While a digital user interface can be beautifully shaded with gradients and rounded corners, there's something a little more honest about flat design, an aesthetic that eliminates drop shadows and other attempts to create a sense of three-dimensional physicality.
The desire for a tactile-seeming experience made sense in the early days of the digital revolution, when consumers needed visual guidance to understand how to use their new iPhones and other devices. But now, with near-universal gadget penetration, many companies are turning to flat design as a more practical option for their websites and mobile platforms.
"Flat scales well to smaller screens," says Bradley Falk, CTO of New York City-based beauty startup Poshly, which revamped its website with flat-design principles. "This is because use of white space is important, but buttons are uncluttered and big--easy to identify on mobile, faster to render and have smaller payloads. Flat really helps here, because I can spend less time designing pages specifically for a mobile device."
In addition to its optimization for multiple platforms, flat design's clean, modern look is appealing to many businesses. But there's more to it than that, suggests Brian Casel, a Connecticut-based designer and entrepreneur. "I don't think that ‘going flat' should be the sole reason for a redesign. Flat-design techniques should be used to support a larger set of goals. Those goals should be about meeting the needs and wants of your users," he says.
Casel's company, Restaurant Engine, provides website development to restaurants. Aiming to redesign his own website with an emphasis on ease of use, he concluded that flat design was the best approach. "I needed to find ways to simplify it and make it easier to guide restaurant owners through the aspects and benefits of our service," he says. "By utilizing flat-design techniques, such as simple monotone boxes around testimonials or use of white space to lay out the navigation, I think we achieved our goal."
While flat design can alleviate technical issues--it requires fewer images and less-complicated coding, resulting in a faster site--it does add challenges, such as color selection. For example, unlike with traditional web design, a light-colored button may not be easy to discern on top of the white space that is the norm in flat design. "I couldn't use pastels, but since we use purple a lot as part of our identity, that was easy," Falk says. "If you already have corporate colors that are not bold, flat likely won't work for you."
A major redesign can offer big wins: Poshly's site revamp has driven a 20 percent increase in user engagement. "While the look of the old site wasn't superficially dated, it wasn't always clear what the purpose of each screen was," Falk says.
What is clear? Flat design--with its emphasis on white space, bold buttons and clear typography--has the potential to let products shine, with fewer distractions to get in a customer's way.