November 19, 2013

Old Design is the New Design

Matthew Billingsley • Chief Creative Officer

Design trends are routine. My formal education began in the mid 90’s when David Carson’s grid-busting giant type, grungy textures and over-exposed photography were the rage. By the time I entered the workplace 6-pt type, abstract vector forms and Joshua Davis’s Flash mastery was the thing to emulate. Mention these to designers my age and the following will happen: groans, eye-rolling, nostalgic laughing or all the above.

The design community and beyond was buzzing this spring with news that Apple was ditching its skeuomorphic OS design in favor of a more modern approach to its interface. The fact that Apple made waves with this when Google, Windows and other corporations had been doing this months prior is another post entirely.

The idea behind skeuomorphic design is a simple one: it’s an approach where something is made to resemble an object in real life. Creating a system where interfacing with digital products by making them look familiar to people is a noble practice. I understood and accepted why those decisions were made, even if I wasn’t a fan. But technology evolves. People develop familiar routines with interfaces and what was once forward-thinking becomes an obsolete relic. Rinse and repeat every 8-12 years.

But this isn’t a eulogy to a trend as much as an autopsy – why this once celebrated style is now considered dead and what it means going forward.

Why is “flat” considered “new”?

So what’s the hot thing now? Flat design. The simplification of visual communication is now the norm in everything from web and mobile apps to cuisine to fashion. It’s the anti-skeuomorphic method.

Though I feel this is a misnomer – flat design should, in fact, just be “design”. Function giving way to form once again. As phones, applications and web interfaces evolve people become trained to do more with less information. The habits are installed now. The need to infer a calendar by torn paper and bumpy leather-like textures is no longer needed. Flat design methods will identify the most recognizable attributes of a subject and strip away anything unnecessary. This practice should not be labeled as the buzzwordy “flat” but rather “good” or “principled”, or “what we should have been doing anyway.”

Flat design is a permanent fixture. Trends imply a short shelf life but it is, in every way, a paradigm shift. It’s why Citizen Kane is often referred to as a masterpiece and Michael Bay movies are viciously mocked. It’s why Paul Rand’s logos from the 60’s and 70’s are still revered today.

Michael Bay

But know that even flat design methods will fade back to make room for the new hotness a decade from now. Technology will evolve again and the need to get people up to speed may require older visual aids to bridge the learning gap. These methods will be recognized as contemporary. This is the trend cycle. Great design will always come back because it never goes away.

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