To flat or not: a Design Dilemma

05 Jul 2020 - keyser

In this week’s Design Hell, also known as Design Twitter, the discussion sparked by Big Sur’s design system remains rampant — does skeuomorphism need to come back? Is neuomorphism taking off? Does flat design suck and look boring? Did skeuomorphism run its course 7 years ago?

The short, boring answer is: it depends on a bunch of factors, including what you and clients want, time/cost. But this is not a tweet, so let’s dive deeper in.

Quick Refresh: What Do These Terms Mean?

(Skip to the next section right under this if you know them)

Skeuomorphism in a nutshell means design that represents items as their real-life equivalents.

The example everyone uses, because it’s perfect, is the collection of early Iphone icons:

Neuomorphism is a design that emerged last year, created by Michal Malewicz in this article. In summary, it’s skeuomorphism adapted to modern-day needs.

Flat Design is currently the most widely-used design style for interfaces and illustrations—simple shapes, palettes, and illustrations to simplify user interfaces and create a modern look and feel.

Flat Design: Cost-Effective, User-Proof

One of the main arguments people in the pro-skeuomorphism side present is that all flat interfaces look the same. 90% of the times, this is true. But it’s not due to lack of talent or laziness, as a lot of them say.

Flat design is simple and quick—even a mediocre designer can do something that, while not good at all, looks somewhat like a website or application. This is not the case with skeuomorphism, you need illustrators to create realistic icons and textures, and a lot of spatial awareness to make something look realistic with those elements. However it might still be the case with neuomorphism, seeing as the ‘feel’, as you would call it, is evoked by getting used to putting drop shadows in the right places. Flat design is an accessible way of starting an interface and getting a project off the ground quickly. Iterating is also faster, since shapes are simple.

Flat design is also cost-effective — it takes less hours and less people to create a website using simple shapes and illustration libraries, compared to a team of illustrators and designers in-house and the need for more complex details.

From a stylistic perspective, flat design, and simplicity in interfaces overall, always seemed futuristic.

We developed technology that allowed us to go into incredible detail, we played around and had fun with it, but now we want style. And flat design fits the zeitgeist, at least it did this past decade and does at the start of this one so far.

But despite any stylistic choices, the combination of speed + cost is the main reason, from a business perspective, why flat design took off and seems to be sticking around long. Both solutions end in conversions, at the end of the day, so why not get those conversions faster?

Skeuomorphism, Neuomorphism: More work, More Uniqueness, Less Use Cases

Okay, I broke down why flat design stuck and seems to still be sticking around. But why is neuomorphism making the rounds then?

Every few years, we get bored of looking at the same styles over and over. We rave when a new app tries something unique and succeeds, and we bleed it dry with use until we move onto the next thing, which is inspired by that original. That cycle goes on and on forever. We seek radical change only occasionally and we turn that radical into the new normal.

We also go back and forth with trends. That’s why 90s outfits were popular again in 2014, and why 80s pop is popular again now.

By combining these two behaviors, it makes sense to want to bring back an old trend (skeuomorphism), reimagined in a radical way that is still somewhat familiar to present day users (neuomorphism, blending skeuo and flat).

We’ve grown tired of seeing flat interfaces and the same cookie-cutter illustrations all over the internet, and we want some detail. For skeuomorphic or neuomorphic design, we need more hours and more people on a team (provided we’re talking about business sites/applications/software for brands and not side projects with no set deadline), and the more specific that branding style gets, the more unique it looks. It’s also less reusable.

Flat design provides a lot of component reusability and the potential for cohesive scalability; skeuomorphism cannot provide that nowhere near as easily. So it will be up to brands to see just how much detail they can and want to implement while leveraging cost/use margins.

In Conclusion…

Hopefully, flat design remains, with a new flair of uniqueness— this is where neuomorphism (or any design trend involving more detail) could come in. A simple interface is effective for users and businesses, but a standout detailed logo, or special icon for the most important feature in an app, would drive the UX to a new level.

At the moment, it’s impossible to tell just how widely detailed interfaces will be adopted. It’s too early to say. Even neuomorphism’s creator thought it wouldn’t take off at all and had to go back and correct himself several times.

With Apple’s Big Sur redesign (yes, I had to mention it at some point, didn’t I?) We see big names are willing to follow along, but until smaller companies with less budget present future new designs or redesigns, as designers we have to decide what we like and what is the right combination of detail, scalability, price, and time we will implement on each case.