User interface (UI) design has truly seen it all, but what it has been swarmed by in recent years is the classic, two-dimensional look of flat design. It is inevitable that if you’ve been on the internet in the past decade, you’ve come across the simple shapes and forms of what defines this era in UI design, leaving the clutter, detailing and shadows on the back benches. Memorable with its bold and solid colour, as well as extremely transferable because of its simplistic nature, flat design is what brands have been relentlessly indulging in, not only for simple logos, but also for more complicated brand messaging. We have all seen the flat animations of the people that don’t necessarily look like people, with their long wide limbs, that Meta used for a hot minute. Finding its first big break in the Windows 8 tiles, flat design quickly spread to Apple and Google and replaced complicated logos - such as the old film camera logo of Instagram - with more uncomplicated ones.
But what was once the biggest advantage of flat design - transferability to a wide range of mediums - might be taking a step back with the arrival of web3. As the screens, sites and touchpoints that brands need to show up in proliferate, and understanding of accessibility develops, brands’ logos and visual assets are constrained by an ever-growing list of tight guidelines. Flat design undoubtedly continues to rage in popularity, but how are designers approaching the challenge of creating distinctive brands while navigating the new constraints - and are we likely to see the end of it anytime soon?
JoRoan Lazaro, executive creative director at Jam3 thinks that upon reflection, “the idea of creating distinctive brands through the use of a popular visual design trend like flat design is not so intriguing to [him].” JoRoan comes from a background of design for emerging technologies, so constraints like the requirement for greater accessibility, are welcomed as opportunities to ‘do better’ rather than something that can trip up the process. “Identifying limits and restrictions becomes the genesis of companies,” he says.
JoRoan continues, “Over time, brands are created from innovative solutions to problems. They are defined by the experience they deliver. I struggle with considering them as limited to a singular dimension of a traditional logo and toolkit of visual assets. When attempting brand distinction primarily through visual design, designers can fall into the trap of ‘pursuing originality’. But most people don’t want extreme uniqueness - they are comfortable with conventional, broadly accepted and familiar. Flat design, at least in digital, lives neatly into this category since perhaps 2006.”
To him, there is no doubting the fashionable nature of two-dimensional approach. “Wave after wave of indie food and beverage brands, as well as the unstoppable surge of independent beauty brands, have driven flat design into the hearts, minds and homes of millions,” he continues, “A quick survey of tech companies’ approach to their logos as they became larger and more successful, could gently be described as more… generic. This has happened in fashion as well. Looking at you, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Burberry and Balmain! Flat design in its popularity and ubiquity has become… conventional. And that’s OK.” But he is instead more interested in looking at where design innovation is possible and going ahead full force, such as Apple’s experience as the ‘strongest brand in history’, continuing to be fortified from its biggest brand experiences to its smallest details.
“For example, Apple’s accessible library of symbols, SF Symbols 3, won 2022’s only [D&AD] Yellow Pencil for Type Design. 600 new symbols that are significantly more accessible while perfectly matched with the San Francisco system font,” explains JoRoan. “Their solution to achieve better accessibility resulted in literally more distinctive design (easier to identify and read). And in turn, its repetition and global use, adds to the overall distinction of the Apple brand and how its customers and users experience it. Subtle, but for the better.
That, for me, is more interesting than visual trends that may come and go. Or settle comfortably into the conventional.”
Zeb Barrett, VP of strategy at Pigeon also agrees that there is a monopoly of flat design over brands but remains firm that building a distinctive brand is so much more than its logo. The process of bringing that distinctiveness to life is dependent on an array of tools, such as the product, the pack, the digital and analogue experience, the retail environment, the communications, the content, and many others. To him, the current wave (or tide, since it seems to have been going on for more than a decade now) of flat designing is the result of “designing to the lowest common denominator.”
He continues, “Yes, we have digital real-estate that limits design… but that has always been true. Designers have always created versions of marks to be used in the worst-case scenario…historically newsprint. This is the value of working with designers who can think in systems. In recent years some clients and designers have shied away from creating the best version of the brand in favour of the version that works everywhere without augmentation.” But the pendulum will inevitably swing back, says Zeb, and soon again we will be seeing branding designed with assets that work best in the environments they were specifically designed for.
Neil Evely, head of business at SUPERBRIGHT, a studio that spends 99% of its time designing experiences in 3D spaces, agrees with Zed on flat design often being the safest option from a brand perspective, but brings a very crucial point into the conversation. “[Flat design] can be applied to fulfil most briefs or requirements even if it’s not really suitable or not adventurous. We are (if we believe everything we read) on the cusp of the digital and physical world colliding via virtual, mixed and augmented realities, and yet we continue to see design in these spaces, especially user interaction (UI) continuing to retreat to the same old ways of working.”
