Why Flat Design?

Why is flat design so popular? How did this come about and why did it catch on? In the age of social media anyone is a commentator and thus everyone has a theory and a soapbox from which to proclaim it. The amount of speculation and unsupported attribution is astounding. Many theories are to be found by anyone looking for answers.

To begin with, let us dismiss some of the easier targets, the theories put forth by people partaking of the ever popular “It must be so because I think it so” method. Theory: Graphic designers are busy – flat design is faster i.e. easier. This idea is nearly beneath comment. It is the kind of nonsense espoused by people who have little experience in the day-to-day world of getting professional work done. The fact of the matter is that the more fluff and ornamentation one has to work with, and the more external justification one can bring to bear on any work of art, the less scrutiny the real questions about choices and layout receive. A historical example will well illustrate this. We may like or dislike the David Carson / Raygun aesthetic (it is certainly outdated), but it will be immediately recognized to anyone who has worked in this style, that the irreverence is liberating. Impose a grid or golden mean based critique on such a work and what do you get? One finds few if any answers. The appeal of this and similar styles is the energy of the unrestrained creative process apparent in the finished work. While ‘harder vs. easier’ is a slippery slope we don’t want to venture upon, it is not reckless to go as far as saying that in any sort of art production, that irreverence is ‘easier’ than accuracy. Accurate attempts can be critiqued in terms of finite success, but abstraction and experimentation need to be critiqued in a less finite way.

Exceptionally simple styles must adhere to some guidelines to have power. The starkness puts the subtle relationships of colors in the palette out front; their success or failure cannot hide behind gradients, drop shadows and skeuomorphic faux-realism let alone the irreverent layouts and juxtapositions. Rhythm and balance are there, but they follow the rules they have adopted. To design well in a more conservative and functional style, a designer must pay exceptional attention to grids, guides, and proportions, as well as type choices, kerning, and color balance, or the design will display an awkwardness that is unsettled and lacking in gravity or stability. A designer working with fewer elements both on the micro level – no gradients or outlines or shadows, and the macro level – fewer items on the screen and more negative space, is forced to consider the details of each far more closely. The skeuomorph justifies itself – the button appears to be an actual button. It is the easy way out. This could not be more true than it is in the age of design kits; collections of ready made faux-real interface elements ready for drag-and-drop designers to do with what they will. The result has a built in appeal of polish and professionalism, and the client can see that it looks like what it is (supposed to be).

Theory: Flat designs represent smaller data footprints significant enough to affect performance. One may hope that the designers asserting this are not the same ones building the enormous and overburdened sites with superfluous decoration (chrome), animation, and flash architecture. Such sites are most unhappy landings for impatient Internet visitors. Performance is actually driven far more substantially by network traffic and calls to external content and links, as well as client side processing. A quick comparison between the file sizes of highly stylized assets and simple ones will reveal little difference, and the ability to draw them on the client side is trivial. Simply put, the size, bandwidth, and performance aspects of flat vs. complex design assets are a non-issue. The advent of CSS 3 and client side (Java / Postscript style page definition) may be partly responsible for introducing the look, but it is spurious to suggest that the differences in performance are anything other than trivial.