The Mobile World Is Flat…Mostly

HanxWriterLast week at the end of an interview, a candidate asked about my thoughts on flat design. Though unspoken, I think this question typically presumes allegiance to one of two camps. You’re either a flat person or aligned with everything else (and there’s a lot of everything else that is hard to neatly organize into one coherent design family). As you probably remember, flat design became a popular conversation topic in the march toward Apple’s release of iOS 7. While Android and Windows Metro embraced a more minimal and flat design aesthetic earlier, it was conversation around Apple’s user interface legacy and eventual shift that brought this topic to a much wider audience.

I rambled a bit in my response to the question, acknowledging my preference for flat, spare and “modern” interface design in mobile. But I also gave a nod to some fairly prominent examples of current apps that inhabit the opposite end of the design spectrum, complete with textures, polished gradients, shadows and plenty of skeuomorphic flourishes. Skeuomorphism and the use of analog metaphors in digital experiences, while separate issues, are often included within the rich/flat design conversation.

If you’ve ever seen faux leather stitching or used an animated turntable to play music in a mobile app, you are familiar with skeuomorphs whether you know the term or not.

If you don’t consider games, mobile design has generally been trending flat for several years. Apple, Google and Microsoft all have mobile interfaces are essentially flat by default, clearly articulating their thoughts on the subject. But there are plenty of popular apps that are very rich in texture, gradients and other stylistic choices that buck the trend.

Back, to the original question in the interview, “What do you think about flat design?” What I really think is that we tend to miss the point. It is a question filled with subtlety and nuance, influenced by context and purpose, with an unreasonable expectation that we commit to one or the other. So here is my reconsidered answer:

  • If it’s art, go wherever inspiration leads you. If you are doing something as a pure creative expression, that’s precisely what it should be. Convention, popularity and current attitudes should not be a very big factor in your decision unless there is an artistic reason for the choice.
  • If it’s client work or commerce, do what’s right for the brand (which is almost always what’s right for the end user). Yes, we should bring our perspective and advocate for what we think is best. We should help clients and leadership make informed decisions. But when working for someone else, we have a different consideration set, including how and where the target audience will engage with the work and how the new work will fit within the brand’s existing ecosystem (unless we are reengineering the brand’s footprint or it is a truly unique, stand-alone product). And we have an obligation to incorporate strategic thinking into the equation. There should be some clearly defined business objectives we’re trying to reach and design has a role in helping accomplish those goals.

None of these thoughts necessarily suggest a creative direction, but they don’t artificially restrict choice either. And that is the point. One of my favorite parts of mobile projects is the creative exploration, but we can only do that effectively if we remain open to possibilities.

The mobile world is flat…mostly. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t do something different for yourself or your brand partner.