Imitated reality or universal geometric principles? User interface design trends have gone quickly from one extreme to another.

Information overload gets a lot of press nowadays. The constant of flow of information affects us by impairing our concentration and patience. Likewise, abundance of information has its effect on digital content: articles published online are getting shorter and shorter, and longer articles mostly appear on special publications. The same development has extended its influence to the realm of graphic design, typography, and generally to the way things appear to us.

User interface design has long been dominated by the exact reproduction of physical characteristics in digital form, or skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphic design is based on using well-known real-world characteristics as metaphors in digital interfaces to make adoption of new devices and interfaces easier for humans. This approach has been famously perfected in Apple’s products, with their detailed icons and realistic textures.

When necessary real-world functionalities are used as mere digital ornaments, skeuomorphism has clearly gone too far. Over the years skeuomorphism has become bland, a mere surface decoration devoid of purpose. Consequently, the so-called Flat Design was born as a reaction against the realism of skeuomorphism. In Flat Design, the interface is determined by clear geometric forms, straight lines, and flat, stripped-down elements. The aim in Flat Design is to create efficient and user-friendly interfaces by placing emphasis on the content. In addition, as digital devices have been around for long enough and people have got used to them, less emphasis is placed on explaining the digital with real-world metaphors.

Influences from post-WWII Europe

The roots of Flat Design can be tracked to as far as the Swiss Style, also known as the International Typographic Style. Born in Switzerland after the WWII, the Swiss Style incorporated elements from Constructivism and Bauhaus, but without their political elements or historical context.  The Swiss Style can be seen as reaction to the strenuous atmosphere of the war and the disparaging attitude towards geometrical shapes that had been part of it.

An interesting feature of the Swiss Style was its peculiar way to understand the role of the artist. The artist, designers influenced of the Swiss Style argued, should not be so much a designer, but a communicator. Design was to be based on rational, universal principles that were scientifically defined. The Swiss Style seeks clarity, precision and order, and turns its back to personal expression. How, then, all of this is reflected in contemporary websites?

Focus is on content – as it should be

It’s currently fashionable in user interface design to avoid striking colour gradients, shadows, depth and realism. Instead, strong colour surfaces, clear and flat shapes, typographic solutions, and even naïve characters are favoured. This is good because designers have to focus on the page content. In other words, content cannot be hidden or forgotten under flashing lights, visual hustle or glossy images. This is important because we, the users, can then easily figure out whether the site offers the information we need. The visually reduced, no-frills appearance also adapts easily to different device screens and is fast to load.

Content certainly deserves to be a top priority, but if websites strive to stand out by merely using different colors and typography, things start soon to look the same and feel boring. Unique expression is nowhere to be found, as the founders of the Swiss Style aspired. In my opinion, the biggest challenge in this development is the potential damage done to usability and the lack of feeling associated with pure geometric design. On some extremely simple and flat websites the user is no longer able to tell where to click – or to make sense of the plain icons. It often feels that these kinds of websites or applications are created for an inclusive group of people who already know how to use them. Or, they are designed for people who value minimalist aesthetics over content and usability.

Visual is content

We have various ways of visually demonstrating originality and telling who we are. When the emphasis is placed on content, one should not forget that visual is also content – visual elements allow designers to tell things. Websites have a depth element, and they enable us to do so much more than a sheet of paper. Neither should we forget the power emotions have as motivators of human activity. The user should feel something, whether it be joy or sorrow, depending on the goal. The digital world offers excellent ways to implement these things if we just know how to weed out the useless and stick to the user experience in terms of the content.

All of this is related to the same cycle we go through. What was trendy only a few moments ago, has become old-fashioned. And what the founders of Swiss Style aspired after the World War II.. Well, were are aiming for the same things today: to be able to deliver clear messages to the receiver. However, at the same time it feels that we are dealing with some profound change and development in user interface design. Something has to happen, since the spectrum of devices continues to grow and the operating environment continues to expand.

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