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Why has everything gone flat in web design?

Are you sitting comfortably?

Good – then I’ll begin: Once upon a time, the most popular design language of the web was packed with visual analogies which attempted to bridge the realm of the physical, with the land of the virtual: Designers covered websites in a rich tapestry of complex textures, 3d shadow effects, glossy faux-reflections:  And glowing, beveled blocks of gradient-shaded pixel formations were the order of the day.

If one wanted to access a settings panel, a beautifully rendered, realistic set of cogs and wheels might be the most obvious choice of icon.  An email inbox might look like a 3D letterbox, stuffed with creased envelopes.  A deleted items directory icon might take the form of a wire-mesh wastepaper bin…

Minimalism, in most cases, was most definitely not the way to go: The websites of this golden age were embellished with every Photoshop effect under the sun.

Then, one fine day, the design language of the web changed…

Website design

The day the web went flat

Back in the early 20th century, the modernist movement changed art, architecture and design forever: Realism would give way to expressionism, rich, ornate, classically-styled carved stone buildings would soon be overshadowed by towering, featureless structures comprised of steel and glass – and form would most definitely follow function in the many examples of product design that forward-thinking companies would develop in years to come.

In much the same way that modernist principles have shaped the world around us, it would seem that they have now revolutionised the way that designers approach website design today.

Stylised, minimalistic icons made of flat blocks of colour join simple, clear blocks of text to communicate information in the most efficient manner possible.  Clutter is removed wherever possible.  Content takes centre-stage.  It’s all a bit Zen, really.

Why flat is now the way to go

Users don’t need as much guidance anymore

Back in the days when designers really had to go the whole hog to make it obvious what each icon’s function was by emanating loads of visual cues, users today are now much more familiar with the concepts of navigating a graphical user interface.  Simple gesture commands, subtle blocks of colour, minimalistic, heavily stylised icons, or even just basic text links are now perfectly acceptable ways of interacting with a website or computer interface.

Designs need to be as flexible as possible

These days, websites need to display their content and navigation effectively across a wide range of devices: In a world where the average user might just as likely be viewing a webpage on a tiny smartphone display as they would on a massive 4K monitor, flat design becomes a web designer’s best friend…

Flat design lends itself particularly well to responsive layouts, whereas an approach which takes its cues from skeuomorphism makes things much, much more complicated.

Flat design has the big advantage of making it possible to replace graphics, for the most part, with code: This helps to keep page load times down.  Simple blocks of text can easily resize to be readable on varying display sizes – and minimalistic icons can be more readily identified at smaller sizes than more detailed, ornate icons, whilst still looking good at larger sizes.

Flat design places more emphasis on content

Whilst the odd reflection or drop-shadow might not be incredibly detrimental to a website’s usability (In some cases, such effects can be used to add emphasis to important site elements) the truth of the matter is that these effects are often nothing more than a bit of ‘eye-candy’, simply put in place for no reason other than to add a bit of embellishment to a design layout.  With a flat, functionality-focussed approach, designers can place more emphasis on site content and navigation, to streamline the connection between user and information.

About Graham Lyons

Graham is the SEO and Social Media Marketing Manager at Cozy Digital and the editor of the Cozy Digital Blog as well as contributing content for most of our social outlets like Facebook, Twitter and G+. Graham has been working in, and writing for the SEO / SMM industry since 2001 and is still as dedicated and passionate today as he was when he opened his first Website Design, Ecommerce and SEO company in 2004. You can connect with Graham and Cozy Digital via the social media links below:

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