Authentic Design

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The recently popularized “flat” interface style is not merely a trend. It is the manifestation of a desire for greater authenticity in design, a desire to curb visual excess and eliminate the fake and the superfluous.

In creating new opportunities, technological progress sometimes leads to areas of excess. In the 19th century, mechanized mass production allowed for ornaments to be stamped out quickly and cheaply, leading to goods overdecorated with ornament. A similar thing occurred in recent years, when display and styling technologies enabled designers to create visually rich interfaces, leading to skeuomorphic and stylistic excesses.

In its desire for authenticity, the Modern design movement curbed the ornamental excess of the 19th century, making design fit the age of mass production. Today, we’re seeing the same desire for authenticity manifest itself in the “flat” trend, which rejects skeuomorphism and excessive visuals for simpler, cleaner, content-focused design.

The Birth Of Modern Design

In 1908, Adolf Loos, an influential Austrian architect, wrote an essay provocatively titled Ornament and Crime. The modern ornamentalist, he claimed, was either a “cultural laggard or a pathological case. He himself is forced to disown his work after three years. His productions are unbearable to cultured persons now, and will become so to others in a little while.” Even more boldly, Loos asserted, “The lower the standard of a people, the more lavish are its ornaments. To find beauty in form instead of making it depend on ornament is the goal towards which humanity is aspiring.”

What triggered such an attack on ornament? To understand the mindset of this pioneer of modern design, we must first form some idea of the state of design in the late-19th century.

The advent of the steam engine ushered in an era of mechanized mass production. As the art critic Frank Whitford writes, “Steam-driven machines could stamp, cut and fashion almost any substance faster and more regularly than the human hand. Mechanized production meant lower prices and higher profits.”

But while the method of production shifted from hand to machine, the style of goods did not. Most every product, from building and furniture to fabric and cutlery, was adorned in an opulent coat of ornament, built upon the grand spirit of the Renaissance.

An inkstand The Great Exhibition1
An inkstand showcased at The Great Exhibition of 1851, a celebration of the best manufacturing from around the world. The use of ornamentation here is extreme but not atypical.

Historically, handcrafted decoration has been expensive to produce, serving as a symbol of wealth and luxury. With the advent of mechanization, imitations of those same sought-after ornaments could be stamped out cheaply and quickly. Rather than stop and think about what sort of design would be best suited for mass production, manufacturers jumped at the opportunity to copy historicized styles at low cost. The result was the flood of garish, low-quality products that Adolf Loos, along with other pioneers of modern design, railed against.

In The Decorative Art of Today, famed architect Le Corbusier bluntly asserted that trash is abundantly decorated, and that, “The luxury object is well-made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture. It is to industry that we owe the reversal in this state of affairs: a cast-iron stove overflowing with decoration costs less than a plain one; amidst the surging leaf patterns flaws in the casting cannot be seen.”

Montgomery Schuyler, an influential critic and journalist, condemned the heavily ornamented 19th-century facades, saying, “If you were to scrape down to the face of the main wall of the buildings of these streets, you would find that you had simply removed all the architecture, and that you had left the buildings as good as ever.”

Harrods store building2
Harrods’ current building in London was completed in 1905 to the design of architect Charles William Stephens. The facade is typical of Victorian architecture. (Image: Michael Greifeneder3)

Louis Sullivan, the architect known as “the father of skyscrapers,” called for restraint by suggesting, “It would be greatly for our aesthetic good, if we should refrain entirely from the use of ornament for a period of years, in order that our thought might concentrate acutely upon the production of buildings well formed and comely in the nude.” Below is an image of one of Sullivan’s buildings. The ground floor is decorated, but the upper floors are surprisingly modern for a 19th-century design, especially when contrasted with Harrods’.

Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott store building4
Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott store was originally designed in 1899 for Schlesinger & Mayer. The simplicity of the upper floors here is striking for a 19th-century building.

During the 1920s, a new movement emerged in Germany known as the untranslatable word Sachlichkeit, which has a sense of “factual,” “matter of fact,” “practical,” “objective.” The Neue Sachlichkeit movement in the field of design sought pure utility. German architect Hermann Muthesius explained how this idea of utility could be applied to style, to produce something he called Maschinenstil, or “machine style.” In his own words, we find examples of this style in “railway stations, exhibition halls, bridges, steamships, etc. Here we are faced with a severe and almost scientific Sachlichkeit, with abstinence from all outward decoration, and with shapes completely dictated by the purposes which they are meant to serve.”

Instead of attacking ornament, other pioneers of modern design focused on elevating functional form on a pedestal. In 1934, an exhibition curated by modernist architect Philip Johnson was held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, titled Machine Art. On display were various pieces of mechanical equipment, such as airplane propellers and industrial insulators. The idea was to highlight beauty of form in objects that were purely functional. For the modern design movement, decoration was not necessary. Beauty and elegance were to emerge from the design of the content itself, not from a superficial coat of decoration.

Slutzky teapot5
This teapot was designed by Naum Slutzky, goldsmith, industrial designer and master craftsman of Weimarer Bauhaus. The clean, utilitarian design has not a trace of ornament — an almost mathematical solution to the given problem.

