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The Flat Design Era

When LayerVault 2 launched earlier this spring, we believed that we were taking a risk by pursuing an entirely flat interface.

Well-loved products on the web share a similar design aesthetic, with roughly the same kinds of bevels, inset shadows, and drop shadows. For designers, achieving this level of “lickable” interface is a point of pride. For us, and for a minority of UI designers out there, it feels wrong.

We certainly didn’t invent the flat style but arriving at it was a violent process. We tore through hundreds of revisions (we have the LayerVault timelines to prove it) to potential interfaces before arriving at the answer that now makes us say “of course.” The desk at LayerVault’s original headquarters (my Manhattan apartment) still has the battle scars from objects being slammed down in anger. At one point, while working on a mockup, a MacBook was slammed shut so hard it was nearly unhinged.

At that point, we knew it was time to get some air. When we returned with clear heads, we stripped the design down to the bone. It looked closer to a wireframe than a final interface — but it was a start, and it was damn honest.

The Honest Design Age

We interpret recent shots taken at skeumorphism as a sign of the coming of “Honest Design.” Much like we were not too long ago, designers working for the web are getting fed up with the irrational, ugly shortcuts being praised as good design.

While one side of the mouth yells “good design is how it works,” the other side mumbles that great aesthetics mean realism. It doesn’t need to be this way. Designing honestly means recognizing that things you can do with screens and input devices can’t be done with physical objects — more importantly that we shouldn’t try copying them. It takes too much for granted. Can you imagine your pristine iPhone built into the body of an antique telephone handset? Is that beautiful design?

Designing for the web is the most rewarding when we can create solutions that are custom fit for the problem. We borrow metaphors from physical objects but we refrain from copying. Copying inevitably introduces unwanted design problems, and the better the copy the bigger the problems.

It would be crazy to call these designers lazy — there’s an awesome amount of work and detailed involved in recreating beautiful “rich corinthian leather.” Still, it is laziness to not continue to refine. Remove the unnecessary embellishments and keep stripping until you’ve almost gone too far. We believe that elegant interfaces are ones that have the most impact with the fewest elements.

Our Take

We urge you to consider trying a different approach to designing for the web. In terms of our product, we take the approach of releasing the fewest features. If your product philosophy is to create small, lean, products why doesn’t your design follow?

For many of us, it seems self-evident that you should approach product building with a certain kind of discipline. You cut your product features down to the bone, but you never approach your interface design the same way. Why create a small gem of a product and then weigh it down with design flourishes? The way you design your site should reflect your values — be consistent. Flat design is lean design.

We promise — it pays. Many of our customer’s tell us that LayerVault is one of the best designed products they’ve ever used.

A Few Of Our Favorite Flatlanders

Email us and we’ll add you to the list. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

— Allan

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