Design Trends: Fancy vs. Flat

Posted July 8, 2013, under Vocabularama

While many debates in the design world are over technical minutiae (which is better: Helvetica or Arial?), one argument is ongoing that affects everyone with a smartphone or tablet, and could change how we interact with our devices.

Yes, there really is a word for that

You’re probably familiar with the concept of computer interfaces having elements that look like their “real world” counterparts (folders, trash cans, etc.). These started out fairly basic; but as computers evolved, so did the interface design, eventually giving us yellow, ruled electronic notepads, or an app that wouldn’t seem out of place in Chevy Chase’s houseboat from the late-’70s.

The fancy-pants term for this design philosophy is “skeuomorphism” (1889; < Greek skeû ( os ) vessel, implement + –o– + –morph, form, structure).

It doesn’t take much; all you need are some shadows or highlights and you’ve got skeuomorphism: introducing depth into a medium that actually has none.


In the other corner

But do we still need metaphors to use computers? Sure, we’ve got an interface that can be mastered by the diaper demographic, but computers have now been mainstream longer than some adults have been alive. They’re not weird anymore. (Computers, that is. The adults may still be weird.)

So along comes “flat design,” with an aesthetic emphasis on function over frills. This is well illustrated in the current iteration of Windows.


More examples of flat design.

Even Apple, the pioneer of skeuomorphism, is edging toward flatter design, as seen in the designs of iOS 7.


“Cool story bro, but what’s that got to do with me?”

If nothing else, knowing there are options and realizing one can go too far in either direction. Too much ornamentation is considered ostentatious by some; too little might seem boring. Or one can walk the middle ground, as Google has done.