no guidance to go by, they often turned to what their neighbor was doing. As a result, collectively the Valley developed a Valley style.
To a significant degree this was also driven by Apple’s perception of user interface, which used real world metaphors to explain user interface functions to novice computer users.
Flat design was long practiced in Europe and came out of the historic context of the industrial revolution. Just like in the digital revolution, innovators and interpreters saw opportunities of great wins and the time period resulted in the invention of machines for everything and the ability to produce household items for everyone. Most innovators of the time had engineering backgrounds, and in order to make their new mass-produced products appealing to the public, they decorated them.
Prior to this, women bought household items from craftsmen who had developed the aesthetic of their objects over centuries. To make up for the traditions, industrial innovators used ornaments to portray a false sense of wealth and turned everyday objects like mirrors, candle holders and chairs into complicated dust catchers. And because they could, they invented objects that looked like something else. A coffee can could look like a realistic rooster and spoons had alligator heads adding to clutter and leading to a further deterioration of meaning.
During this time, a young group of architects, product and textile designers, artists and actors who felt intruded upon and overwhelmed by this invasion of chaotic stuff and senseless decoration, set the goal to simplify and clarify and create an understanding of design which was based on meaningful functions and the beauty that comes out of it. They went back to study nature, old masters and indigenous communities where form and functions are in harmony. They created a school to teach and practice their ideas. The Bauhaus and its thinking became a cornerstone for Modern Design.
This design thinking came together with significant social changes and hard fought aspirations for a better life. It was clearly influenced by the thinking and the artists of the Russian revolution, Expressionism, the Wiener Werkstaetten and so many others. This design thinking also battled contrary forces like the Nazis who created an entire culture of meaningless fluff, false allegories and decoration. As one may imagine, this became far more than just a conversation in design.
This historic context is deeply ingrained in European Design and its following generations, in particular Swiss and German Design, such as the remarkable accomplishments at the HfG Ulm. When considering the history, it is impossible for me as a designer of German decent to add stylistic elements to something it does not need it. I essentially have no choice than to really understand the meaning of a product and create a design which elevates its functions and create a simple elegance. Thereby creating truth for myself. We use ‘Flat design’ in print, in theater, books, posters, photography and certainly in digital products.
The simplicity and clarity of European Design is widely appreciated because it feels modern, fresh and timeless. The biggest complaint of European design is it feels cold, but understanding the historical context may have it make more sense.
And before reverting back to what feels comfortable consider the opportunity to improve the current aesthetic. There are times though that whatever you are looking at is simply badly implemented. Using flat design does not relieve you from creating meaning full solutions, to the contrary, it challenges your intelligence to come up with well working solutions because this is what makes it look easy and beautiful.