The online world is flat. First it was just some simple monochrome tiles swimming in a shiny sea. Then came along clear and confident typography. Now drop shadows are dropping and gradients are disintegrating faster than you can hit the update button in the app store. Even Apple, the world’s finest purveyor of glossy buttons and lush textures is going flat in the newly released iOS 7. But the web is a restless place and with flat design now mainstream, we have to ask the inevitable: what’s next?
Before making predictions, let’s deal with two basic questions. What is flat design? And has it really become mainstream? In a nutshell, flat design is the idea that the best interface design is the one the user doesn’t even notice. Open space, bright colors, crisp edges, bold typography, simple two-dimensional graphics – all these hallmarks of flat design are specifically chosen to improve user experience.
It’s also no coincidence that detailed illustrations give way to simplified icons at a time when more and more people use many and often smaller screens. All the data pulled in from different sources has to look good on all devices, giving us the easily scalable, “boxy” look of today’s web. Flat design is as much a response to the mobile revolution as it is a new visual trend.
Actually, “trend” is not the right word. “Standard” probably better describes the current status of flat design. Exhibit A: the logos of our favorite tech giants, presumably encapsulating their design philosophy. Microsoft, proud pioneer of the new design language, has gone all in on tiles. Google officially still maintains its old look but a not-so-secret flat version is appearing all over the place. And while Snow White’s evil queen just three years ago could have used Apple’s logo handily as a dangerous fruit AND a magic mirror, it is now just a simple white shape. Bucking the trend is Yahoo, which just a few weeks ago introduced a new slimmed-down logo complete with bevels and shadows like it’s 1992. A visionary move or what you get if the CEO likes to dabble in Adobe Illustrator and “geek out on a logo”? Time will tell.
With flat design firmly established as the design paradigm of today’s digital world, let’s open our big box of clichés and dig out this nugget: nothing on the web is more constant than change. So, here a few ideas on what could be next.
Breaking the box
The dominant shape of all flat designs is the rectangle. They are virtually everywhere (examples: redesigned npr.org, Google’s new “card”-based design, mashable.com and many more). The reason: they are easy to scale, with the text and images reflowing properly across all screen sizes. So far, the capabilities of CSS were the limiting factor, but that will change when the just announced new Shapes Module Level 1 is fully implemented.
CSS Shapes allows funneling of text between shapes and wrapping it around geometric margins (see image). Essentially, designers will be able to create rich magazine layouts online without resorting to hacks that break on different screen sizes. This could end the current “rule of the grid” and usher in an era of more organic shapes and flows.
Making design move
By now, everybody has noticed the increasing use of video, audio, animation and other forms of multimedia content across the web (if you haven’t – welcome to the internet!). Ever cheaper and better technology, faster broadband connections, and increasing competition for eyeballs are key drivers of this development. At the same time, we get better in producing new forms of audiovisual web content quickly and efficiently. “Digital Natives” are probably already more comfortable shooting video with their cameraphone than writing a long article.
As we get more used to this “moving content”, it is likely that some of the audiovisual elements will become design elements. In some ways, animation is already a key ingredient in our touch screen world. In fact, it might be the only reason why I use the Google+ plus app – it just moves so nicely. Over time, we could see more multimedia in design, adding a new layer of depth to what we now perceive as flat. First experiments are already underway, like the increasing use of video backgrounds.
Less touch, more talk
Screens and screen design will not go away anytime soon but the way we interact with them could very well change dramatically in the next ten years. Smartphones, game consoles, and TVs are incorporating gesture-based control. Voice recognition and commands are getting better although you might feel different after 30 minutes in an automated customer service line.
It’s still early too early to tell where exactly voice and gesture control are going to go and if a tactile creature like us humans really wants to abandon the reassuring touch sensation. But if it takes off and there is no need anymore to navigate through a menu and have a big enough button to tap, then the user experience is changed and the design will too. With the operational logic of a device/system/program essentially part of our common knowledge (we’ll learn how to talk or direct a device starting as a child) there might be room for a more flourishing and less functional aesthetic.
Any other ideas on what’s next after flat design? Let me know below.