It took much of the first half of the 20th century for the Modernist movement to prevail, but eventually traditional styles and techniques were surpassed by newer approaches. In his book Twentieth-Century Design, Jonathan Woodham notes that the Modern aesthetic was characterized by “clean, geometric forms, the use of modern materials such as chromium-plated steel and glass, and plain surfaces articulated by the abstract manipulation of light and shade. The use of color was often restrained, with an emphasis on white, off-white, grey, and black.” Modern design had shed its opulent coat of ornament and instead sought beauty in a harmonious fusion of form and function.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Modern design movement on the whole can be characterized as anti-ornamental. New styles came and went, such as the popular movements of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Some styles, such as Futurism, pushed for an exaggerated technological aesthetic, while others, such as De Stijl, sought harmony in a limited palette of colors and shapes. But underlying the outward shifts in style was the steady movement away from needless ornament, a movement towards a cleaner, more restrained form of design whose beauty lay in the style and shape of the content itself, rather than in external decoration.

Digital Ornament

If we compare the history of modern design with our short history of software and Web design, a parallel can be seen. In the same way that mechanized mass production resulted in an overuse of ornament, so did advances in display and styling technology result in the heavy use of decoration in software interfaces and websites. Designers in the early years of the Web were especially explorative on this front, using animation and sound together with images to produce excessively rich and often garish experiences.

Early operating systems with graphical user interfaces were still fairly basic in their look and feel. Granted, real-world metaphors were used where they could be, such as for images of folders to denote file directories and buttons with bevels to let the user know they could click on them. But the overall aesthetic was fairly flat and restrained. Regardless of whether the designer wanted to deliver a richer visual experience, the low resolution of the black and white displays limited them.

Mac OS 16
Using only two colors for the first Mac OS graphical interface, Apple managed to convey depth, textures, buttons and icons that mimicked real-life objects. The appearance of the interface was constrained by technology, rather than by the designer.

As technology evolved, designers were granted greater visual freedom with their interfaces. With Windows XP, Microsoft introduced a colorful style throughout, giving it a somewhat physical appearance, with plenty of highlights, shadows and gradients.

Apple went even further with the release of Mac OS X, styling the interface with shiny plastic bubbles, brushed aluminum and lifelike icons. As time went by, the visual styling of operating systems grew in intensity. Microsoft gave Windows a shiny, transparent glass-like theme, while Apple introduced even more materials and skeuomorphic cues into its desktop and mobile systems, such as leather textures in its calendar app and realistic page-turning effects in its book reader.

Windows Vista7
The Windows Vista interface featured the Aero theme, with its shiny, glass-like window chrome.

Styles that imitate real-life objects and textures are said to be “skeuomorphs” — that is, design elements based on symbols borrowed from the real world, for the sole purpose of making an interface look familiar to the user. Recently, designers have started questioning the logic of styling a notes app as a paper pad, or of adding leather and page-turning effects to a calendar app. These effects provide visual interest, but they are also relics of another time, relics that tie an interface to static real-life objects that are incompatible with the fluidity and dynamism of digital interfaces.

OS X calendar8
The current version of OS X’s calendar features a stitched leather texture and torn paper edges to give the appearance of a physical calendar.

With the latest release of Windows 8, Microsoft took a brave step away from such superfluous visuals, attempting to give its operating system a wholly digital and, in its words, “authentic” look. The latest interface is built upon the principles that Microsoft developed for its earlier mobile release, presenting the user with an aesthetic that is almost wholly devoid of textures or imitations of real-life objects.

Instead, Windows 8 relies on typography, spacing and color to bring order and elegance to the digital canvas. Real-life effects and superfluous styles are discarded, and all that is left is simply the content itself. Much as Muthesius once submitted railway stations as examples of Maschinenstil, the designers at Microsoft point to examples of railway station signs as inspiration for the new Windows interface, previously known as “Metro.”

Windows 8 live tiles on the start screen9
Windows 8’s start screen breaks away from the old desktop design, being composed of flat, colorful live tiles, instead of icons. The tiles are not merely a stylistic choice: They allow useful information to be displayed on the start screen in the manner of a dashboard.

The Web has seen a similar transformation over the years. Early table-based and Flash-based designs gave developers pixel-perfect control over their interfaces, and so designers did not hesitate to create visually rich containers for their content. As we began to grasp the fluidity of the new medium and to disconnect presentation from content using CSS, Web design became more restrained. Highly decorated containers could not change their width and positions easily, so designers used fewer images and relied more on simpler CSS styling to make their layouts more adaptive and easier to maintain.

The latest evolution of responsive design (which is to adapt a single page to suit various screen sizes and devices) as well as the move among designers to work directly in code from the start, skipping visual editors such as Photoshop, moves us even further towards a simpler, content-focused Web aesthetic, one that derives its beauty from typography, spacing and color rather than from a heavy use of textures and decorative images.

