I love Apple™: All hail flat design?

The launch of iOS 7 by Apple™ had definitely shaken the design industry. A company which has consistently stuck to its skeuomorphic principles decided to jump onto the bandwagon with other tech giants like Google and Microsoft to embrace flat design as an enhancement to its new user interface (UI). Though arguably iOS 7 is not as ‘flat’ of a design and critics have taken a jab at Apple™ for such ‘unpolished’ work, the idea though is that flat design seems to have more standing than just a trend.

Skeuomorphism and Realism

Before flat design, Apple™ had what designers would term as skeuomorphism, which is defined in the digital world as primarily the technique of using metaphors to induce familiarity. This was a design concept the company had been famously associated with and something the late CEO of Apple™, Steve Jobs loved. After all, it did made software easier to use as functions like buttons became instinctive so people could use Apple™ products with minimal instructions. For instance, compare the iPhone’s calculator with a skeuomorphic design and a flat design. The drop shadows and slightly beveled buttons on the left leave us with a more instinctive nature to press them rather than the flat design buttons on the right.

ios7_mini

While there is good philosophy behind skeuomorphism, there are also a lot of issues that come with using it in digital design. Take for instance how elements in the skeuomorphic design might be purely ornamental but non-functional, also known as the “uncanny valley” of user interface design. A bigger problem would be that when borrowing elements from a design’s previous incarnation, you also bring their limitations along, even though these limitations need not need to exist in the digital world. Take a look at the calculator app in the iPhone again. Despite having that realism with such a skeuomorphic design, Apple™ has also brought along the limitation of the calculator – single lined screen and limited buttons, which equate to limited functions, when there clearly is potential in the digital world to provide more than what a real-life calculator can offer. The bottom line would be that such a strong association triggered by skeuomorphism stops us from thinking out of the box and improving on what has already been done. (Perhaps this could be the result of why the calculator’s functions have not improved over the years.)

Hence with such issues comes the response of flat design. Not to say that skeuomorphism was totally irrelevant from the start, but perhaps it is time to move on to something else. As what John Ives said, “An entire generation of users have now become familiar with the touchscreen interface, it’s time to remove the “training wheels” — we no longer need skeuomorphism’s solution to a problem we no longer have.”

The iOS 7

With those “training wheels” off, digital design has now matured into flat design, embracing the real limitations of digital experience and doing away with the limitations of skeuomorphism.

As with the case of most digital flat designs, iOS 7 has been designed with a healthy use of margins and paddings, sans-serif fonts and multiple bold colours. Drop-shadows, textures, beveled buttons and all other unnecessary styling has been removed. As a result, the new user interface has a lighter and more breathable layout, allowing it to look friendly and approachable to users but without having the need to warp and mimic something familiar.

Also, the new UI brings forth focus to the content rather than competes with it, as in the case of skeuomorphism. One good example would be the new Weather app, where the flat design gives more attention to the current weather information due to the clean and ‘free’ layout, as compared to skeuomorphic design, which appears to have information artificially confined.weather

In order to create depth, iOS 7 has realistic motion and parallax effects in place of drop shadows and beveled buttons. One example would be how the Notification Center when slid down, bounces back as if rebounding from a fall.

drawer_slidedown

The Verdict

Indeed, when executed properly, flat design allows both function and beauty to be in harmony, bring user experience to greater heights. Even though critics have warned that minimalism when taken too far could have serious consequences to usability, but I believe that as flat design evolves, designers would be able to strike a better balance between minimalism and realism.

References

Mellas, C. (2013). Flat Design: Trend or Revolution? Retrieved from Webinsation: http://www.webinsation.com/flat-design-trend-or-revolution/

Clum, L. (2013). A Look At Flat Design and Why It’s Significant. Retrieved from UX Magazine: http://uxmag.com/articles/a-look-at-flat-design-and-why-its-significant

Turnbull, C. (2013, August 27). Flat Design, iOS 7, Skeuomorphism and All That. Retrieved from Web Design: http://webdesign.tutsplus.com/articles/flat-design-ios-7-skeuomorphism-and-all-that–webdesign-14335

Greif, S. (2013). The Battle Between Flat Design and Skeuomorphism. Retrieved from Flat Pixels: http://sachagreif.com/flat-pixels/

Bacic, H. (2013). Apple Is Embracing The Flat Design Trend – Are You? Retrieved from Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/allbusiness/2013/09/09/apple-is-embracing-the-flat-design-trend-are-you/

Wong, K. L. (2013, September 18). Apple Design Goes Flat with iOS 7. Retrieved from Big Nerd Ranch: http://www.bignerdranch.com/blog/apple-design-goes-flat-with-ios-7/

Po, R. (2013). A Look At Microsoft, Google And Apple’s Approach To Flat Design. Retrieved from Hong Kiat: http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/google-apple-microsoft-flat-design/

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2 thoughts on “I love Apple™: All hail flat design?

  1. Within the restraints of minimalism, flat design can handle a lot more complexity; and this is perhaps why Apple made such a drastic change by ditching skeuomorphism in their latest iOS 7.

    However, Apple’s realistic design aesthetic has seen its fair share of backlash, which may be slightly premediated due to the sad loss of Steve Jobs. The developers at MMT Digital think that this is a result of a combination of two fundamental factors (1) the novelty has worn off and (2) the refreshing minimalist approach of Windows 8.

    From a designer’s POV, flat design might seem like the perfect style for great UX; but this might not be accurate of the general population’s preference. I believe that a balance between minimalism and skeuomorphism can be achieved to optimize UX, which the iOS7 has not done so.

    While there is no clear distinction on whether skeuomorphism or flat design works better in terms of user interaction, user behavior is far more important than any design. For example, some slight shading is needed to show that an item is a button. The newly released Google mobile apps, such as Google Maps, show just enough skeuomorphism in a largely flat design.

    After a decade of dominating the smart phone industry, it seems like Apple has finally lost the lead (in this area of design) and has much to learn from their competitor Microsoft.

    Like

  2. Skeuomorphism and flat design have their own place to work best. I like the flat design better, because I feel that it is minimalist and more stylish.

    For the functions that we already know such as calculator, those numbers and math characters could tell that they are actually buttons, even without skeuomorphism. As such, the minimalist flat design is enough.

    For the functions that people rarely know, skeuomorphism can be used to tell the users that it is a button and they can press it. Meanwhile, the flat design is unable to tell it.

    It is not about choosing which design is better, but it is to choose the right design for the right function.

    Like

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