Neil gives the example of Meta trying to emulate the keyboard and computer screen within virtual reality, which to him is an approach that might not push design thinking out of the box, although it remains a way to help convince the less technically savvy to try something new while still remaining comfortably snuggled in their own zone. “Brands have to start thinking three dimensional right out of the box. Replicating flat posters in gaming and virtual worlds is lazy (although easy) and will not engage with your customers and users.” This is why at SUPERBRIGHT, Neil’s team recognises that there is a lot still left to build on top of flat design, but they do that while still enhancing it by using all the tools at their disposal “in order to make and engaging experience that is both unique and familiar.”
Lee Hoddy, executive creative director at Conran Design Group, argues that flat design is actually better described as ‘digitally-conscious design’, as it's a direct response to the digital new world order and the way consumers behave today. “Flat logo design makes perfect sense for digital - it is easily readable on backlit screens, scalable and flexible, and easily reformatted for multiple aspect ratios and devices. But how do you create distinctive brands using flat design,” asks Lee. “Beyond not distilling your brand so much you lose its essence, it’s about looking at how you might harness other elements of the brand experience,” he explains, building on what JoRoan and Zeb previously explained. “For example, in auto, the move to flat design might be swift and absolute - but the potential to layer in sound gives brands a real chance to differentiate.”
But apart from auto, for Lee it is also the shift to web3 that will offer a challenge. Except, he sees that challenge as more of an opportunity. “This is our chance to layer in sounds and textures,” he says. “The metaverse and virtual reality will completely change how they present themselves in an immersive virtual world - we’re likely to see a return to 3D, with a focus on holographs and texture and not just what logos look like, but what they feel like too. That’s the next big shift that will change the way brands think about design, and it will come around faster than you might think. And like flat design, it will be entirely driven by the technology around us, and the way consumers interact with it.”
It is evident that either as a challenge or opportunity, web3 is presenting itself as the biggest counterpart to the oh-so-loved cross-platform transferability of flat design. That, and originality, or the increasing need for it in a world where everything looks the same in its strive for differentiation. And while constraints have always been a thing in the design world, the real challenge is to stay unique despite the fact that everybody now works with the same constraints. “Currently, it means our challenge is often to give a brand depth in an otherwise flat landscape by introducing personality through other aspects of visual identity,” says Chris Dooley, executive creative director and partner at Brand New School. Without originality, according to him, homogenization of brands is inevitable under a universal umbrella of guidelines.
Those that stand out will be those that have imbued their design with authenticity and specificity. “It’s not a coincidence that the biggest creative paradigm shifts happen when an artform becomes stagnant or predictable,” says Chris. “The designers making great work are thinking about the same problems, but in new ways.” And sometimes these problems can be abstract, like how to visually introduce the world to an original piece of technology, or practical such as an ‘ambitious schedule, a challenging budget, or multiple delivery formats and accessibility. With brands moving from devices to the virtual space, some of the current emerging problems concern resolution and scale, and Chris explains that they could be replaced with volume and illumination. Ultimately, to him these evolving constraints will always shape the success of a project or design.
To Geoff Donegan, executive creative director at Tank Design, there is undoubtedly something timeless about flat design. It being inspired by important fundamentals such as form, simplicity and functionality, makes it untouchable by trends or style changes. He reminds us that some of the ‘very best’ designs are flat - identities that have stood the test of time, logos like FedEx, IBM and Massimo Vignelli’s American Airlines logo. Geoff finds the reason for their timelessness in their bold simplicity, but also in the technology at the time of their creation. “As a designer, my personal preference leans toward flat, namely because of that simplicity,” he says, but is firm that we should not forget about the importance of dimensionality and skeuomorphism (which is the predecessor of flat), particularly when designing digital experiences. “Generally speaking, too much of anything can be a bad thing. Being too flat in digital may hinder understanding, yet being too skeuomorphic can be a mess, as we saw on the web 10 or 15 years ago,” says Geoff. “Good design is always well balanced and effective.”
He continues, “That likely means that flat design will persevere, however the best digital work will always be judged on the authenticity of its brand experience and whether or not it’s delivered with simplicity, clarity and good usability. Accessibility is vital for an equitable future. It’s good that we are becoming more fluent in it but there’s always more we can do. We can make experiences better by making them more accessible and more creative at the same time - ultimately, more visceral and resonant. As with all design, we’re only limited by our imagination and our willingness to invent.”