Most recently, Apple, the leader of skeuomorphism, has taken its first step towards digital authenticity with the latest release of its mobile operating system, iOS 7. Gone are the stitched leather textures and ripped paper edges, replaced by a minimalist, mostly flat interface, with colorful, simplified icons and semi-translucent surfaces.

Comparison between Apple's iOS 6 and iOS 7 interfaces10
Apple’s iOS 7 is a radical turn away from skeuomorphism. The old design of iOS’ Calculator app is on the left, and the one for iOS 7 is on the right. The grainy texture, bevelled buttons and shiny glass are all gone, replaced by a mostly flat, functional interface.

Authentic Design

What ties the pioneering days of Modern design to the current shift in software and Web design is the desire for authenticity. This drive towards greater authenticity is what moved designers to scrape away ornament from their work over a hundred years ago, and this force is what is moving digital design today towards a cleaner, more functional aesthetic. But what exactly makes design “authentic”?

Authentic design aims to pierce through falsehood and do away with superfluousness. Authentic design is about using materials without masking them in fake textures, showcasing their strengths instead of trying to hide their weaknesses. Authentic design is about doing away with features that are included only to make a product appear familiar or desirable but that otherwise serve no purpose. Authentic design is about representing function in its most optimal form, about having a conviction in elegance through efficiency. Authentic design is about dropping the crutches of external ornament and finding beauty in pure content.

In authentic design, style is not unimportant, but it is not pursued through decoration. Rather, beauty of form depends on the content, with the style being a natural outcome of a creative solution. As Deyan Sudjic commented on the design of the iconic Anglepoise lamp, “How the lamp looks — in particular the form of its shade — was something of an afterthought. But that was part of its appeal. Its artless shape gave it a certain naive innocence that suggested authenticity, just as the early versions of the Land Rover had the kind of credibility that comes with a design based on a technically ingenious idea rather than the desire to create a seductive consumer product.”

The Anglepoise lamp11
The design of the Anglepoise lamp is an ingenious solution to a real problem. But the resulting form, which is an effective solution, turns out to have its own aesthetic allure.

In digital design, authenticity means a few things, which can roughly be summarized as the following:

  • Embrace the digital look.
    We do not have to mimic textures such as metal, wood and leather on a computer display. They are not what a digital interface is made of, so pretending that it is makes no sense. This does not mean that a design should have only plain flat backgrounds colors — rather, it means we should not try to imitate or be restricted by textures from the real world.
  • Do away with skeuomorphism.
    A digital book need not imitate physical paper as one turns the page, nor does a note-taking app need to look like a physical paper pad, with a leather cover, torn edges and a handwriting-styled font. Skeuomorphism is not always bad, but it always introduces needless constraints on the interface. For example, while a paper pad is static and one dimensional, a digital interface need not be; but as long as the interface is made to imitate a paper pad, it has to bear the constraints of the physical metaphor.
  • Make the style content-centered.
    Focus on the content rather than on its styling and decoration. You might think this point is trite, but how many times have you seen an off-the-shelf theme on a website? A theme is always built on dummy content and so, by its very nature, could never be an optimal representation of the content it will eventually hold. Building themes with dummy text pushes the designer to focus on styling and decoration, rather than on content, because there is no content yet to work with. Only when you work with real content can you begin to truly transform function into form.

Not Minimalism

Design whose beauty lies in function is not the same thing as minimalism minimalist style. With the former, the designer seeks to remove the superfluous, to make the product easier to understand, to make it perform better and to make the most of its medium. The latter seeks to create a minimalist aesthetic, to give the object an aura of simplicity and cleanliness. One is a fundamental principle of design, the other a stylistic choice.

Flat UI12
The Flat UI13 theme kit, by Designmodo, is an outward representation of the underlying shift towards authentic design. But as a style, “flat” is a choice, not a necessity.

It would be a mistake to rigidly apply a minimalist design aesthetic to an interface as a style in the hope of making the interface simpler and more digitally “authentic.” For example, ruthlessly eliminating visuals such as shadows, colors and varied background styles would not necessarily make an interface easier to use. In some cases, it would achieve the opposite by undermining hierarchy and focus, which were established by those very shadows and background colors.

Outlook 201314
Outlook 2013’s interface was updated to fit Windows 8’s modern theme. But with the interface being flattened, all of the content and menus were merged onto a single white plane, becoming more cluttered as a result.

In The Laws of Simplicity John Maeda posits, “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.” The final warning is important. Removing things often leads to simplicity merely because the user has fewer items to process. But removing visual cues that help the user mentally process the interface — such as graphical elements that group items, that differentiate buttons and labels and that make things stand out — could do exactly the opposite by giving the user more work to do. So, rather than guide the design by style, guide it by principle.

Why Authentic Design Matters

The Rise15 app is a perfect example of digitally authentic design. The alarm clock is a problem that has already been solved, but Simplebots decided to tackle the concept from scratch, rethinking the interface in the context of a purely digital canvas.

Rise app16
In the Rise app, the user sets the time with an innovative full-screen slider, with the background color changing to reflect the color of the sky.

