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Authentic Design

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 Link

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 Greifeneder)

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 building3
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 teapot4
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 Link

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 15
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 Vista6
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 calendar7
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 screen8
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 interfaces9
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 Link

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 lamp10
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 Link

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 UI11
The Flat UI12 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 201313
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 Link

The Rise14 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 app15
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 Link

  • 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)


Footnotes Link

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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.

  1. 1

    Fergus Hadley

    July 16, 2013 12:51 pm

    Brilliant piece. Web design is so often viewed as divorced from real-world design but this piece brought everything together in an informative and well-thought-out way. Thank you.

  2. 2

    That is one hell of a post! I got more confident in designing and enlightened the way ahead.

    Thank you!

    • 3

      James Bryant

      July 17, 2013 5:22 pm

      There’s nothing enlightening about the fact that the author completely ignored over half a century of postmodernism, not to mention the end of modernism ( to validate his point of view.

      This is not an article about design, it is an article about style.

      • 4

        antonio starnino

        July 18, 2013 3:31 pm

        James, Pruitt-Igoe, didn’t bring about the end of simpler architectural, graphic and industrial design principles, it brought about the end of the religion of Modernism. The aesthetics that modernism created still persist today. The analogy between the shift from ornamental in both the beginning of the 20th century and now the beginning of the 21st, is a valid one. Post modernism, came as a reaction not FOR the ornamental but against the cult of modernism that had entranced designers in a strict-reductive mindset. If you look at the work of Mies van der Rohe, even today his buildings are subject to set restrictions (People who live in Westmount Square in Montreal cannot have different color exterior blinds they must all remain white

        Post Modernism, characterized by ‘Less is a bore’ was more about lifting the restrictions of Modernism has so adamantly set, and embracing themselves in exploring different forms, colors and shapes. But it took decades before reaching this point and it only came after Modernism had not given up its rather strict ideology. So your right he might not have mentioned post-modernism because the digital world hasn’t experienced it’s “post-modern” period yet, its still working on exploring the current shift, which when used in context is very much still “form follows function”.

        Of course you never fully explained why he should have talked about Post-modernism, so your welcome to do so :)

        • 5

          James Bryant

          July 19, 2013 7:16 am

          I agree with most of what you said Antonio, when I say end of Modernism I mean, how you elegantly put it, the end of it’s ‘strict-reductive mindset’. Postmodernism is essentially an extension of Modernism, I wouldn’t disagree. It’s not a case of one or the other.

          I think drawing a parallel between the Victorian and Modern design/architecture and the current state of digital design is pointless. But I’ll entertain that thought for a moment, do you think it would be worth mentioning postmodern architecture if that’s the narrative the author has decided to take?

          It feels like either the author was completely unaware or just ignored it entirely because it goes against most of the points he tries to make in favour of ‘digital authenticity’.

          We live in a postmodern world. We live in a global culture that uses symbolism, reappropriation, metaphors, simulacra and metonyms everyday, all of which are traits of postmodernity, so yes I think it’s worth a mention if the Author is talking about modernism as if it’s the current state of collective design culture.

          I much prefer David Barnard’s point of view –

          I just wish the term ‘digital authenticity’ would go the way of the Pruitt Igoe.

          PS Both of those calculator examples are skeuomorphs! A better example would be Soulver by

          • 6

            Antonio Starnino

            July 20, 2013 2:48 am

            I understand your perspective. In the context of this article however, I believe he was only really making the comparisons on the basis of design maturity, and not necessarily by any aesthetics. He used Flat Design as an example but I think the comparison points just shows how, similar to early 20th century, we are entering into a time where we are shedding any superfluous design not only because its a trend but as part of a greater philosophy behind developing digital design principles that will hopefully aid the user and not detract. So looking beyond the atheistic but also at the functionality. For example the “Form Follows Function” adage in modern design helped modernists design products that were inspired by their core functionality and context, that then allowed the form to be dictated by that. The example of Rise is a good example of this, in a more contemporary, digital, context.

