Flat design is not right for all markets

Sir Jony Ive revealed his vision for Apple's iOS7 operating system on 10 September, and the company's senior vice-president of design's vision of the world is flat, writes Adam Powers, head of user experience and a partner at BBH London.

Adam Powers, head of user experience and a partner at BBH London
Adam Powers, head of user experience and a partner at BBH London

This redesign is about more than just eradicating embossed buttons and drop-shadows. In typically thoughtful mode, Ive declared: "True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter." For the first time in perhaps a decade, though, Apple is joining a movement, rather than creating one.

The flat-design movement has been gaining momentum among technology companies for some time. It may well have been the Microsoft Windows 8 design team that pushed things past the tipping-point. It created a crisp, clean and minimalist approach, where geometric shapes, bold colours and sharp corners dominate the rather nice operating system. The next flat-design fan was Google, with its new aesthetic applied across a dramatically improved suite of applications (Google Maps, I adore you.). Then came Yahoo’s elegant weather app, but many others have followed.

Dominant aesthetic

Like many art and design movements, flat design was a reaction to the dominant aesthetic that preceded it. Skeumorphism – the approach that borrows affordances from a user’s day-to-day life and translates that to screen-based design with the aim of aiding comprehension. All the stitched leather, aqua-shine and drop-shadow of the past few years was borne from that belief. It goes back further, to the days of WYSIWYG PC desktops where the workplace norms, such as files, folders and trash cans, were employed in the language of the operating systems to help us comprehend and participate in the desktop-computing revolution.

Fans of this flat aesthetic cite this change as a sign of the maturity of human and computer interaction. Our interaction with technology no longer needs to be disguised to make it more palatable. Flat design embraces the constraints and challenges of screen-based design and runs with it: minimalist and utilitarian design that forgoes excessive ornamentation and is sensitive to bandwidth and functionality.

Before I get caught up in adulation of this latest expression of modernism, we should pause. It would seem that flat design might come with risks. That (once?) esteemed voice of digital usability, Jakob Neilsen, has undertaken extensive user-testing focused on everyone’s must-have tech – the tablet. After testing on a range of fondle-slabs, Neilsen concluded that flat design is not optimal for tablet devices. It would appear that the absence of hover-states on tablets, combined with the departure of drop-shadows and the "less is more" conviction of flat design, means there is "...a dearth of distinguishing signifiers for UI elements". In other words, it is more difficult to intuit what is and is not clickable, so things are therefore harder and less satisfying to use.

Wider-reaching challenges

In addition, there are a couple of wider-reaching challenges that face the flat-design movement. The first is the ever-present spectre of commodification of the web. Look at the search returns page on Google, the tightening embrace of iOS and Android design guidelines or the ever-more far-reaching rules for brands on Facebook or YouTube – it’s just getting harder for brands to cut through on tech platforms and services. Though the folks at those sites might argue that brands should focus on the quality of their content rather than the ease with which they can spray their colour palette across their respective brand channels. Either way, the flat-design movement appears to be at risk of further contributing to the commodification situation.

The second is that much of the impetus behind flat design is from Europe and North America, where there is long history of Modernism. What does a critical market like Asia make of flat design? A Hong Kong-based expert, working at the juncture of global marketing and technology, told me: "Whether you’re considering user-experience design, user testing or anything else for that matter, you mustn’t think of Asia as a single market. China is as different from Japan as Australia. Each has a different relationship with technology."

One blog I recently read observed that in China, Vietnam and Thailand, flat design may frequently be interpreted as overly austere. It also proposes that for many of these markets, it’s actually "crowded design" that performs best.

Somebody better tell Jony.

Mel Exon is away