Rise’s interface features a full-screen slider, with a background color that changes to reflect the color of the sky at the time you’ve set. It shows no attempt to mimic a physical clock or a physical slider or real-life textures. Instead, the designers have fully embraced the touch canvas of the mobile phone, creating an experience that is designed from the ground up to make the most of its medium. The innovative design not only makes for a great user experience, but elevates the app above others in the marketplace.

An interface like Rise’s is only possible when you tackle a design problem wholly within the context of the digital canvas, rather than by translating solutions from the real world. The digital screen allows for abstract forms, animation, bright colors and uniform shades. It need not be limited to a subdued palette or static representation, nor must it be bound to skeuomorphic forms. By figuring out how best to represent content using the pixel grid, we can arrive at better, simpler solutions, innovative interfaces that feel at home on the screen, designs that provide a better user experience and that stand out from the crowd.

The recently popularized “flat” design style may be a trend, but it is also the manifestation of a desire for greater authenticity in design, a desire to curb superfluous decoration and to focus on the content itself. Technological progress sometimes leads to excess, as mechanized mass production did in the 19th century when ornament became overused, and as display and styling technologies did during the early years of Web and software design. But ornamental excess was curbed over time by the pioneers of Modernism, who sought beauty in function, and today’s excesses in software will in time be curbed by an underlying desire for authenticity in design.

References

  • Bauhaus, Frank Whitford (2010: Thames & Hudson)
  • Twentieth-Century Design, Jonathan M. Woodham (1997: Oxford University Press)
  • Pioneers of Modern Design, Nikolaus Pevsner (1991: Penguin Books)
  • The Language of Things, Deyan Sudjic (2009: Penguin Books)
  • The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda (2006: MIT Press)

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/inkstand_mini.jpg
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/harrods_mini.jpg
  3. 3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HarrodsDay_mini.jpg
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/carsonpiriescott_mini.jpg
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/slutzky_mini.jpg
  6. 6 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/os1_mini.png
  7. 7 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/vista_mini.jpg
  8. 8 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/calendar_mini.jpg
  9. 9 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/windows8_mini.jpg
  10. 10 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/ios7_mini.jpg
  11. 11 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/anglepoise_mini.jpg
  12. 12 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/flatui_mini.png
  13. 13 http://designmodo.github.io/Flat-UI/
  14. 14 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/outlook2013_mini.png
  15. 15 http://www.simplebots.co
  16. 16 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/rise_mini.jpg

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Dmitry Fadeyev is the creator of Usaura, a micro usability testing service, and the founder of UsabilityPost, a blog about good design and user experience. Additionally, you can read his thoughts on design, art and practical philosophy over at his personal blog.

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  1. 1

    The Rise app: “The innovative design not only makes for a great user experience…”

    Unless you’re left handed; in which case the time moves to the left of the screen, under your thumb when scrolling, and the pull-out on/off menu is a nightmare to get at without dislocating your thumb.

    Why not just go around smacking lefties on the hand with a steel rule, like in the old days?

    3
  2. 52

    “The clean, utilitarian design has not a trace of ornament”

    Except for the pointless little ball on the handle…

    0
    • 103

      Actually Bob that little ball is used for grip. You put your thumb on it to stabilise the kettle when pouring.

      0
  3. 154

    Jason Bradberry

    July 18, 2013 11:59 am

    Really interesting post, which certainly got me thinking. I shared a few thoughts in response to the idea of “material authenticity” in digital design on my blog.

    http://jasonbradberry.com/authentic-digital-design/

    0
  4. 205

    Becareful of equating the visual element of depth with ornamentation. Depth, color, contrast, tone, etc, are all visual design elements at our disposal to communicate more effectively and not the enemies. Extremist flat design is a step back due to diminished usability as a result of faded cues for interaction.

    8
  5. 256

    Govinda Agarwal

    July 18, 2013 1:54 pm

    Indeed an interesting conversation. However I think this conversation revolves around elements that bring value to the end user. I look at minimalism and curbing superfluous decoration simply as a concept of applying lean than anything else. Customers are becoming smarter everyday and they would pay for features that are functional and serves the purpose well rather than loaded with nice to have elements. Having said that not all customers are alike and the choices I see being made in today’s market explains it all. Authentic design to me is light, clean with functionality at the core – after all style and beauty lies in the ease of using the features of the product.

    0
  6. 307

    Great read. I agree with your comments of users wanting more “authenticity” and content focused designs.

    1
  7. 358

    What a fantastic, eye-opening article. Well written! It humbly reminded me to return to my conviction of “simplicity over function”.

    0
  8. 409

    I’d argue that authentic is the wrong word to use for this. Another faction of the modernist movement was termed “brutalist,” a term which captures another aspect of the style pretty well.

    I totally agree with the notion that ornament applied indiscriminately is just decoration (in the words of someone whose name I can’t remember, “design that serves no purpose is called decoration”). However I think it’s important to note that ornament is (as the author touches on) inherently the elements of the design that feel most human, or the parts of it that remind you it was crafted by a human hand.