            So using this we are still entering a more “Modernist” phase in digital design maturity. What this phase will be called in the design history books is still to be determined (hopefully not flat), but once we begin to start to be comfortable designing with core context and functionality in mind I believe as designers will be more able to extend beyond that and really push the type of boundaries post-modernists tried to achieve.

            Now if your talking about a greater design culture, it begins to get more complicated. We aren’t just the remnants of Post-Modernism we are starting to embrace a number of design philosophies that date across multiple time periods. Yes our “remix” culture closely resembles post-modernism, but there is a whole other side to design (and even digital design now) that pulls from the art’s and crafts movement of william morris. The A & C movement’s main philosophy was largely against mass production embedded into design, to create something that is well crafted and unique. So the “Slow” movement can be seen as extensions of this and has become as engrained into the wider contemporary design culture as post-modernism has today.

            In sum, it’s not that I think he chose to ignore it, it’s just that for the purpose of his point, it makes sense. If we wanted to examine greater design culture than that is a more complicated subject to try to examine.

          • 7

            James Bryant

            July 20, 2013 5:59 am

            I think to compare recent digital design to that of the Morris A&C movement is superficial and short-changes all the great design thinking that preceded this article. I can see how you could compare Morris & Co’s exuberant attention to detailed textile design with some recent designers’ penchants for visually rich applications, but that’s where similarities end. Morris & Co weren’t using those design elements to communicate ideas, affordance and leverage symbology. I think today’s digital design (especially skeuomorphism) makes much more sense when it is analyzed within the context of postmodernity. Championing flat/minimalist/reductionist design will lead you back to the same pitfalls that is inherent in modernist thinking.

            Design decisions should be guided by the pursuit of what is best for the user/human, not the medium. Most times those two goals are aligned, but when they aren’t, and you choose to make decisions that favour the medium over the user, to me that is classic modernist thinking and a poor design choice.

            I really don’t like to be so negative about someone’s article, it’s well written and I’m sure Dmitry put a lot of time and energy into it. Along the way he does make some valid points related to good design and judging by his work, he is a good designer. The absence of PoMo when discussing modernism and ignoring the lessons we learned as a collective culture is a glaring omission that should be addressed.

            Lastly, as others have also pointed out, the word ‘authentic’ is simply divisive and not at all relevant to digital design.

          • 8

            Dmitry Fadeyev

            July 24, 2013 7:14 pm

            Thanks for your comment James, but I think you’re mis-reading what I wrote.

            I explicitly state in the section “Not Minimalism” that I’m not talking specifically about style, but rather about our approach to design (with style being a visible manifestation of that). Your example of Soulvner is excellent. Apple’s calculator is a purely stylistic change, while Soulvner actually rethought the essentials. The stylistic change, however, is a precursor to a more fundamental shift.

            In other words I look at “flat” here a symptom of an underlying condition, a visible outer change. Flat is purely a style, but the reason for it is not a desire for yet another trend, but rather a desire to see what content looks like without a decorative coat. It’s a reaction — a desire to remove the decoration and start working with what’s left. As we then take a look at the naked content we discover that the old solution was guided by an outdated model, so we rearrange and reshape the content, and get something like Soulver for a calculator, or Rise for an alarm clock app. On the digital screen we are no longer bound by the constraints of physical media.

            So in essence we have two threads — outer shifts in style that are purely superficial, and more fundamental changes in our approach to design, a desire to create products that take greater advantage of their digital medium. The two threads intertwine and in my estimation the latest “flat” trend is the indication of the underlying need for better design. The stylistic thread, however, will not stop and keep changing, and I fully expect flat to morph into something else in the future, but if I am correct here, it would not resemble anything physical but will instead be more abstract, more digital.

      • 9

        The long, precise and complete answer has already been given to you by Antonio. I’d like to specify that I completely agree with him and couldn’t explain the point better.

        The short answer, though, is that post-modernism is crap and in no way is it useful to mention for the purpose of this article.
        And, on a personal note, I’m completely fine with people who pretend it never existed.

