Design Trends: Fancy vs. Flat Part II

Posted July 31, 2013, under Gee Whillickers!

In Part I, when we were talking about the current trend toward simplicity in UI design – so-called “Flat Design” – we’d bet good money that many of you caught a strong whiff of deja-vu. Only to be expected, because this cycle of ornamentation giving way to more reductive approaches has been seen in virtually every art form in our culture.

What’s Old Is New Again – Again

There are always artists pushing the envelope as far as they can into complexity and nuance – and there are always other artists deciding that “all of that crap makes my eyes bleed and why does my chair have to have frolicking woodland creatures on it?” So the cycle is an evolution into considerable complexity and detail, followed by a reaction against that complexity and toward greater elegance and simplicity.

Examples abound! Here are some, in broad strokes:

Architecture is perhaps the most obvious, what with involving whole buildings.

Painting has got to be the best documented; the trend away from detailed realism arguably reached its peak in the mid-20th Century.

Even music has followed this trend. The numbers required for a band have gone from hundreds, to perhaps a dozen, to three or even fewer, as reflected by the resulting output.

It’s worthy of note that the cycle is accelerating. Earlier instances of this “complexity to simplicity” cycle spanned centuries. But people today just don’t have time for that. The “music” example could have been, “Elvis Presley to Jon Bon Jovi to Jonathan Coulton.” It could’ve used three other artists in the ’60s alone. There are individual performers who have gone through that cycle in their careers.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the design world, perhaps because designers are, by training and inclination, often acutely aware of what has gone before. And, in the back of our minds, we know what happens next: Every previous cycle, the outcome was something new; something people had to coin terms to describe. Given how fast the wheel is turning these days, it shouldn’t be long before we find out what that is.