    There really isn’t anything authentic or not about a graphical user interface, and very little about a natural user interface qualifies as particularly authentic either. Most of what we relied on in the early aughts for “affordance” was based on mechanical metaphors: buttons, knobs, sliders. Those were teaching tools as much as anything else. If you assume that everyone has learned how to use computers now (as all the major mobile operating systems seem to), then it makes sense to move away from those old tropes. But to assume that the removal of ornament is inversely the increase of authenticity is probably misleading. The niftiest bits of iOS 7 suggest that ornament hasn’t been removed as much as it has shifted from graphics to behaviors. I think that’s a really crucial distinction for us to internalize.

    One final thought: modernism writ large had the greatest impact in architecture, and determined the form of many urban areas. A quick survey of world architecture today would suggest that human choice has not entirely favored the brutalist ethic; until about 10 or 15 years ago, the most common examples of modernist architecture were urban housing projects, which involved zero choice and only extremely rarely found any success in the lofty social engineering goals that underpinned them. I’d caution that minimalism (as the author cedes) needs to be well considered in both plan and function, and that (even more importantly) the goals / proclivities / general context of the end user should ultimately determine the design.

    6
  9. 460

    Great article! I enjoyed how it broke down the reason why designs (old and new) were created the way they were/are.

    It’s so easy to design what’s comfortable and familiar. While a design is familiar, this doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. This article makes me want to push myself when designing; to ask “Is this the most effective way of communicating an idea? Can it be improved?”

    0
  10. 511

    A great, great article. Thank you.

    0
  11. 562

    One of the best articles I’ve read in years. Thanks!

    0
  12. 613

    What’s wrong with little entertainment? People want to be entertained. People want cute, shiny buttons. Mimicking real-life becomes a problem only when it degrades usability.
    I don’t see anything wrong with shiny buttons on the calculator. In fact, I’d rather use that than the one on the right. The bevels and shadows enhances the usability.
    There are screwdrivers with neon colored handles. Superfluous, some may say. But it does not degrade its function as a screwdriver in any way.

    3
  13. 664

    Some great points have been raised here. I must say that typography is a key aspect of modern design. For instance Apple is a fairly basic brand. White and Grey colour scheme with a modern and as you may class as a digital font and that’s what certainly makes a difference.

    0
  14. 715

    I think the reason for this switching is simpler than you guys may think,
    It’s more business and practical imho, (at least for tech giants like MS, Google and Apple). It’s the only clear response to device diversification (mobile, tablets, TV’s etc.).
    Google designers learned it with the multitude of Android devices.

    It’s the switching from pixel to vector, and vector is more restrictive: it wants to be flat/minimal/authentic.

    2
    • 766

      Would totally agree with this. The business side to this movement has been largely ignored. Designing simplified interfaces is certainly difficult, but for a seasoned design professional, and from a business perspective, building a simplified design is less labour-intensive (not less difficult) than skeuomorphic or highly textured/illustrative designs. It makes business sense to simplify.

      0
  15. 817

    “…..a manifestation of a desire for greater authenticity in design, a desire to curb visual excess and eliminate the fake and the superfluous.”

    I can’t say that I necessarily agree on this. Flat is GREAT for people who are REALLY bad at design, or don’t have the time to do it well, but the people who were always doing great design are still doing great design. There is nothing superfluous about them. Perhaps this idea applies to the masses of self-taught devs who didn’t quite grasp the whole design part of it, but just can’t agree that this is a universal statement.

    I see it more as “prefer the back end of things and have no patience/talent/*insert other reason here* for the design? FLAT UI is here to save you!”

    Besides, with our increasing ability to streamline our process…it’s logical that some sort of design streamline would be a part of that.

    2
    • 868

      I think you are completely missing the point of the article:

      Flat != easy & stripped down.

      Good flat design, possibly even more than any kind of skeumorphic work needs a designer who engages with the content and structures it and it’s usability features in a well organized and thoughtful way.

      The same way a brilliant UI design that gives you the feeling you can touch and twist each knob and control can very well be out of place and just blatant “look how well I design”-showoff, a well done and well structured flat design isn’t at arms reach of just anybody.

      Or simply put: Good Design isn’t measured by ones Photoshop skill, as you somehow imply by reducing flat and functional design to beeing an “easy way out for the unskilled”.

      The best example would be: Go to dribbble, have a look around. You will find 1000s of marvelous Interace elements that actually have little to no real world use…

      1
  16. 919

    By these standards of authenticity, letting the interface resemble the material it is built from, Craigslist would be the most authentic site on the planet.

    1
  17. 970

    I think this nails it within the first two paragraphs – in reference to early mechanisation, Dmitry states manufacturers, maybe rightly, weren’t thinking about “what sort of design would be best suited for mass production”; an ideal ‘authentic design’ would be suited for mass production.

    But design is aesthetic and specific to context, and stating skeuomorphic solutions are ‘inauthentic’ is flat-out wrong. ‘flat’ UI approaches ask a user to learn a language to operate the interface, wheras skeuomorphic approaches ask them to interact via a clear metaphor.