  3. 11

    Andy Lampert

    July 16, 2013 1:09 pm

    This was just incredible. Thank you so much for taking the time to present your case by comparing with examples in the past. I feel like I have a better understanding of what is to come now that I’ve read this.

  4. 12

    Tristan Peters

    July 16, 2013 1:14 pm

    A good article, but I do take umbrage with your statement surrounding minimalism. True minimalism as determined by the like of Van de Rohe, De Stijl, Rams etc., is not simply an aesthetic style, it is the reduction of all non-essential elements to leave the core in its most functional form. Which is precisely how you have described ‘authentic’ design.

  5. 13

    The subject of design is pretty loose. External factors influence it a lot (time, repetition, usability) etc.There is no hard rule.

  6. 14

    Roberto De Vivo

    July 16, 2013 12:35 pm

    Good insights and i’m glad it reinforces my own take on the issues. This gives me more incentive to promote content over clutter. The Outlook 2013 example is also a good candidate of overdoing it. Simply removing elements and ‘applying’ minimalist style does not a funcional design make. ‘Flatness’ for the sake of being considered modern and hip is completely off the mark IMO.

    • 15

      The desktop UI of Windows 8 contains many examples of overdoing it. The biggest one for me is the drastic reduction of shadows around overlapping windows. It just makes everything look so much more cluttered now as the visual barrier between you active window and the various background windows is gone; making the content of your window get lost in the content of windows with a lower z-depth.

      I think Google and Apple got it right with removing a lot of chrome, but still maintaining some visual hierarchy through shadows.

    • 16

      Marlon Smith

      July 17, 2013 7:37 pm

      I agree.. I don’t think the MS Office guys had time to do something different with the ribbon in Office 2013. So they just flattened it… They hinted at more design problems that need to be tackled in Office but I think the ribbon was just punted.

      It’s a bit difficult to imagine how you would surface those features in a contextually uncluttered way.
      How do you take all those features into the background in a meaningful way?

  7. 17

    This is a very nice article and all.

    But since everybody makes a big fuss about it, I must assume not many have seen a book about design History.
    If you would, you would see, that webdesign follows certain designpatterns which happened also in Architecture, Graphic- and Industrial Design.

    Read a book about Design History and you will see where this goes:
    “Flat” Design as a representation of the “Get rid of the decoration” will be one way to design.
    And there will be Skeuromorphism which positions itself as the “Decoration Desing”.

    And inbetween those two extremes there will be many variations and combinations both authentic and fake.

    • 18

      Jiri Krewinkel

      July 16, 2013 6:57 pm

      This article contains parts of that. It gave the example of architects designing skyscrapers in the 19th century.

  8. 19

    A well written & researched article. A big hand to Dmitry Fadeyev for this wonderful piece.

  9. 20

    Marc Edwards

    July 16, 2013 12:56 pm

    A very nice, well researched and written article, but I can’t say I agree with much of it.

    The recently popularized “flat” interface style is not merely a trend.

    Time will be the best judge of that. I’d suggest it will be seen as a trend. It’s a strong style and easily identifiable, with a large amount of designers mimicking each other.

    You’d have to be pretty courageous to suggest it’s not a trend and that it’s going to be here for a long time. In some respects, it has already morphed into long shadow — depth has begun to make a comeback, even if it’s stylised depth.

    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.

    Why are pixels of the same colour more authentic than pixels of slightly differing colours?

    The result was the flood of garish, low-quality products

    Much like the flood of shameless cookie-cutter duplicates of the current flat design trend.

    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.

    What could be more real-life than the sky itself? It’s as physical as can be — it’s often half our entire view of the world.

    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.

    Are the buttons of a calculator content or controls?

    When minimalism impacts usability, should detail be added?

    Don’t shading, shadows and lighting give a user interface form and depth, aiding a user’s mental model of how the interface might work?

    Those are serious questions. This is a discussion worth having, and I’m glad the article is here. I personally feel that there’s no way I’m going to reduce usability on behalf of superficial cleanliness.

