Hyperflat Design is not great Web Design

The trend away from skeuomorphic design toward flat design has in many ways been refreshing and enjoyable. And yet, it’s worth noting that flat can be taken too far, to the detriment of usability. Take for example Microsoft’s modern.ie site — see the commented screenshot below or check it out yourself.

Modern.ie Screenshot
An example of Microsoft taking flat design too far. Usability cues have gone missing.

I would argue they’ve taken interface design hyperflat, and in so doing have left users without important usability hints.

Yes, the gradients and shadows of yesterday have often been overdone. But there is such a thing as subtlety and sophistication, without complete abdication. Used well, gradients, shadows, and hover effects give users important visual cues for navigating your website’s interface more efficiently and effectively.

Letterpress Game Screenshot
Even in this otherwise “flat” design, shadows convey depth and provide visual cues to users.

In other words, if you’re going to make use of flatness in design, do it while still giving your users the visual cues they need. Thus John Gruber has recently written on the topic of flat design:

Letterpress … is a perfect example. It is indeed, mostly flat … But Letterpress does have Z-axis depth: when you drag a letter tile, it pops up and has a drop shadow under it until you place it. There’s nothing “flat” about that. What Letterpress rejects is not depth, but depth as mere decoration. The visual “raising” of a tile as you play it is a natural visual cue, a way of emphasizing what it is you’re moving.

Visual cues are the key here.

Count me in favor of what Matthew Moore has called “almost flat design.” At times Apple has taken its skeuomorphic usability enhancements too far. But Microsoft’s position is worse. I think Moore is right — Google’s interface design gets it just about right.

Google Plus Screenshot
Google’s use of edges, bevels, shadows and hover effects, while not overdone, give users important usability cues.

Of course there are other examples. One I’ve recently enjoyed is Andy Clarke’s recent Stuff & Nonsense redesign. Check out his homepage, and you’ll see some elements that are flat, some with edges, some with shadows. All links and buttons have hover effects, begging to be clicked. Then there’s that one gorgeous button, darn near unavoidable in its lusciousness. (No Skitch arrows needed.)

Andy Clarke Stuff and Nonsense Screenshot
Some flat, some edges, some shadow, all buttons and links with hover effects. And one unavoidably gorgeous button!

What’s going on here? Is it flat or not? With the times? Or behind? One could be forgiven for suspecting that Clarke has subordinated such questions and privileged the point and purpose of the communicative task at hand. While obviously interacting with current trends, the design is enslaved to none of them. Rather it brings past, recent, and current conventions together under the auspices of time-tested and user-empowering design strategies, including visual affordances, interactive feedback, and visual hierarchy.

Clear, straightforward, expressive, and inviting, the design speaks a visual language that is easy to understand and navigate — it looks great to boot — and it leaves no uncertainty about the most important action items on the page.

For my money, that’s great web design.

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