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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Flattening of Design

It might sound audacious to think that Microsoft, the arbiter of uncool, was at the forefront of design a few years ago. But it was.

It turns out the company’s decision to focus on “flat design,” a type of visual scheme where everything has a smooth and even look, was a few years ahead of the rest of the technology and user interface industry.

While Microsoft was flattening its interfaces as if it were a child pushing down on a bulge of putty, its competitors - including Apple and Facebook â€" were focused on skeuomorphism, a type of look in which, say, a note-taking feature on a Web site or in an app would look like a spiral-bound notebook, a reference to the real world look of a notebook.

Now everyone seems to be following in those flat footsteps.

As my colleague Nick Wingfield and I reported last year, Apple is expected to flatten its operating system interfaces in a major overhaul later this year. Facebook has been slimming down its site design for a while, slowly changing its complicated and intricate iconography to flat and legible shapes. Last week the company updated its main “f” logo, flattening the icon and removing an unnecessary light blue bar along the bottom.

These companies aren’t simply following Microsoft’s lead in the quest for flat. There are cultural and technological reasons for this new look and feel.

Steven Heller, co-chairman of the M.F.A. Design Department at the School of Visual Arts and author of more than 150 books on design culture, said that part of the push toward flat design was to try to escape the overabundance of design that looks digital, where things “have started to look cliché.”

“Every so often there is a new fashion that comes about in design for any number of reasons, not the least of which is technology, and now there has been a reaction to mechanistic-looking design where you press a button and get a specific look,” Mr. Heller said. “In response, designers have started to turn to flatness.”

One of the biggest drivers for this stylistic change is being forced upon designers by the constraints of smartphones.

Justin Van Slembrouck, design director at Digg, the social news site, said that while some design decisions were made as stylistic choices, “it is increasingly being driven by mobile, where you’re designing for the lowest common denominator so you can’t load a site up with heavy graphics.” He added, “The end result, with flat design, is that it all feels less cluttered.”

In some respects, flat graphics can be seen as a nod back to early print, specifically Russian propaganda war posters. At the time, before computers â€" yes, there was such an era â€" designers were forced to create flat images because of printing constraints. Now it seems to be happening again, but with screens.

When today’s graphics are too busy â€" layered with gradients and elaborate typography â€" people are forced to try to navigate a clutter of information in a very small space. On a smartphone screen, for example, a flat icon of a musical note can tell a story much quicker than an intricate picture of a shiny sparkling CD.

“It’s that whole notion of ornamental decoration with excess baggage, which the Modernists wanted no part of because it wasn’t a pure design,” Mr. Heller said, noting that he calls overly ornate typography and design the Cult of the Squiggly. “It’s clear if you put too many things on a page you’re going to cause a distraction. In a small screen environment, you can’t do that either. You can’t afford distractions.”