    • 21

      Dmitry Fadeyev

      July 16, 2013 1:26 pm

      Thanks for your comment Marc. You raise great points. Here are some thoughts…

      Time will be the best judge of that. I’d suggest it will be seen as a trend. It’s a strong style and easily identifiable, with a large amount of designers mimicking each other.

      I actually do imply that it’s a trend. The emphasis on the opening sentence should be on the word “merely” — that is, it’s not yet another trend but an outward manifestation of a general direction design is moving towards. I wholly expect the current form of “flat” design to pass, but the characteristics of the trends that follow it will be similar to it — i.e. the aesthetic will be wholly digital.

      Much like the flood of shameless cookie-cutter duplicates of the current flat design trend.

      Oh I agree. I touch on it very briefly in the minimalism section. Some designers arrive at something that looks flat through careful reduction, others merely apply the flat style to a pre-existing design. The latter sort will always keep changing their design to suit the latest fashions, but my thesis here is there is a general direction to these shifts.

      What could be more real-life than the sky itself? It’s as physical as can be — it’s often half our entire view of the world.

      That’s an interesting point. The difference between a sky and a clock is that a clock is actually another interface, whereas the sky is part of our world. Re-creating the sky thus is a mirror on our world, re-creating a physical interface is binding the digital canvas to a solution from another medium.

      Don’t shading, shadows and lighting give a user interface form and depth, aiding a user’s mental model of how the interface might work?

      Yes, which is why I didn’t focus the article on “flat” design, but rather, authentic design. I think flattening an interface for the sake of a style can lead to bad results, like in the Outlook 2013 example. Depth, shadows and background colors are all helpful in making an interface clearer. But just as we can go overboard flattening an interface, we can, and often do, go overboard with mimicking physical interfaces merely for visual interest or for a lack of better ideas. I don’t see “flat” here as an optimal solution, merely an expression of the desire to cut design down to basics, to remove distractions and give the designer room to reinvent the interface on a digital canvas rather than keep mimicking physical counterparts.

      • 22

        Marc Edwards

        July 16, 2013 3:12 pm

        Thanks for the reply.

        Some designers arrive at something that looks flat through careful reduction, others merely apply the flat style to a pre-existing design

        Definitely. The best design is always well considered and thoughtful, no matter the style.

        we can, and often do, go overboard with mimicking physical interfaces merely for visual interest or for a lack of better ideas

        Yep. I think that’s been the case from the beginning of time and will probably be the case for all eternity, for better or worse. Many of iOS 7’s animation features could be considered overboard. It’s gratuitous in a shiny new way, but still embellished with ornamentation — just animation ornamentation.

        Yes, which is why I didn’t focus the article on “flat” design, but rather, authentic design.

        I’m still struggling to understand what authentic design is.

        I’d hope anyone designing anything would strive to empower users in an easily understandable way. Isn’t that our job? Is that authentic? If it is, why mention flat design at all?

        • 23

          Dan Carlton

          July 16, 2013 5:31 pm

          Why does he mention ‘flat design’? Whether or not he’s honest with us, it’s precisely because he is a proponent of it.

        • 24

          > what authentic design is

          Look at Android’s Holo theme.

          The action bar has drop shadow; the button has 1px shadow; the menu also has drop shadow; and, what’s more, the shadows can tell you that there is only one light source throughout the whole system.

          That is one example of authentic design. It looks flat and simple, but it doesn’t delete all the decorations. It keeps necessary ones to make the UI ordered and well-formed, and,,, not boring.

          • 25

            And the Holo theme is not just about the look. The 3D effects and animations are used to communicate. it is not about decoration, but useful affordances.

      • 26

        I beleive android holo design has a good balance between flat and skeuomorphism

      • 27

        That and the sky in this example has a purpose for the user and is not here just for entertainment. In case of mimicking a notepad there is no other use than to entertain the user, the sky in this example tells the users when the clock is set for (day or night).

        I understand that that is what you mean when you use ‘authentic’, design is there only to guide the user.

    • 28

      It should be noted that whilst many “trends” come ago bits and pieces of those styles can remain.

