Flat Design vs Minimalism

Flat Design. It’s everywhere these days. The newest, highly influential release of iOS 7 for the iPhone has got even non-design lovers talking about it. But many people seem to be confusing this exciting new trend with what is commonly known as minimalism, or minimal design. The problem is, these two concepts are quite different, and can be mutually exclusive depending on the designer and the particular project he or she is asked to work on.

So, flat design vs minimalism, what’s the difference, and why should designers care?

Flat Design Is NOT Minimalism

Flat design is a visual aesthetic. That means, it makes a design appear a certain way, without necessarily influencing the way it’s constructed or organized. You can have a flat looking website or app that is extremely complicated, with menus and buttons and CTAs all over the place. The only difference is that it looks simpler and more “authentic” to the digital medium.

Minimal design, on the other hand, is a design philosophy. A website with a minimal approach will be simpler to navigate and use, even though it may contain clunky or inelegant visual elements. The difference between flat and minimal might best be summed up, like many things in life, with a food comparison. If flat design is a trendy new ingredient used in all the hippest restaurants, then minimalism is the classic cookbook that the very best chefs all consult when coming up with new ideas for dishes.

Is Minimal Design Important?

Well, that depends. Certainly, it’s important to the field of design as a whole, but when it comes to your client’s individual projects, there are some things to consider. First, does your client even want or need a minimal design? No one would call Amazon’s or eBay’s websites “minimal,” and yet they are some of the most popular and heavily visited sites online.

Second, will a minimally designed website or application help or hurt your client’s target user experience? I’m certainly in the “less is more” camp myself when it comes to most types of design. But believe it or not, there is such a thing as too minimal. If a design’s minimalism is impeding usefulness or a user’s ability to navigate to what they need quickly and efficiently, then elements must be put back in to make the experience richer and more meaningful.

Is “Authentic” Flatness Here To Stay?

No one can say for sure whether the flat phenomenon is merely a trend or a movement that has real staying power. The iPhone and iPad revolutionized the mobile industry, possibly forever, and flat, authentic design certainly seems to be seeping into every aspect of digital design.

What makes a trend more likely to stick around is usually whether or not the most influential designers who use it actually know what they’re doing. For example, if you’re a chef, you might choose to use an exotic new ingredient in your culinary masterpiece, but either way, you still can’t ignore all the principles of great cooking. If a designer has a sound understanding of fundamental design principles, then whatever they make popular is going to have an easier time becoming a standard, rather than a fad.

Should You Give In To The Flat Side?

So many companies are jumping on the flat bandwagon that it’s understandable that there might be a backlash soon from designers who don’t want their work to look like everyone else’s. If your clients suddenly all begin clamoring for “flat” looking work, and you’ve got a decidedly non-flat style, it can become unbearable. You might feel as though you must choose between staying true to your own design ideals, and, you know, eating.

First off, I’ll say that trying to create a single deliverable for a client who wants a “flat” look is a bad idea. If a client wants to go flat, usually it’s best to go all or nothing. Mixing and matching only makes for a weak brand identity. It can be hard to communicate this to clients who have their heart set on a clean, flat looking interface for their mobile app, but are still firmly on the skeuomorphic train when it comes to their website or business cards.

To make this crystal clear to clients, it’s best to use a UX approach. Mixing styles is not only bad design-wise, it also makes for a poor user experience. If customers see a weird mash-up of design styles, that will scream ‘unprofessional’ and even a bit shady. Also, it’s confusing. Your client’s users won’t automatically connect the two styles as being part of the same brand, and the brand identity will suffer.

What Do You Think?

Do you think flat design has been done to death, or is it still fresh and exciting? Do your clients understand the difference between flat and minimal? How do you go about informing them about which design style would best suit their customers’ needs? Let us know in the comments!


  • Michele Mirandola

    I agree with you when you say “Flat or Minimal design is not for everyone”. I think it’s depend on the clients needs, and not on the modern trends. If one of our clients want an app site, for example, that have to focus on a specific product/service, we can afford to propose a minimal layout. But for the clients that still live in 90’s and want a site for their agency, the flat or minimal design can not alway be the right choice. (Sorry for my bad english) ;-)

  • basantam

    Excellent post. Agree with all the things (y)

  • JoaoReynolds

    As far as minimal or not… I always say, “Content is King” – if you allow the content to dictate the design, users will be happy. This rule explains why amazon and ebay are successful, and why google’s main page was also so successful.

  • microsoft copied google minimalism and then apple copied both… flat design IS a result of minimalism. You can do a cmplex design with flat design to do it more usable and minimalist.

  • You’re right when you say that there’s a majority of clients that still live in the 90’s. I found a way in the middle to that in my workflow. Patterns. Hasn’t failed on me yet. :)

  • I choose minimal design…

  • Truly said that “LESS is more”

    Flat design is still in trend and it’s easy to apply but the point of concern is minimal design to win the users heart

    Remember the REDUCE principal of John Maeda where he mentioned about “SHE”

    S- Shrink

    These are applicable for design weather it is product, industrial or graphic design and also it can be a part of minimalism

    My idea to say this is that minimalism is the strong tool for the designers now a days

    Thanks for the post Addison

  • Quality thoughts. It´s good to make clear concepts.

  • Michele Mirandola

    Yes, the patterns saved my life too. Another example of “clients wrong approach on sites” is the Slider: 80% of my clients has no big or nice images to put on that (My work consist on cerate themes for an italian CMS, so the clients manage their contents). So, the result is often a beautiful flat/minimal site whit a horrible contents.

  • I personally believe a mix of both trends is the future… You do not want to go all minimal as it tends to be dull (and with faster internet speeds, it doesn’t hurt throwing in a little bit of images and or images).

    And flat design just looks better as well… especially when complimented with “just enough” content (not too much – content is not always king – we are not writing a book here).

  • ryan

    Flat design is great but the fervor will pass when it starts to look dated just like everything else.

  • ryan

    I think your giving Apple a bit more credit than they deserve regarding their influence of flat design.

  • ryan

    Right on and this whole Apple is responsible for every trend is getting tiresome. They dumped skeuomorphism after the rest of the industry hopped on flat design.