User Interface Design: Is Flat Where It’s At?

Skeuomorphic design is the term most commonly used today to describe graphics in a user interface that imitate their physical, real-world counterparts. Back in the dawn of the graphical user interface, it was thought that people needed visual cues to figure out how to interact with the icons on their screen. These visual cues, of course, serve no real function other than to help orient a complete computer novice and make their user experience more familiar and friendly. For example, it doesn’t take a computer scientist to figure out that selecting a document and dropping it onto the “trash can” icon will make the item disappear. You even hear the sound of your file landing in the the bottom of the trash bin.

In this day and age, however, is there even such a thing as a computer novice? Three-year-olds can navigate through a user interface before they can build a sand castle. If there isn’t a need for skeuomorphic design, is there a reason for it? That’s the ongoing debate.

It’s hard to discuss skeuomorphic design without mentioning Apple. Steve Jobs and former Senior Vice President of iOS Scott Forstall were advocates for the skeuomorphic style, as seen in many of the iOS6 applications. For example, the Notes app looks like an actual yellow legal notepad, the Calendar app has faux-leather stitching, and every button has a shiny, dimensional gradient to encourage our fingers to press it. When Jony Ives took over as Vice President of Design at Apple, he applied his minimalist design sense to the Apple operating system and gave us the new, “flat” iOS7.

Not everyone is jumping on the “flat” design bandwagon, though. Some web designers believe that users enjoy the familiarity of skeuomorphism, and that flat design is less warm and inviting. Furthermore, if an interface completely abandons all skeuomorphic elements, its users will most likely have no idea how to use it.

Let the grand unveiling of Windows 8 serve as a warning to companies considering the transition from skeuomorphic to flat design. Windows 8 was introduced as a single operating system for desktop computers, tablets and smartphones. The very idea that a single interface should apply to all of these platforms was misguided, since most of us don’t use our smartphones for the same purpose that we use our desktop computers. Many Windows PC users were so confused by the Windows 8 interface that they simply went back to using Windows 7. Apple’s iOS7 was a much more successful venture into flat design because it retained enough familiarity so as not to disorient and frustrate its users.

From a visual standpoint, there are also pitfalls that web designers must avoid when attempting “flat”, minimalistic design. Removing all gradients, bevels and drop-shadows can leave a design looking lazy and unfinished. Steve Jobs, for one, put a lot of care into creating familiar skeuomorphic icons, and an equal amount of effort should be put into creating a flat design.

We want to know what you think. Leave us a comment and let us know which side of the debate you’re on!

ios6_ios7_home_screens iOS6 vs iOS7