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Flat Design: Should It Be Used for Websites?

The time minimalism turned the digital world flat…

Some design experts argue whether flat design is good, bad, or just needs to be used right when used on websites. With a little bit of research and all of our designers’ input at Titan, here’s what we’ve come up with:

First of all, what is “flat design?”

“If the client is wanting a minimalistic style done is what it all comes down to. Flat design is the minimalist use of simple elements, typography, and flat colors. I like flat design because I like how clean it looks.” -Bryson Walker

Before we can decide on if it’s a good choice or not, you should probably know what we’re talking about when we say “flat design.” Flat design is the style in which elements lack characteristics such as drop shadows, gradients, textures, or any other style meant to make the design feel three-dimensional. It started to be used around 5 years ago and has recently started to receive some bad feedback for being overused. Flat design is considered to be a modern style and focuses more on the message than the design. In theory, that makes this flat style sound like it would be a good idea. But what meant to free design from clutter has actually caused people to get lost in the openness.

What’s the opposite of flat design?

“I am pro-flat design because I love the art of simplicity! Skeuomorphism makes things look dated in my opinion, but flat designs tend to look updated and modern. It might be trendy, but I definitely think that flat design works. At least for now.” -Kiki Kixmiller

The opposite of flat is “rich” design. Whereas flat design avoids anything too flashy, rich design would lean toward ornaments such as bevels, reflections, drop shadows, and gradients. Too much rich design can look bad, but then again, too much of even a good thing can be bad. Like my mom always told me, “everything in moderation.” So when it comes to rich design, as long as the stylistic ornaments are being used to aid the user to navigate the website, there’s nothing wrong with it.

So why are some people against flat design?

“Flat design needs to be thought out so that the user knows what to interact with on a website or landing page. The designer needs to help the user get to where they need to be.” – Paul Goddard

Both flat and rich design can look good, and both can look bad. Since the cons of rich design are better saved for another day, we’ll focus on the issues designers and users alike tend to have with flat design.

For one, flat design is more appealing to designers than to users. And designers aren’t typically the target audience, making the flat design ineffective. Designers are drawn to the visually appealing look, while users are repelled by the confusion caused by a lack of visual indicators for how to interact with the design.

And again, too much of anything is a bad idea. Too much flat design equals usability problems. Website users don’t know where to click, get lost in the design, and overall feel frustrated and uncertain about how they are meant to interact with the web page.

Let’s look at an example of flat design working against the user.

Studies have shown that actions taken on web pages are actually decreasing due to flat design. People aren’t understanding what’s a button and what’s not, because the design isn’t making it obvious as to what is actually clickable. Important information and buttons are getting lost.

Take a look at this website for C6. The design doesn’t indicate that the content will lead a user anywhere. It seems to merely exist on a page with no purpose. A majority of people won’t ever think to click on something unless the design screams “click me!” with hover effects and drop shadows. Flat design in this instance is encouraging users to scroll lazily through a page without ever clicking or taking an action. And without user interaction, what’s the point of a website?

c6 website flat design

Here’s another example of flat design: Appico’s website. See how clickable objects aren’t very noticeable?

appico website flat design

Conclusion: Finding a Balance Between Flat and Interactive Design

“Design styles for websites or other forms of marketing come down to one main question: Does it fit the brand’s strategy or goals we’re trying to reach? Aesthetically, I find flat design to be more pleasing. Though I find it more appealing, a big tough biker dude may be more drawn to a grungy three-dimensional design style. If he’s my audience according to the strategy, then I should design in a style that is appealing to him (without forgetting the brand experience the company is going for).” -Rebecca Herald

There’s a time and a place for flat design, as with any style. But designing your important menus, buttons, and links with flat design is probably not that time and place.

The reality is that any style can be done wrong. So rather than declare flat design as something to avoid (even though I’ve pointed out times when it failed the user), we at Titan can all agree that flat design simply needs to find a balance between being flat and indicating interactive areas, rather than be banned completely.

At the end of the day, the answer of “rich or flat?” comes down to asking yourself these questions:

  • Is this an appropriate style for this problem or client?
  • Does this visually say what it should?
  • Is it clear how to interact with the interface or navigation?

No matter what style you choose, as long as it passes those questions correctly, the design would be considered good.

So. Flat design. Should it be used for websites?

The answer is, flat design is neither good nor bad. Ultimately, good website design is user friendly, visually appealing, matches the brand, and is useable. It’s up to the website designer to accomplish that and decide what style to best accomplish those goals.



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