      Whilst it remains to be seen whether the simplistic, minimalistic style will stick around and for how long, we can argue that components of it will last a while.

      Styles in fashion have changed drastically in the past hundred years, and yet people still wear suits and ties and very formal getups for very formal ocassions. Other than the degree to which we present ourselves (we’re not as lavishly dressed as some were back in the 1900s) not much has actually changed in that regard, despite it being a huge trend even in “casual” wear at the time it was created.

    • 29

      There are two aricles I recommend reading:

      “Skeuomorphism’s Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated”


      “The Trend Against Skeuomorphic Textures and Effects in User Interface Design”

      Both article rely on what possibilites you now get with new features in technology and that these features have a great impact over styling interfaces.

  10. 30

    My alma mater university has recently updated their website with a faux-corkboard background and bulbous, glossy navigation buttons. This article really helped me articulate the problem I have with it. I have no problem appropriating textures in my own design, but somehow, on their website, it feels false. And, most interestingly, it feels dated.

  11. 31

    So basically the author suggests to take all the art out design so that you can all become IKEA?

    • 32

      Dmitry Fadeyev

      July 16, 2013 1:30 pm

      I am not supporting the “flat” trend here, merely explaining how and why it came about. Also, I do not think that design should be flat or textureless or boring. The flat trend is a reactive jerk away from excessive skeuomorphism, but design need not be wholly flat when it is disconnected from physical metaphors.

    • 33

      “Flat” as a style can work quite well but it highly depends on what you’re using it for, just the same with flashy pictures and what-not.

      There’s no reason not to consider it, but plenty reasons not to use it. The same applies for all styles.

  12. 34

    A manifestation of the post-digital landscape is the ubiquitous digital device. It is difficult to keep in mind that not so long ago – pre-iPhone – some of the concepts which require a design that communicates (or perhaps better to say connotes) an advanced function would be the mainstream, though we all hoped it would happen.

    The skeuomorphic design phase, crude as it appears to our mature mindsets, was probably a process which needed to be investigated. I am so glad we seem to be emerging from it with our collective design sanity intact.

  13. 35

    Simon Daley

    July 16, 2013 1:23 pm

    Good design will always be imitated. It’s unavoidable. The first person to go down the road of ‘flat design’ was probably pushing boundaries and innovating. The rest of the 100 million flat designs that came afterwards are just copying.

    Designers often imitate (and remix), whereas great designers innovate. Personally I’d rather be of the latter type but (in all honesty) more often fall into the category of imitator. That’s something I am working on.

    The big question for me is, how do you stop a great design from being imitated and thus becoming a trend? For me there is no such thing as timeless design on the web. The person that manages that will be an innovator of the highest degree.

    • 36

      I’m sure most designers would love to be an innovator but wanting and being are two very distinct things.

      We can argue that it’s easier to copy than it is to create but that’s not fair on most designers. A good designer does not simply come to the conclusion that they should use minimalistic styles because they are popular, they come to that decision after looking at potential others and how they would work, and asking themselves why they want to use one style over the other.

      Everything – even the innovative – was based off something at some point. There is nothing truly new in this world, but that’s not a bad thing.

      People should not strive for innovation. Rather, let it find you. People waste years trying to create the next big thing or the newest invention and ultimately fail. Why not hone the craft you currently have and perhaps one day you’ll strike that innovation. Not everyone does, and that should be fine. We are not looked down upon because we did not invent the newest revolution.

      • 37

        Simon Daley

        July 16, 2013 5:41 pm

        Everything – even the innovative – was based off something at some point. There is nothing truly new in this world, but that’s not a bad thing.

        Very true.

        Perhaps my issue is how readily some designers flock to the current trend (whatever that may be at the time) rather than at least trying something out for themselves that perhaps goes against the current grain.

    • 38

      Pierce McConnell

      July 17, 2013 12:14 am

      “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

      • 39

        Simon Daley

        July 18, 2013 2:55 pm

        Design is not art

        • 40

          Art and design are very closely tied together and, more often than not, firmly overlap. Design can be art. Art can be design.

