Let’s Stop Talking About Flat Design, Shall We?

When iOS 7 was first introduced, the buzzword heard most often around the water cooler was “Flat design.” Apparently, someone decided that iOS 7 had certain design aesthetics that made it look more flat than iOS 6, and therefore, that was the way people should start designing their apps.

Thing is, iOS 7 isn’t flat, per se. In fact, it’s quite layered and nuanced, and those that talk about it being flat are just being lazy writers and repopping what other tech luminaries said from the start. How so? Well let’s get into it.

Like the article? You should subscribe and follow us on twitter.

Unnecessary Labels

It started with the skeumorphism concept made so popular in the Jobs era of Apple. I don’t recall quite when it became such a solid buzzword, but I seem to recall it becoming a big deal with OS X Lion and the iPad. With the iPad, the concept was to design apps that looked and felt like the physical objects they were emulating. Therefore, a notes app looked like a notepad, a calendar like a calendar, etc. “Skeumorphism,” the press called it, and then it was repeated ad nauseam for the next couple of years. I’ve even written it myself a few dozen times.

There was a big backlash against the convention, particularly with OS X Lion. The little pieces of torn fringe along the top of the stock Calendar app was (and is, since it’s still in Mountain Lion) ridiculous looking, and the green felt in Game Center on iOS just looked like Apple didn’t truly understand how people gamed. It was bad.

And so, we all started looking for alternatives. Windows Mobile had its Metro UI, and the tech press seemed to love it — even though no one would admit to actually owning one of the devices. And everyone loves Android’s UI, it just depends on which particular flavor of candy treat the device happens to run, plus whatever other vendor-owned bloatware was installed.

Solutions and Problems

The solution was iOS 7, a complete rethink of everything that iOS has been since its outset. Upon first glance, people were downright shocked at how “flat” it appeared. Suddenly, the buzzwords started to change. Now it’s iOS 7’s “flat UI,” and how polarizing that would be. And everyone was saying it all at once. It seemed that no one would ever be able to get the dang thing right, no matter who was involved.

If it was flat, you wouldn't have the blurred out layers behind the opaque box.

If it was flat, you wouldn’t have the blurred out layers behind the opaque box.

I’m not a designer, nor am I a UI specialist. Thing is, iOS 7 isn’t flat, not even in the slightest. And all it takes for you to figure that out is to use an iPhone with the operating system installed and you’ll get it right off the bat.

Nuanced and Specific

Look at any iOS 7 app, from Facebook to Contacts and everything in between, and you’ll see that it’s about layers of content that interact with each other. For example, if you have the parallax function turned on, you can watch the layers shift and move as you tilt your iPhone or iPad back and forth. As you scroll through that Facebook feed, you can watch the text from one entry go underneath another. And in Siri, Control Panel and Notification Center, the windows go opaque and the content behind it blurs out. Heck, it’s even in the lock screen if you pay attention.

But the argument could be made that “flat” refers to the icons and their designs. The Settings app is a good example; the old version had depth and shading, whereas the current version has no depth at all. It seems that this is the flat design that everyone is referring to, right?

Again, more depth.

Again, more depth.

Again, “flat” may be what Apple uses, but that’s not been the rule with other apps at all. MLB At Bat still sports a gradient in the background, and the Music app does as well. Safari has a flat appearance, but there’s still depth to the overall look of the icon. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

So to call the operating system flat is a broad generalization based on a few factory icons. Since there are so many other nuanced changes and options throughout the system, flat doesn’t even begin to accurately describe the way it really functions. Again, it’s layered, not flat.

Opinions Noted

There’s another factor in play here as well. Although this is how the system is today, things will change. App designers will adjust their apps to look similar to what Apple’s own aesthetics are, plus they will play around with how it works in general. It took a bit for people to figure out everything pre-iOS 7, and that will happen again now that the latest OS is out in the wild.

What this all comes down to are versions of extremes. Skeumorphism was rampant pre-iOS 7, and that meant that everyone’s icons, apps and layouts all had some kind of lean towards a realistic feel. Now we have iOS 7, which leans heavily the other direction, which makes it feel like it’s flat. In comparison, yes, it is quite flat. But to call it flat as a generalization? No, that’s just incorrect.