    It’s disengenuous to compare this closely with art/architecture movements, but if you do connect this explicitly with modernist ideals, then it has to be appreciated that modernist ideas don’t work very well in practise. Modernism is non-inclusive, and the analogy of modernist architecture is pertinent: it requires very high-quality materials to be done successfully – when low quality materials are used what you get is rotting ’60’s office blocks/multistoreys/labs/schools that litter Europe. It’s alienating and sterile and appeals much, much more to designers than to the public (though the web does allow for a much larger audience upon which to force these ideals than modernism ever had).

    This call for ‘authentic’ design is explicitly political. It smacks of ‘the proles don’t know what’s good for them’. At a higher level it’s about cleanliness and a design version of sanity and goals for humanity and systems of thinking, even if, once filtered down to day-to-day grunt work, may not be the intent of the individual designer.

    Even in the article, the quoted texts – le Corbusier “The luxury object is well-made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture”, Loos “The lower the standard of a people, the more lavish are its ornaments. To find beauty in form instead of making it depend on ornament is the goal towards which humanity is aspiring”, Sullivan “It would be greatly for our aesthetic good, if we should refrain entirely from the use of ornament for a period of years, in order that our thought might concentrate acutely upon the production of buildings well formed and comely”.

    And it’s about simplifying design structures and attempting to systematise the design process: If I reduce my design to blocks of colour and structured type, I can delineate these blocks according to tags (&c.) [in theory] very easily, and once this structure is in place, the production stage [in theory] becomes simpler, moving almost from development -> live with no friction. I can [in theory] programme pleasing, matching colour schemes and apply these to the blocks, and the users can learn that email is blue and news is red and this is the symbol to open a menu and this is how it is on every system everywhere and everyone is happy with their new easy lives.

    3
  18. 1021

    I’ll leave the arguing of fine details and vague references to others. I found the article to be educational, relevant, and a good start for designers and non-designers alike that are unfamiliar with “Flat” design or the Microsoft “Metro” approach. It has been very useful with clients and I have anad will keep forwarding on.

    The critical point the author makes to my mind is the difference between Minimalist and Flat and Modern. Too often I am presented with web and software UI so minimal that I find them difficult to use. I have reverted back to earlier Microsoft products for that reason as well…the designers have eliminated so much that the visual references and cues are missing, and no one asked “did these have a purpose?” The answer is YES….they brought “Order to Chaos”.

    I thank the author for his time and efforts.

    1
  19. 1072

    There are four things I absolutely love about your article:

    1) Generally: The analogy to ornamental & modern design in architecture and industrial design is a marvelous example of what is happening at the moment.

    2) In detail: You put extremely well why almost every theme based web projects tends to fail or look not half as enticing as the demo.

    3) Practically: The difference between Flat & minimalist design is very well explained.

    4) Overall: The whole text articulates extremely well pretty much what I have been myself thinking about the developement of digital design in the past year. And much better than I could put it in words

    0
  20. 1123

    Dmitry has given a detail description of his perspective on designing, which I really enjoyed. But as we all know, Web design trends changing day by day in more healthier way. No one can predict the future trends of designing. So I will not agree that Flat design is not merely a trend, as there are several latest designs including flat design attracted many people all over.

    On the whole, its really worth spending time in this article. I enjoyed it

    Thanks

    0
    • 1174

      Thanks for your comment Narein.

      You misread me. I am not saying that “flat” is not a latest trend, I am saying it’s an indication of a bigger, more fundamental shift. Flat will soon change into something else, but it will not resemble physical media (note that all examples in your link are “flat”).

      0
      • 1225

        Hello Dmitry

        Even I tired to say the same as trends will change day by day, but present trend of flat design attracted many people. And also, I agree with your point that flat design will not resemble physical media.

        Cheers mate

        0
  21. 1276

    A great piece, love Dimitry’s articles. A couple of points I’d like to add:

    1. There are no absolute truths about design. Everything is in a constant state of evolution. A period of skeuomorphic adaption was necessary to arrive where we are today, to help people understand the transition from the physical to the digital, and will remain in a continual state of evolution. This is why “authentic design” is a great term, because what was “authentic” today may not be tomorrow.

    2. With regards to the point about ornamentation. Consider that people around the world marvel at the beauty of European renaissance architecture full of ornamentation. Does the ornamentation of St. Basil’s Cathedral serve a practical purpose? It serves an emotional purpose within a historical context. That’s what makes us human, that’s why we have art and that’s why we are continually searching for a balance between practical design and art.

    3
  22. 1327

    Roberta Faulhaberr

    July 26, 2013 1:01 pm

    Excellent blog, great discussion.

    My two cents? We’re looking at a cyclic phenomenon that has been out there probably since we first started making things. Baroque vs. classical, dionysian vs. apollonian, abstract vs. representational, etc. The history of art and design is full of examples of this swing.

    Of course, with the internet the cycle is speeding up so fast that soon the shifts will be simultaneous! (just kidding).

    For me, Dmitry put his finger on it when he said
    “Design whose beauty lies in function is not the same thing as minimalism minimalist style. With the former, the designer seeks to remove the superfluous, to make the product easier to understand, to make it perform better and to make the most of its medium. ”

    Authenticity in and of itself is not the real question for me. The question is more, and authentic “what”. Content and form have equal importance, and the issue becomes, what are we trying to do here? Decorative means just that — not essential to a purpose. This sidesteps the issue of which aesthetic extreme we espouse at any one time.

    I’m not a designer, but an artist and a visual facilitator. Strangely, this debate is also reflected in my world, where many feel content is king and color and form serve the content (content being the group discussion), including myself. But then there’s the pleasure of the beautiful which can also affect how the group works and how our brains function… a balance must always be struck, keeping in mind the purpose of the visual “interface” whatever it may be.

    0
  23. 1378

    Catherine Khetagurova

    July 26, 2013 6:39 pm

    I do not agree with the author.
    The minimalist design does not mean ‘flat’.
    Just like the simple design does not mean ‘flat’.
    Microsoft did not make any steps in the direction of visual excess.
    ‘Flat’ design in Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 caused only one circumstance:
    somehow make his work “Operating System” by removing all the visual effects.
    And there is no “order and elegance to the digital canvas” – is not observed.
    By the way, if the author does not know, the tables and flash design websites are long gone.
     For the record: there is such a thing as CSS3 (this is what concerns Flash and tables).
    And if the author, as well as Microsoft inspired design of road signs and signs at railway stations, no need to keep talking.

    -3
  24. 1429

    A very insightful article. Thanks for this. We wrote something specifically on How Modernist Art Influenced Windows 8, I thought I should share it as there are some reference the Metro concept you mentioned. http://bit.ly/10fV1te

    0
  25. 1480

    really worthfull and informative article. thanks for that :-)

    but, i think we should not forget ourselfs in the way technical things are changing. if skeuomorphism is over, should we design things from real life in that new authentic ways?

    best example is the calculator image. left side is great. i hold this thousand times physically in my hand. right side is at first impression flat and not clearly structured. i think we should decide if things can represent really objects, than don’t change. and if we have a abstract sight only on data/information, it could be let me say “soulless” flat, authentic, minimalistic, or however you want to name it.

    best regards :-)

    0
  26. 1531

    Thank you for offering me a great read !

    “A theme is always built on dummy content and so, by its very nature, could never be an optimal representation of the content it will eventually hold. ”

    This is SO true.

    0
  27. 1582

    One of the great articles on SMag… more articles like this one… focused on ideas and inspirations.

    Thank You!!!

    0
  28. 1633

    Adriano Ribeiro

    August 9, 2013 8:49 pm

    I translated this article for Brazilian Portuguese:
    http://www.neuroniodigital.com.br/design-autentico/

    0
  29. 1684

    This is for the young designers out there… There’s no such thing as “Flat Design” there is minimalist design and flat “look and feel”. Design is an approach to solving a problem, it’s a philosophy. Aesthetics, “look and feel”, is just one of the tools used to present the solution and communicate that philosophy.

    Everything on a monitor is flat, everything on paper is flat.

    You can’t solve a problem by starting with someone else’s solution.
    Stop talking about “flat design” and start solving problems with your designs.

    0
  30. 1735

    It’s an okay article but, in the end, it’s all about communication, about selling the client’s services and bringing them results.

    0
  31. 1786

    The Flat Design style was inevitable, but it’s a fad and it will pass because the world is not flat and we are products of this world. Trees, grass, buildings, people, animals, objects…everywhere I go, there is contour, relief, depth, light, and shadow in my life. Flat design is altogether unnatural in its philosophical foundation and reflects nothing found in nature (not that skeuomorphism is my favorite thing in the world, but flat is worse IMO). A flat gold surface will shine because metal reflects light — that’s a gradient. A piece of paper mache has texture because looking closely you can see and feel that it is not smooth…and once it’s crinkled, forget about it — texture times 10. Same with a smooth piece of granite — shine and texture are built into its very nature. Nothing of real meaning in our world is “flat” — not in the way the Flat Design style implements its philosophy.

    Flat design robs UI of potential meaning — how do you communicate a real world element, such as metal? Skeuomorphism over amplifies meaning — I don’t need Voicenotes to have a huge microphone just to record sound. I like designing somewhere in the middle (http://unifycreative.com) so that I can ensure my designs are meaningful and hit the user’s sweet spot: their ability to fully perceive all the affordances inherent in the design and it’s feature set, while absolutely adoring its look and feel. I want you to love how you do what you need to do and love what it looks like while you do it.

    I can’t imagine flat design would have ever helped me in the past. No major client has ever asked for it because executives don’t remotely understand it. The “best” example of a major flat design initiative is Win8, which is a massive failure of UX/UI design IMO. It looks like a nicely colored series of wireframes. A skeleton with no flesh and blood, no pulse of life, no real forethought or respect for device form factor. And Apple should be very careful about going flat in iOS7. They built their entire enterprise, not just iOS, off of non-flat design. Why start now just because it’s a popular fad and “Microsoft did it”?

