The World Is Flat: The Flat Design Trend

The World Is Flat: The Flat Design Trend

Gregory Han
Apr 25, 2013

There's an interesting dichotomy emerging in the world of technology today. In the last decade we've become saturated with 3D content: 3D enabled televisions in our homes, plane-busting 3D movies in theaters, the faux dimensionality that has become par for the course for network graphics and branding. But the world seems to be getting increasingly flatter...specifically the visual experience presented in our hands within the bounds of smartphones, tablets, and computer screens.

"Simplicity is not about making something without ornament, but rather about making something very complex, then slicing elements away, until you reveal the very essence." 

The quote is from a piece in The New Yorker by Christoph Niemann, an app developer who shared the laborious process of taking an idea to virtual market. I remembered the quote immediately upon reading yesterday's NY Times Bits post about the trend of the flattening of design, propagated by the explosion of mobile device use, and further solidified by rumors Apple's Jonathan Ive is also pushing for a flat design for iOS 7, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:

Some suggested that in Apple’s next mobile operating system, Ive is pushing a more “flat design” that is starker and simpler, according to developers who have spoken to Apple employees but didn’t have further details. Overall, they expect any changes to be pretty conservative. For the past few years, Apple has unveiled versions of its mobile operating system in the summer.

The evidence of the flattening of the web is apparent even from the desktop experience, with retailers like Crate & Barrel designing shopping experiences recognizable as flatter and easier to navigate.

Some designers are looking to meet somewhere between the dimensional skeuomorphism of today with simplified iconography and typography to cut through the clutter on smaller devices.

Although the cyclical element of style/fashion is cited as a factor (this former graphic designer reminds quite fondly when Ryan McGinness titled his design compendium, Flatness Is God), it's safe to deduce designers and technology companies have returned to 2D more so out of necessity, with the constraints of smaller device screens pushing interface design into a process of editing, elimination and simplification. On a 4" screen, simulated dimensionality is easily lost, if not even cluttering, and the user experience is best served like mom's home cooking: simple.

Some of the most interesting explorations of 2D flat design is happening amongst the Android customization community, as showcased over at, this example taking obvious cues from infographics.

Thus, whether it's the harbinger Windows Phone UI, the controversial Windows 8 experience, the simplified iconography of apps like CurrencySoLAR or Yahoo Weather App (the last two which vie for my choice of favorite weather apps), the minimalist yet info-rich Google Now, the popularity of infographics, and now possibly Apple's foray into collapsing elements (back) to a single plane, they all add up to an interesting and still-developing era where complex tactile interactions between people and their device are being designed alongside simplified visual user experiences.

(Images: Microsoft; Solar; Yahoo!; Jakob HennerJohn Nada)

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