Turning the Page on Flat Design: Why it’s Time to Bring Some Creativity Back to Web Design

Remember when cars used to be different? Nowadays it’s hard to tell a BMW from a Honda. Cars come in a limited array of colors, but end up looking similar and generic. Where are the orange cars and the ones with polka dots? Where are the cars that express who you are?

In the good old days cars were as much of an expression of your personality and style as the clothes you wore. Nowadays finding your car in a parking lot is like playing “Where’s Waldo?”

The same has happened with web design. My co-founder complains that flat design — that ubiquitous clean, uncluttered look that’s so prevalent on the web — reminds her of airports. You can’t tell one from the other. So what is the problem, and how can we turn the page on flat design and come out with something more individual and exciting?

Why Is It Time to Turn the Page?

The tendency on the internet is to democratize everything. Design is now accessible to veteran designers and non-designers alike, and this is a positive thing. Thanks to this, if you are building a startup, you don’t need to break the bank hiring a seasoned designer to put out a well-designed website or app.

With open source elements or prefab templates you can make your product look as great as all the other products out there, but you risk failing to highlight what differentiates you from the crowd.

Forbes contributor Sunday Steinkirchner argues that rather than going for the easy option, and copying the style of competitors, founders should focus on three key points for web design: Having a clear vision, personalization and hiring the right help to really make this happen.

Stand out From the Crowd

Now, the simplicity and cleanliness of flat design is meant to make users do everything as fast and easily as possible, and to make them feel feel comfortable and productive. But the problem is that everyone uses the same icons, the same buttons, the same typefaces and the same format. Your site is your way of showing your work and showing potential clients just how amazing and revolutionary your product and ideas are, and how much better you are than competitors. Add color, flair, pizzazz and character and you will stick in their memory.

I prefer something with personality, even if it is not my style, or is kitschy or in bad taste. At least with something that looks different I get a sense of a story. I get to read and interpret a richer, different code. I get to imagine what these people or services are all about. A tacky, nouveau riche mansion has more visual information than a generic, corporate grey building.

Sunday Steinkirchner argues: “You need to have your own identity – something memorable, something that is yours alone. If you don’t know what that is yet, chances are your customers are confused too.”

Flat design may serve the users well, but it doesn’t serve your vision well. It is cookie cutter, sterile, generic, and its expanding proliferation even feels a little creepy – like Stepford Wives territory – because other than communicating serviceability, it doesn’t communicate any emotion.

Go Organic

There are many ways to add personality to design but personality is not enough: it’s essential to add soul and emotion too, and the best way to do this is through organic design.

Take a look at the natural world. It is a wonder of imperfection. In nature things are not always centered, lines are rarely perfect. The design of nature is organic. Think of sand dunes, coral reefs, seashells or the human face: they are never perfectly symmetric.

Organic design is closer to nature and it feels more real and human. It feels like someone thought about it and built it with their hands. Organic design transmits humanity and soul but it is also expressive because it is meant to communicate emotion. Emotion, even if it’s simple, has an enormous impact on the viewer or the user.

The challenge is to incorporate elements of organic design while keeping the user experience seamless and easy to grasp. The last thing you need is to have organic design that confuses or frustrates your users. Functionality comes first. Then you can tweak the design to add creative flourishes, without complicating the journey for the users.

We often rely too much on words to communicate emotions, while organic design can help transmit them in a deeper and more immediate way.

For instance, besides using friendly language and lots of exclamation points, you may choose to put everything in lowercase to enhance that feeling of friendliness and accessibility. Or take the Error 500 view. Why not make it a really alarming page, with bright colors and big, bold type? After all, this is a place where you don’t want users to linger. Get them back on track!

In other words, design needs to reflect visually whatever you want to communicate be it comfort, urgency, vitality or originality.

Our brains love symmetry, but they may become inured to it and cease responding positively, if everything they see is symmetric. Internet design seems obsessed with perfect grids and centering elements. But if you play around with these elements, and use them in unexpected ways you might begin to approximate personality. Asymmetry wakes up the brain and makes it respond differently. The brain loves nice surprises.

