Are flat interfaces a trend towards digital authenticity, or a reality of competing platforms?

Are flat interfaces a trend towards digital authenticity, or a reality of competing platforms?

A lot has been said recently about "skeuomorphism" -- both real skeuomorphism and the design-heavy skins for which it's often confused. There's even been a trend, real and perceived, towards flatter, squarer, more "digitally" authentic operating systems, themes, and apps, often credited to Microsoft's Windows Phone or Google's more recent Android design aesthetic. But is it a backlash against gradients and curves and shadows, or is it something else? Marc Edwards of Bjango argues it might just be something else -- the realities faced by competing hardware.

In interface design, square finished corners are faster, because there’s no masking. Not including shadows is faster, because there’s less compositing. Drawing a flat colour is faster than drawing a gradient. When you have three or six pixel densities, drawing sharp textures is almost impossible, unless you include bitmap assets for every size you’re targeting.

It's not about skeuomorphism or digital authenticity. It's about usability, and performance is part of that equation. No more spoilers -- go read his conclusion.

Source: Bjango

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Are flat interfaces a trend towards digital authenticity, or a reality of competing platforms?


Another thing is that often gradients and shadows are very saturated or as in the case of two-tone gradients in iOS/HTC Sense 2.x-3.x very high contrast. Even on the web where laptops/desktops can handle advanced CSS3, gradient-heavy frameworks such as Twitter Bootstrap appear excessively bold compared to the flatter but more refined/modern Foundation.

I think it's simply a fashion trend; a reaction to the skeuomorphism that was fashionable before and is now frowned upon. That kind of trend reversal happens in design all the time.

Personally I hope this particular trend passes as quickly as possible as I find it looks ugly and cheap and flies in the face of devices having increasingly powerful processors and refined displays that are designed to faithfully render the finest detail, e.g. retina display. I also haven't noticed any massive performance improvements on apps that have switched to the "New Look", e.g. Gmail or Dropbox.

Of course, I would generally expect apps with a functional UI to be faster than apps that unnecessarily waste processing power with fancy animations, but there's a big difference between overly design focused apps like iBooks, Passbook or Evernote 5 and functional but still visually pleasing apps like Fantastical or 2Do.

I'm staunchly in the skeuomorphism camp. What's the use of having super hi-resolution screens and devices if your only going to put fugly soviet style interface elements? Perhaps the answer for apple is to finally give into the trend towards having users choose their interface look and feel while strictly controlling its integrity and usability. This will satisfy most and apple in return can pich up the most innovative and creative ideas.

We'll know if skeuomorphism will win or if "flat" will win the moment iOS 7 is officially released. It will be the first major release with Jonathan Ive as Kind of Design at Apple, so I'd expect him to set the tone.

If iOS 7 is "flat," then skeuomorphism will have been a fad. If iOS 7 is skeuomorphic, then "flat" will have been a fad. And, despite all the design-snob talk of how "good design" is deep, how "good design" is timeless, and how "good design" is best for the user, we all know the truth. Design is just as trendy as anything. Designers are fashion victims just like everyone else. They just have a bigger design school vocabulary to rationalize it.