          Semantics aside, the point of Pierce’s comment intended as a quoted analogy was ignored.

  14. 41

    The problem I have with many “authentic apps” is the lack of visual clues to the user, it makes them hard to use on an occasional basis.

    Rise is a great example, so too is Clear. They completely rely on swipe gestures and the users ability to remember which does what. It’s even more confusing if you use a range of the apps that rely on gestures rather than visual clues.

    Rise might look pretty, but for simple usability the native iphone alarm wins.

  15. 42

    Although this article seems to be well-written, it completely glosses over the specific reason for the recent trend: power preservation on battery-powered devices. The visual extras cause the device’s CPU to do more work (and use more battery power).

    • 43

      Does it really conserve any battery power? How does a bitmap drawn with a faux beveled edge and some faux gloss consume less resources than a bitmap without those things?

      • 44

        I’m not sure what he’s talking about with battery consumption but in web design specifically it actually has to do with bandwidth and page speed. The last few years have seen a surge of optimization when building websites and web apps. People are finally taking things like caching, compression, CDNs, sprites, and a load of other things seriously and with extremely minimal design comes the ability to build with purely CSS rather than images, and that will cut down your total footprint quite a bit. Pages load faster, friendlier for users with a weak signal, and are liked better by search engines.

        Whether “flat” is a good or bad thing, or either, I cannot say at this point. It seems like a case-by-case basis.

      • 45

        The answer is that you don’t have to use a bitmap in many cases.

        You therefore have:

        * Smaller package size
        * Smaller download
        * Less energy to launch app
        * No energy needed to decompress bitmap
        * No runtime storage (ram) for decompressed raster
        * No cpu or gpu texture lookup when drawing screen items (no ram access)
        * No energy needed to free the bitmap data structures from memory

        There are probably a few more advantages I have missed, but you get the general idea.

  16. 46

    Dimitris Kottas

    July 16, 2013 2:40 pm

    I find the word “authentic” to be a bit vague as a basis for a design philosophy. As the author has noted the characterization of “flat” design as “authentic” comes from the Windows 8 marketing, so as with most marketing language it sounds beautiful but it doesn’t mean much.

    It is really difficult to determine what an authentic digital aesthetic would be and it is not strange that the author himself only manages to define what it should NOT be. It could be argued that the most “authentic” digital style is the browser,s rendering of clear html without any styling, Times New Roman at 16 pixels, blue underlined links, etc… But we all understand that this is not only ugly but very difficult to use or even read. At the point where one has decided to turn navigation from a bulleted list of blue underlined links to a series of rectangles with centered uppercase text the big step towards making navigation links look like buttons has already been taken. The further styling of these rectangles seems quite a secondary issue.

    I think that the problem starts with embracing uncritically the modernist rhetoric against ornament. Digging a little deeper in contemporary interpretations of art history one finds that most art historians today understand that ornament in most forms of pre-modern art was not “mere” decoration. Ornament is a carrier of meaning , in many cases it is what makes a mundane object meaningful (and therefore a work of “art”).

    Modernist attacks on ornament are not always “honest”, since in many cases they misrepresent the object that they criticize, and almost never politically and ideologically innocent. Adolf Loos himself considered ornamentation to be a favorite of primitive people (non-Europeans) and women. (It was the white male architects who designed the white unornamented modernist houses).

    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.

    Here is the main issue and not in flatness versus skeuomorphism. “Features that make a product appear familiar or desirable” is what most clients want. Not offering them this and instead opting for truth, efficiency and function is a very bold and difficult choice that will affect much more than a button’s background style.

    • 47

      Marc Edwards

      July 16, 2013 2:54 pm

      Great response. I especially like “Ornament is a carrier of meaning, in many cases it is what makes a mundane object meaningful”.

      It’s also worth acknowledging that diversity and exploration are good things, and that different designs require different approaches.

    • 48

      Dmitry Fadeyev

      July 16, 2013 3:54 pm

      Thank you for your comment Dimitris. Here are some thoughts…

      Ornament is a carrier of meaning , in many cases it is what makes a mundane object meaningful (and therefore a work of “art”).