Behavioral scientist Andrea Kuszewski notes that “Perfect symmetry is boring, from your brain’s standpoint… Asymmetry has some novelty to it. Novelty triggers dopamine and norepinephrine, which in turn motivates us, excites us, and yes – even fuels addictive behaviors in some circumstances.”

Take a look at some of the best responsive web designs out there, for sites such as Travel Oregon and Revolution in Sound. Organic design goes against the current. It thrives on the sense of imperfection, uniqueness and randomness, breaking from the mechanized lull that users are accustomed to.

Good organic design attracts their attention while making it a fun experience. Ideally, it makes them feel like they understand and know your product intimately and keeps them wanting to come back for more.

Think Different

The web was not originally conceived to be visually appealing. In the beginning, it was just hyperlinks and text. Now that it is becoming increasingly visual, we need better resources and tools to facilitate more avenues of design, more organic choices and more visual than text-driven options.

Although there have been significant advances in web design, there are still many technical limitations which are holding people back. It’s easier and faster to grab open source elements or existing templates than to spend time and money on a unique design. But even if you don’t have that luxury, you can take these elements and try to find a way to use them in unexpected ways to get away from the generic template feel. You may play around with the way elements are positioned to break the monotony. You may choose a horizontal scroll instead of a vertical one.

If there is nothing special about you and you blend in with the masses, why would anyone want to spend time with you? You want your app to be the users’ favorite date. The one their hearts flutter for when they see it.

Comments

  • Lex

    Nice article, thanks. Look forward to read new more specific tips.

  • I agree with you. Let’s bring in some creativity. I have a similar post on the subject. http://fearlessflyer.com/are-flat-designs-becoming-too-flat/ . The worst I’ve seen is Microsoft’s attempt at flat (Metro). It’s just horrible.

  • makeartdoart

    I hate that I haven’t had the chance of really finding the true method and wording to explain my concerns. Thank you so much for placing the words and points EACTLY how I have felt for the past 4 years. This was great and I feel needs to be brought to attention before we revert rather than evolve.

  • Dana Cobb

    refreshing to hear. I really really don’t like material/flat design. Personally, i love shadows. adds depth and the impression that the sun is shining down on your page. lol

  • Kitty Bitty

    Beatriz, you had me until you linked to an article about the “best responsive website design examples” that not only were posted over 2 years ago, but a 404 page as well.
    I do agree with you otherwise… hear it frequently but I haven’t seen too many sites break out of the mold.
    :)

  • robrecord

    I think this sentiment is really of the moment! Well done for expressing so helpfully. With web design becoming more standardised, and clarity of communication reaching a high, we can afford to be more creative.

  • jmcbade

    Some examples with your article would be helpful.

  • Haden Fletcher

    Material design heavily utilises shadows…

  • Rilwanrabo

    I like some motion aspects of material design but I will have to agree to most part of this articlel

  • Altiano Gerung

    I never use flat design.. it’s boring, it’s like everyone uses it
    It feels empty, like a website doesn’t have emotions/characters if we keep using flat design

  • tasos koukouvitis

    … and that’ s a reason i do not like iOS / Apple OS designs… they are trying to be too polished & perfect… but are missing a soul & flare, missing asymmetrical elements of beauty… they are too structured and predictable… nice only for “simple minds” who just try to get a task done… IMHO…

  • Vlasterx

    Go Brutalism! :) Just kidding, but even that brutalism is better than flat everything. It’s time for something new and personal.

  • It’s only a matter of time before so-called flat design is replaced by a new trend, just as it replaced skeumorphism. I would also argue that flat design is not necessarily any more usable than other styles or even promoted by usability practitioners. In fact, it lacks some of the cues and affordances that more textured graphics can convey. It’s a visually and aesthetically driven trend, perhaps also fueled by development priorities.