By Jo Wdowiak
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Flat Design v Realism

Flat design and Skeuomorphism are two very different approaches to web design - and for flat design 2014 looks set to be another victorious year in the war of plain v fancy.

For the moment at least many designers have ditched the 3D effects, gradients & textures in favour of the stripped down aesthetic of flat design – clean, simple layouts, block colours and shapes. But in the ever-evolving world of UX design is flat design here to stay or will the trend wear thin?


Skeuomorphism (or realism) can be loosely defined as “making stuff look like it’s made of something else”. In a digital context – consciously designing on-screen objects so that they resemble the ‘real thing’. Shiny metal that catches the light – bevelled buttons that appear to sit proud from the surface – mirrored reflections and shadows for depth.

Originally, the use of Skeuomorphic design (in a digital context at least) was about more than decoration alone. The realistic effects were designed to lead us through the dazzling world of new technology as little contextual clues to their purpose. As leaders in their field Apple made full use of Skeuomorphic techniques when designing their interfaces. The iPhone’s calculator resembled its analogue equivalent – and sounded like one too. Newsstand; iCal; Notes – all carefully designed to look like their real-life counterparts.

The opposite to flat design - Skeuomorphism

However, as touch screens and tablets became an integral part of everyday life people began to question whether the visual cues and extra details of Skeuomorphism were still necessary.

Flat Design

Coinciding with the decline of Skeuomorphic design, Oct 2012 saw Microsoft burst back onto the scene with their release of Windows 8 – and their answer to Skeuomorphic scepticism.

Material design - a new type of flat design.

Windows 8 made full use of a flat aesthetic – a stripped down interface that valued typography and focused on usability and the delivery of information above graphics.  No visual trickery here.

Skeuomorphism continued to fall out of favour with many in the design world and the popularity of flat design boomed – driving the focus towards the strengths of a digital interface rather than limiting it to the confines of the familiar, tactile world.

2013 marked a huge victory for Flat design with Apple (originally leading advocates for the design principles of Skeuomorphism) ditching it’s faux pine bookcases and leather stitching for iOS7.

Jony Ive, who is often referred to as ‘Apple’s genius’ spoke to USA today around their flat design decisions. “When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits,” says Ive. “So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way.”

Flat design does have its challenges and not everyone is convinced of its powers. As the aesthetic becomes increasingly popular one notable issue is how to maintain a simple, pared back style while still standing out from the crowd. Does flat design lack personality – will everything end up looking much of a muchness?

Matt Webb who runs design company BERG, argues that flat design isn’t necessarily the answer, “People that criticise skeuomorphism say it’s pointless, but I say it isn’t. It increases your understanding of the product. Technology is getting so complicated that we’re going to have to find ways for people to understand what it can do without having to spell it out,” he says.

My aim is to omit everything superfluous so that the essential is shown to the best possible advantage.

Dieter Rams

The Future

It looks safe to assume that flat interface design is set to dominate through the rest of 2014 and probably for a few years after that too. It’s also safe to predict that we won’t stay flat forever – aesthetic trends always run their course and we are bound to see a revolt at some point to topple radical flatness.

However, as fans of sans serif, white space, colour blocks and simple graphics we will continue to fly the flag for flat design with enthusiasm for a while yet!

– Interactive agency inTacto do a wonderful job of highlighting the differences between the two schools of thinking in their infographic Flat Design vs Realism (well worth a watch).

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