January 14, 2013

Are we being sucked into yet another design fad, or does the flat ‘Windows 8’ aesthetic have real credibility?

The fairly recent arrival of Windows 8 (and for those in New Zealand the new Metservice website) highlights a current shift in design for the screen. So what’s going on? Why so flat all of a sudden? There is much talk in the design community about the substance of this new trend, and it has also been a topic of conversation here in the studio in relation to some current projects. So I want to delve a little deeper into the debate…

Looking first at the other end of the spectrum, we have skeumorphism. Long word, but a fairly simple concept: Making the unfamiliar familiar. For example: making clickable buttons look like physical buttons (useful), or a diary interface appear to be crafted in leather (perhaps not so useful).

The emergence of this style has been attributed to Apple’s User Interface designers, and has thoroughly infiltrated the aesthetic of many websites and applications. The thinking behind it is that usability is enhanced by giving users familiar indications about the actions that they can take, thus enhancing both their speed and enjoyment. This is particular helpful for those not familiar with the patterns of websites and applications. But many people feel that it has been taken too far.

So back to the flat aesthetic. While not new, it can certainly be seen as a distinct style resurgence. In my previous article about web typography I talked briefly about certain style capabilities that designers now have using CSS3 (drop shadows and the like), and that being restrained with their use and not overdoing it is key. Well, supporters of the flat aesthetic would barely use them at all.

They argue that by using skuemorphic techniques designers are undermining our medium (the screen) by restricting innovation and limiting ourselves to familiar conventions. Another argument is that the physical entities that are being emulated are also undermined – that by trying to recreate characteristics of physical objects in a 2D medium we are “creating cold appropriations of objects that we used to love…” (ref).

But is this resurgence of a flat aesthetic simply a rejection of a previous trend, or is there more to it than that? The part of the argument for a flat aesthetic that I wholehearted agree with is that a realistic-looking element should never be misleading; for example if you are going to render pages to look like a book, then do it because they can be turned, not just because they look pretty. Aside from this, my opinion could be viewed as very much on the fence. I do feel that there is a time and a place for both a flat and a realistic aesthetic, and that it is only poor executions that give either a bad name.

To highlight this – looking at my screen right now – if the panel into which I am typing did not have a big drop shadow, how would I easily distinguish it from the panel behind? It would appear to be within it. The illusion of depth that the shadow creates enhances the usability of the application and therefore makes my experience much easier and more enjoyable. On the other hand – creating a passcode interface that is a hyper-realistic rendering of a physical safe, seems not only to be a pointless waste of time when a simple form field would do, but actually detracts from the action that the user needs to complete.

Really, this argument is not a new one; it is simply a branch of the age-old form versus function debate. And to me, design has always required equal amounts of both. It may sound obvious (but it is absolutely crucial to the success of any website or app) that people tend to respond positively to beautifully crafted things, but will quickly tire of them if they are difficult to use. And likewise, it is pointless to create something that works marvellously, but that no one feels any desire to interact with.

So back to Windows 8. I am not a Windows user, but I have tried briefly to interact with their new OS. I would love to hear others’ opinions, but to me it feels as if the designers have thrown out far too many familiar conventions for their interface to be immediately easy or pleasurable to use. All that I wanted to do was to change the keyboard settings, and it took two of us (both tech-savvy) more than 5 mins to find out how to do this. In usability terms that is a very long time – and whether that can be attributed to their flat aesthetic or not, surely that is not good design?

I will leave you with a short excerpt from usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s analysis of the Windows 8 User Interface:

“Where can you click? Everything looks flat…”