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Design

Your guide to using flat design

4 min read
Emily Esposito  •  Dec 27, 2018
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Say goodbye to animation and flashy, 3D effects. There’s a new trend in town: flat design.

Flat design is a simple, two-dimensional approach prioritizing functionality and minimalism in order to enhance the user experience. Flat design isn’t perfect; there are some UX concerns that arise with two-dimensional design, but those imperfections have made way for newer iterations of flat design.

In this post, we’ll discuss about what flat design is, its pros and cons, best practices, and more. Let’s dive in.

What is flat design?

Flat design is a minimalist design style using two-dimensional elements and bright colors made popular with the release of Windows 8, Apple’s iOS 7, and Google’s Material Design. It has two main objectives: to work within the screen’s parameters, and to use this simplicity to streamline design and make websites faster and more functional.

Flat design is considered a response to the problems of skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphic design is an object that has unnecessary, ornamental features mimicking the real world. Because you have to accommodate real-world standards that are irrelevant in the digital world, skeuomorphism can limit creativity and functionality, as well as take up valuable screen space and increase loading time.

Flat design, on the other hand, embraces the idea that nothing on the screen will ever look three-dimensional or life-like, and instead focuses on beauty and functionality without adding illusory decoration.

Pros and cons of flat design

Flat design is all about the idea that less is more. Rather than distracting the user with animations or overly complicated illustrations, flat design prioritizes a clean interface with maximum usability.

The benefits of flat design include:

  • Minimalism
  • Emphasis on functionality versus embellishment
  • Simple shapes and elements
  • Bold and readable typography
  • Strict visual hierarchy
  • Bright colors and contrast to support usability

However, flat design isn’t perfect: the number one issue with flat design is the absence of familiar user cues. The lack of 3D effects, like drop shadows, takes away the visual cues that show how users should interact with the design. For example, buttons in flat design style look the same as any other element—without a shadow to identify it as a button, it doesn’t appear clickable.

Designers are getting around this danger with an approach called “flat design 2.0,” “semi-flat,” or “almost flat,” which takes the simple visuals from flat design and adds some subtle skeuomorphic qualities, like shadows, highlights, and layers.

Examples of flat design

Here are five real-life examples of flat design, from traditional, two-dimensional design to today’s interpretation of flat design 2.0.

Microsoft 8

Microsoft 8’s Metro-UI is one of the most popular example of flat design taken to the extreme, with no hint of three-dimensional features.

Google Santa Tracker

Google’s annual Santa Tracker embraces flat design 2.0, with subtle gradients and shadows on the buildings and pop-up bubbles that appear when you hover over different elements.

DoneDone, bug and issue tracker

This issue tracking software also evokes flat design 2.0, thanks to color gradients and shadows.

Lander, landing page builder

Another example of traditional flat design, Lander opts for two-dimensional depictions of real-life objects.

Best practices for using flat design

Flat design works best when you think about the wants and needs of your users, rather than letting pure visual aesthetic make the decisions. Whether you forgo effects altogether or add subtle shadows and color gradients, flat design should ultimately augment the user experience.

 

Here are best practices for using flat design:

  • Choose the right fonts: To keep with the minimalist approach of flat design, choose sans-serif fonts. Serif fonts have a small line attached to the end of each stroke, adding needless decoration.
  • Use contrast to your advantage: Use flat design’s bright color palette to ensure that text is clearly legible and noticeable. Light grey font on a dark grey background, for example, is popular in flat design but is hard to read. Instead, go for white font on bold background.
  • Link out related elements: In the absence of 3D effects to indicate clickable buttons, you need to err on the cautious side and link out anything that users would reasonably consider clickable. For example, if you have a number of thumbnail images all presented together, all those elements should lead to the same page.

How to get started with flat design

The best way to experiment with flat design is by designing an icon set. Icons are small and simple by default, often connected to each other with a specific theme. Once you feel comfortable with the flat technique, you can move on to move complicated illustrations.

You can also check out these free resources to help incorporate a flat aesthetic into your next design: