Don’t just make things flat.

Everyone has something to say about iOS 7. The release has turned a number of people into intense UX/UI critics, particularly regarding those new icons. The word “skeuomorphism” has been thrown around quite aggressively by people who aren’t yet comfortable with what it means. Moreover, the single-minded desire for a “flat” aesthetic seems to be prevalent amongst the chatter of consumers. With all the excitement, it’s easy to forget that the growing trend is a nod towards something much bigger and more important than removing shadows.

Interfaces have largely become simpler and cleaner. “Minimalism” dominates contemporary culture, from the art we enjoy to the music we listen to. To call it a trend wouldn’t be fair; it’s a pattern, and a successful one. Flat design follows in step, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the first thing to reach for when creating something new.

“Simplistic design is effective, and [its] latest flavor is flat design… though, flat design certainly doesn’t encompass all of minimal design.” Katherine Frazer

Here’s an example: Go open up Facebook.

Unless you’re one of the lucky few with the newsfeed update, you’ll be presented with:

  • Your newsfeed,
  • A list of favorites, pages, groups, and apps to the left,
  • A bunch of ads on the right,
  • A mini feed telling you what’s happening in real-time,
  • Your online friends, and
  • A bunch of chats scattered across the bottom.

That’s a lot of information. So many different elements of the screen are vying for your attention, and it’s inundating.

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of… the attention of its recipients.” Herbert Simon

In other words, there is literally more information presented to us than we can consume, and attention becomes something of a commodity. There’s a whole field of study around this principle, but it implies that attention is both scarce and hugely important (If you liked that quote and have some time to kill, check out Simon’s paper on the topic).

One of the reasons that “flat” interfaces are so appealing is because of the attractiveness that comes with minimal design. Our minds don’t have to splinter our attention across dozens of components. The aggressive nature of complexity is deadening and confusing, and simplicity is fresh and beautiful. Facebook seems to have taken the hint: their new interface isn’t perfect, but its much cleaner and more distraction-free. It isn’t flat, but it doesn’t need to be.

As a friend pointed out, aesthetic simplicity is nothing new. Minimalism has been a design cornerstone for far longer than the internet. Dieter Rams noted that good design is often “as little design as possible,” decades before the first web browser. As interface development becomes more and more expressive, it becomes easier to implement well-designed websites and applications. The web is finally catching up to the world of design.

iOS 7 isn’t entirely flat, but that’s not the point. It’s not enough to remove gradients and highlights and shadows and throw in a few bright colors here and there. The new OS attempts to be simple, clean, free of clutter wherever possible, and that’s what’s important. While flat design may be minimal, minimal design isn’t always flat.

Don’t make things flat. Instead, make things simple. Do it because it’s attractive. Do it because it’s beautiful. Above all, do it because it’s good design.