Why I Prefer 'Flat' Design

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Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin.

How it Started

“Read anything interesting today?”

— Me

It was an innocent question I asked my Senior Front-End mid-day today. My brain was at the point of becoming pudding and I knew very well that between the two of us, some kind of engaging conversation was bound to spark. As it typically does, our conversation began with a link, specifically to this article by Eli Schiff, an enthusiast of humanistic design.

It’s an engaging read, if not a little biased. What I really took away was an astounding realization of why I disagreed with some of Schiff’s points. This eventually lead to a discussion about our own goals for our understanding of web design and why they suit our view of the web.

The Website as a Document

First and foremost, a website for a “youngin’” like myself has one primary purpose: to allow me to consume information. When I visit a site, it’s because I’ve landed there via a Google search, an IM, or a Tweet. Once I’ve decided to click that link, I expect the content to be fed to me in an immediate and efficient manner. Flat design allows for this primarily because it declutters the minimal area my iPhone 5 provides. That entire screen space needs to be easily readable content so that I can consume it hassle free. Distractions to my eye and engaging an emotional response are not key priorities at this point and this is where Humanistic design would fail.

“Because every one of us, myself included, spends a huge amount of time using computer interfaces. It really makes a difference if they are enjoyable and understandable to use.”

— Eli Schiff

The above statement is incredibly correct. However, maintaining the paradigm that a website primarily functions as a means of conveying information, adding realism to buttons, backgrounds and flourishes seems to counter the pressing need for information to be consistent and accessible on ever smaller devices. The more information I consume on my handheld device (even on massive phablets) the fewer humanistic assets are required.

The Medium of the Screen

We use screens for nearly all of our digital interaction. The introduction of the Microsoft Hololens really made me think hard about why flat design seems to fit the web so well. It also made me stop and think about why Humanistic design seemed so jarring in a world of flat sheets of glass.

The Screen

First and foremost: the screen is a flat object. Regardless of how we style our interfaces, this fact remains true. Whether I’m tapping a button on my phone or clicking that same button on my laptop, the interaction remains relatively consistent no matter where I go. The hard surface of the screen, trackpad or mouse stops my fingers from experiencing any tactile response simulated by the visual aesthetic. This is because our interactions with screens are very dissociated.

I feel flat design prevails in this type of interaction. The goal of the design is to encourage a click or tap. More importantly however, is the response that occurs from that button once clicked. Google’s Material Design handles this in a very efficient manner. The response, while subtle, is incredibly satisfying. When compared to a Humanistic button, the expected response from clicking said button falls short. I believe that this is directly related to what our brain is expecting when we click on such a life-like object. We want to feel it happen. We want to feel the resistance of pushing it down and the satisfaction of the tactile click that happens when it’s pressed all the way. Unfortunately, due to the nature of our interface, this is nearly impossible to replicate efficiently.

The Hololens

This is where the Hololens comes in. After reading Schiff’s article, I began to think about where this design trend of the past might actually be most useful. Something where we might not be able to simulate tactility, but one in which we could emulate it far more efficiently than on a screen. The Hololens seems to be the perfect candidate. If the experience Microsoft is promising is anything like their commercials, realism is going to find a new home in holograms very quickly.

This is directly tied to the fact that the interface will be merging with our own world. No longer will a screen separate our hands from the button. While the Hololens might not simulate touch, the visual, auditory and spatial cues might just be enough to provide that tactile satisfaction a well designed button would evoke.

I can’t wait to experience this.

What Did I Take Away?

It was an awesome discussion to have and of course, my Senior being my Senior, had a great statement to wrap it up:

“I personally see value on both sides and from both perspectives. I think the right mix of each side is best, within reason of course.”

— Justin Bellefontaine

I think that Humanistic web design happened because we had an exciting new way of interacting with our world and the information stored on the web. It was new and therefore needed to be familiar and trusting. However, due to the nature of screens, I still believe that flat design is headed in a more appropriate direction for consuming information on this medium. The Hololens however, provides an entirely new medium for the consumption of information, and I would be ecstatic to see how designers take advantage of this integration with our surroundings.

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