      Of course, but one must be ready to use ornament as ornament, not as trivial decoration, else it ceases its purpose and becomes a distraction on the face of your work. Ornament as ornament in its own right is content, and it can be art. A Gothic cathedral cannot get rid of its decorations because the decorations are the expression of the craftsmen who made it, their attempt to elevate a building from a mere construction to a place of holy communion. The work and the symbols embedded in its walls serve as emotional nourishment, acting as both a visual stimulant and a moral guide. The same with most other forms of architecture and craft, though Gothic stands out most because the “overuse” of ornament here is one of its main characteristics — an excess that makes the style what it is rather than being detrimental to it.

      Before modern times there was no distinction between a craftsman and artist (and the word designer did not exist) — the artist and the craftsman was one and the same — the less skilled working on basic construction, the most skilled working on decoration and art. Mass production completely shattered this dynamic (i.e. you no longer needed all those craftsmen, only manual labour to operate the machines) and its early years led to ornamental excesses as manufacturers capitalized on their new capabilities. I see the Modernist movement as a way to return the artist to the designer, a rethinking of the fundamentals of what made design good, and what would work in the age of mass production. It was not about mere function, it was about transitioning design from an ornamental craft to a craft that focused on content above all else. This gave the new designer ability to once again express themselves in their work, to once again become the artist.

      I am not a Modernist, nor do I even particularly like flat design. I think a lot of modern design is too sterile, and I lament the death of heartfelt ornament. Nevertheless, I recognize the feeling for authenticity in the early pioneers of modern design, as well as its value, and I believe that this same feeling is driving design today towards a more “digitally authentic” look. In this article I’ve tried to contrast the history with today’s trends, and isolate this feeling.

    • 50


      July 16, 2013 4:30 pm

      Great points. I would agree that “authentic” is nonsensical marketing speak — sounds impressive but means nothing. Does the flat aesthetic somehow imply that a website or app is the genuine article, or done in the traditional style? It makes sense to talk about an authentic (i.e. genuine) Apple app or something designed in authentic System 7 style (i.e. it faithfully mimics the original System 7), but where is the original to which we can refer for these supposedly “authentic” designs?

      I think “plain,” “simple,” or “undecorated” would be a better way to characterize this design trend.

    • 51

      I like to add that ornaments initially also had a function:
      The best example of Ornamental Usability I know of is the plastering
      “German: Stukkatur” (I guess that’s not the correct english word for it).

      The «Stukkatur» was added to rooms because the were not very exact and there were cracks at always the same places. (The ceiling, the edges of the room…)

      So the builder covered this with “Stukkatur” and therefore used the Ornament as a tool to improve the surface and the room experience.

      I’d say thats a pretty good equivalent to the flat vs. Skeuromorphism design approach.

      Skeuromorphism was needed to let Users experience the Computer in a almost familiar environment. Now that the digital age progresses, real-world methaphors are no longer as needed as they were, so reduced Design starts to kick in. No matter if its authentic or not.

    • 52

      Dimitris Kottas, I honestly couldn’t agree with you more on all points.

      If we were all honest, native browser rendering would be the closest thing to “authenticity” we could get for web design. For myself at least, I do not believe there is such a thing as authentic design for digital devices. We have in our mindsets what we may believe them to be, but in the end it’s a matter of perspective over the “correct” ways of implementing them, either individually or as a collective group.

      Problems come when ornamental is seen as “wrong” and modernism as “right”. Or even vice versa. Tastes in design wax and wane and there are a variety of reasons for the multiples of styles. I would venture to say that modernism and the “flat” designs are an extension of designers wanting to highlight functionality over design in an internet world that was increasingly becoming design-cluttered… and in web design functionality should come first. It’s a movement towards over simplification… but for a time.

      Personally, I doubt that the “flat” design will remain any longer than any other design trend. We all have different tastes and these permeate the core of design trends and movements.

  17. 53

    A very good post i’ve read in recently, the desire for authenticity & authentic design is representing function in optimal form… is well explained. This helps in a whole new approach while designing an application.