    THE BIGGEST RED FLAG –> Flat design has not come about as an answer to any UX problem. There is no problem it solves better than PSD layer effects. It is one of the best examples of designers simply designing for themselves, instead of designing for the ease and delight of their users. That said, there may be niche user bases that would resonate with an application or service that was designed using flat techniques, but for the most part, flat design is “design ego” kissing itself for the sake of kissing and being kissed.

    Lastly — I have even been seeing designers use flat design techniques to imply drop shadows and highlights, etc… Flat design isn’t even happy with itself!

    Long live Layer Effects!

    0
  32. 1837

    The how do I make my page look that of a Google+

    0
  33. 1888

    The world’s foremost usability expert calls flat design a threat: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/tablet-usability/

    0
  34. 1939

    What can I say. The author totally overlooked or simply lacks all manner of historical knowledge related to modernism and related historical references. This article is nothing more than an attempt to support a well understood graphic style for a meaningful migration of design theory and practice. Get a grip and read up on design history.

    There is not a shred of reliable research that supports the authors supposition that there is a quest for simplicity in design. In fact large sample consumer studies have shown over and over that consumers prefer skeuomorphic solutions over flat graphic design solutions. The only group that periodically seeks simplicity are DESIGNERS (caps intended). The current trend in FLAT design is nothing more than another graphic style and has nothing to do with the larger historical trend of modernism. Finally, your cited references tell the story. None of them map onto the topic you attempt to address in this post.

    Charles L Mauro CHFP
    President / Founder
    MauroNewMedia

    0
  35. 1990

    I deeply lament the move away from Victorian-era architecture. Anybody who has been to both New York and London understands that while London is beautiful for its historically authentic buildings, New York is a cesspool of gross and unimaginative shapes. If simplicity were beautiful, then the concrete blocks of the Soviet Union apartments would be architectural and artistic wonders. Instead they are soulless and hideous blemishes of a people systematically prevented from enjoying creative thought and freedom.

    Modernism was and is as much political as it is some allegedly objective means of changing the status quo. It was a response to centuries of monarchy and hierarchy. But of course it simply replaced the system with a new status quo. When that failed to prevent the atrocities of World War 2, Postmodernism was born. And this too was a sham that became the new staple of a new status quo, one that insisted it was not the status quo. Yet anybody who took a college English class between 1970 and 2005 knew otherwise.

    0
  36. 2041

    “Today, we’re seeing the same desire for authenticity manifest itself in the “flat” trend, which rejects skeuomorphism and excessive visuals for simpler, cleaner, content-focused design.”

    What’s next? I didn’t like flat when it was budding, now that it’s in full bloom I find everything distasteful. I wasn’t too keen on “aqua-styling” everything, but c’mon where’s the joy in a bunch of flat squares? I’ve eaten enough mushrooms to know that things look better with at least a gradient.

    0
  37. 2092

    “Today, we’re seeing the same longing for realness show itself in the “level” pattern, which rejects skeuomorphism and extreme visuals for less complex, cleaner, substance centered configuration.”

    I didn’t prefer even when it was sprouting, now that its in full sprout I discover everything disagreeable. I wasn’t excessively excited about “water styling” everything, yet c’mon where’s the delight in a group of even squares? I’ve consumed enough mushrooms to realize that things turn better with toward minimum a slope.http://www.escortbayan1001.com

    0
  38. 2143

    Robert, they vary. It’s up to the authors. Many with the letters coming up are handwritten, or hand-notated, it’s about half and half. Though most with the first letters were typed. The fourth letter was a comic.

    0
  39. 2194

    Design is continually in a state of flux between the heavily ornamented and the austere. At any one moment in time, it is somewhere in the continuum. Our eyes tire of seeing the same thing. Too far to the austere side becomes cold and unfeeling, and we begin to add the human, artistic elements back in. We move in that direction until eventually it becomes overdone, we tire of it all and want a clean sweep. So begins the move toward simplification, which eventually goes too far and so the cycle repeats. As in most things, it is all about balance. Authentic design with enough artistic element to make it human, to make us relate to it and feel at home with it, this is the ideal to me.

    All of this said, I am finding some of the current design to fail on the task of authenticity- because, authenticity should mean, form follows function. If the site is cluttered and it is hard for the eyes to separate elements into meaningful sections and to find what is needed, then function has actually been abandoned in favor of form. And this is how things become too extreme. Always test usability first. It should be easy for the user to find the information that is needed and to access it.

    Excellent article, I enjoyed it much!

    0
  40. 2245

    This doesn’t have to be political, and making it so is way oversimplifying the issue.

    “Flat” design is a consequence of a larger movement (note: not the same as a trend). Just as the International/Swiss Style was a branch of modernism, “Flat” design is a branch of a new wave of modernism. It’s important to mention here because its an extrapolation on a larger thesis.

    The point is that a digital interface is just that — digital — and pretending it’s something else is dishonest and inauthentic. Honesty and authenticity in design is a tenant that’s been with us for well over a half-century, and it’s only now that UI design is finally wrangling with that issue in a major way.

    3
  41. 2296

    undecorated, sure, plain… maybe but definitely not simple.

    0

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