Anyone who works in the design profession in any capacity is well aware of the current ‘trend’ circulating, called ‘Flat UI.’ I submit that it’s not a trend, but a philosophy. An approach to delivering information in a way that’s free of distraction and focused on delivering content in a simple, digestible way.

It’s a return to the simplicity that design has always demanded.

Sure, we can mock projects up to resemble realistic texture and tone, but aren’t we complicating things a bit? The old mantra from my college design courses comes to mind, “keep it simple, stupid.” Flat UI endeavors to remove all of the clutter from an interface by focusing on the absolute minimal delivery of content. Icon systems, analogous color schemes, geometric shapes–it harkens back to studies done on how the mind interprets content. The mind first comprehends color, then shape, and finally, structured, detailed content. In a world where attention spans are growing increasingly short, we’re called to task to provide information quickly and effectively. Flat UI conquers this challenge swiftly.

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Now, to say that Flat UI is new, is a little incorrect. The methodology and philosophy employed in delivering this stylization dates back to time immemorial. Cultures have always communicated in symbols, shapes, and color. The earliest language systems consisted purely of what we’ve come to know as icon systems. Pictographic interpretations of information that illicit instant recognition. And that’s been echoed throughout visual communication over and over again over the years. A great example is Paul Rand’s work with IBM.


Often delivered by interactive means, this approach to user interface design is intended to shift the focus off of ‘pretty design’ and place it firmly within ease-of-use within the user experience. It’s an ongoing adjustment process on the web, to afford the user the utmost experience navigating and interacting with crucial content. The simpler this system becomes, the more usable it is. Humans are much more likely to interact with components that seem inviting. Friendly even. The soft, analagous color schemes go a long way to engaging the user psychologically. Rather than HARSH contrasts in color there are soft transitions. It creates an inviting context surrounding the elements.

It’s a return to the simplicity that design has always demanded.

The color relationships, partnered with familiar geometry and modern, sans-serif typefaces is often the successful trinity of a well-delivered Flat UI ecosystem. That’s not always the formula—others have broken these ‘rules’ to great success. But generally, that’s the approach. The concern this raises for me is the danger ecosystems could so easily fall into in terms of sterility. You see it a lot with the approach some agencies take in corporate rebrands. Where the feel of a brand is completely lost in an effort to modernize the look. No design system should ever facilitate the death of a brand’s feeling space. It should assist it and facilitate its growth and reach.

It’s easy, when engaging in a design process, to focus only on aesthetics and not the true matters at hand. At the end of the day, we’re here to convey a message to an audience, clearly and effectively. And often times, cleverly. And that means that one approach is not the solution to all problems.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of similar solutions for all, but messages aren’t the same. So how we convey them shouldn’t be either. We must keep our clients and our audiences in mind when developing design systems. I look at Apple’s new aesthetic approach to their icon system for the upcoming OS10.10 Yosemite. While it adopts some of the sensibility of Flat UI, it still manages to maintain its own feel. Soft gradients, soft shadows, subtle edges to create three-dimensional effects. It’s a beautiful combination of their previous skeuomorphic aesthetic approach and the widespread adoption of Flat UI. Apple didn’t throw away the feel of who they are with new aesthetics. They enriched it and furthered it.