  18. 54

    Great article and interesting subject. It’s good to think about these design problems in a broader historical perspective.

    Personally I’m happy with the trend away from -too much- ornamentation. However, I do have my doubts about many of the too-flat designs in websites, apps or software coming out lately. Even as a seasoned web/IT “expert”, it’s often hard to see or understand what elements in an interface are clickable/actionable. Leading to many small frustrating experiences. Accidentally performing actions by clicking things I didn’t know would lead to an action, or the other way not knowing what to do because of lack of affordance of elements.

    • 55

      I think what we’re experiencing is simply growing pains of a new trend. There’s a lot of garbage out there to begin with put out by mediocre designers. History will decide whether that website or app we’re using will still be around. And ultimately good websites/designs should be user-tested on more than just the designer for maximum usability. The bad designs/apps were probably not even tried on a few users. Combine that with “designer’s ego” of their way or nothing at all and we end up with frustrating experiences.

  19. 56

    Erman Kutlu

    July 16, 2013 1:59 pm

    I’m a visual designer and I surprised to see lots of people unlike comments which says “it’s great article, nice touch with researching difference between ‘over design’ and ‘flat/minimal approach’.

    Some of you says we should keep realistic style on visual elements so we could give a feeling if it is a button or content. Well, i’m designer and I have no problem to see that if something functional even if it doesn’t have shadows, textures etc. Simplicity, form-follows-function approach has been there waiting to be rediscovered for years. If you talk about copying real life style, look at products with higher quality. I’m not saying they all flat or minimal or whatever you defend it is just a trend. I’m saying it’s been there and it will be for ages because it is still functional and after having a big bite people doesn’t care about shiny corners of their washing machine and start to pay attention how easily it fits with their our households (built in) and how slick they look like even they are dirty (matte).

    Some says we have IKEA style when we remove those fancy details. I’m not sure what is wrong about IKEA’s style direction (but I can say yeah, some of their products are definitely shitte!)

    Vintage and retro style was more popular in last years then now and there was lots of minimal/clean website there (Nordic websites I refer). It was a sign that they were coming to overhaul web and mobile design and they did. Some of you don’t like it and you don’t have to but most of us are living in cities and it is easy to forget how simple things could be the most useful things while we standing in a mess.

    It is a good article and summarizes my thoughts and questions after having spent 10 years in design.

    • 57

      I would argue the biggest issue with simply reinforcing that it’s a great article is it really offers nothing new to the conversation. When you ask someone to critique your work do you want to tell you you’re good, or offer actual input that you can use?

      Having someone tell you that your work is good is fantastic. Having them tell you why is better.

      Lots of people actually struggle with that last part. They understand they enjoy (or dislike) something, but they can’t figure out why.

  20. 58

    Being a developer and not a designer, I do find this post pretty interesting. I have to agree with some of the comments about “Flat” being a trend. The rise of this style was so quick and prevalent that it seems pretty obvious to me. Like cheap fashion knock-offs or cookie cutter, low quality musicians (I’m looking at you Justin Beiber) who’s only purpose is to tap that trend and fatten their owner’s pockets.

    One point I find really interesting is how it appears Microsoft starts or at least is the first large player to take a new design direction. Now with their Metro design, the flat design has gone mainstream. Leave it to Apple though to improve and refine it.

    Ahhh….what do I know anyway! I’m a developer. Back to my cage.

    • 59

      As a developer, your input is still really important to a designer! As both, (sort of) I know the more complicated (sometimes ornate) a site gets, the more involved the developer has to be in order to get the site working or even functioning with it’s design. The ‘Flat’-ter or even more minimal the design, I would assume, the easier it is to develop or get functioning, since you are throwing away the extra fat that needs to be tended to in the development.

      I may be visualizing this in my head a bit differently, but when I would get a Flat design as opposed to a more Ornate design, I always enjoyed (or maybe not enjoy, felt more comfortable?) coding and assembling the Flat design website over that of the other. It’s visually easier to see what I am translating.


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