In the last few years, there has been a shift in the interface design of software and applications, from rich 3D to flat and minimalist. Glossy icons are now being replaced by simple, single-color icons; rich gradients are now being replaced by simple yet solid color schemes. The idea is to create interfaces that are easy to digest and with elements that do not get in the way of the message a web page wants to deliver or of what the page is trying to accomplish.
If you are a web designer who is new to the game, it may help for you to learn about how the world of web design got to the current minimalist trend and what influence this trend has on interface design in general.
The Shift in Interface Design
There are several factors that led to the collective shift from an appreciation of textured and beveled designs to a love of simple typography and flat colors. Here are the factors that made the most impact and are perhaps the biggest reasons for this shift:
1. Information Overload
In this day and age, when everyone seems to be constantly connected, it is only logical for us to be faced with a steady stream of information, regardless of whether this information is relevant or not. And because the information we get is not always relevant, we are constantly evaluating and filtering all these pieces of information to identify which ones we can use and which ones we need to discard. This constant filtering and evaluating can quickly become exhausting.
Additionally, the manner in which we consume information has changed in recent years. Where before we typically browsed the Internet using desktops, we now increasingly consume online information via mobile gadgets. Considering how small the screens are on these mobile gadgets, it can be easy to get a feeling of being overloaded with information. Hence, the need for a user interface that contains as little clutter as possible.
2. Content Is King, Now More Than Ever
Whenever a new device or technology is introduced into the market, people typically rush to discover how it works, what it can do, and how they can use it to enhance interactivity. Once the initial frenzy subsides, however, the focus naturally shifts back towards content. In fact, the consumption of any form of content is perhaps the online activity people engage in the most. And when we consume content, we naturally do not want the interface to get in the way. This is why most people now appreciate minimalist interface design.
3. Simplicity Is Beauty
In the past, software developers loaded their products with myriad features so they can justify high prices. These days, however, people prefer focused micro-apps and favor simplicity over a boatload of features. More focused apps mean simpler and clutter-free interfaces.
4. The Influence of Technology
Most software is limited by the platform used for running it. Hardware, for its part, is often limited by factors such as pixel density and screen dimensions. By using a flat and minimalist interface, very little is also demanded of you in terms of design palette. This means every element of your design should stand out. The font weight and typographic scale will determine, in large part, the usability and aesthetics of your minimalist design.
The good news is that pixel density and screen size are continually improved and increased on mobile devices, which enables web designers to present smaller and thinner type with more clarity. Additionally, increasing support for @font-face has made minimal typographic-focused designs a lot more appealing.
5. The Need for Responsive Designs
With the increasing connectivity of various devices of differing dimensions, there is a need for user interfaces to be more fluid. As a response, more and more web designers are working to create more responsive designs. Making a design more responsive does not necessarily mean adopting a particular aesthetic, but flat interfaces definitely lend themselves a lot more easily to responsiveness than most of the other interface styles. The minimalist style also has the advantage of reducing page weight and load time.
Benefitting from a Minimalist User Interface
Okay, now that you have a clearer understanding of how the minimalist trend in user interface came to be and what factors influenced the recent shift, it’s time for a few practical considerations. The design you plan to create may be flat and minimal, but the process of creating such a design can be a bit challenging. As you do away with extraneous tricks such as textures, bevels, and drop shadows, you’ll come to realize just how important the basic elements are. The following tips are applicable to interface design in general, but they are especially valuable to those who are designing flat interfaces.
The first thing you need to do, of course, is to make sure the flat style of interface actually makes sense for the project you’re working on. What is your target platform? What are your target devices? What is your target application type? What specific sensibilities and preferences do your target users have? It is pointless to use minimalist interface simply because it is the current trend, unless you know for sure it is the right style for your project.
The process you follow is essential to the success of your design. Here are a few tips on how to successfully keep things simple but not boring:
- Seek inspiration from the past, from the time when people were just starting to get familiar with the Internet, when web designers actually did more by making less. Revisit the greatest web designs of that era. It may also be a good idea to check out the works of minimalist painters, architects, and industrial designers. These people are the masters at proving that simplicity indeed is beauty. Take your cue from them.
- Take a break. Remember that the minimalist style is all about nuances. In many cases, it helps to walk away from your work for a few minutes (or even an hour), relax a bit, and then come back with fresh eyes. This strategy often works a whole lot better than hammering away at the design non-stop.
- Create and compare versions. There will be times when you’re torn between two possible ways of positioning certain elements on a page or perhaps to shades of color for a particular element. Instead of wasting time trying to decide which option to go with, create a version for each option you can think of and then do a side-by-side comparison to see which version stands out.
- Test your design concept on all of your target devices before making it official. It is important for you to confirm that the design will actually work on each target device primarily because the scale of objects on a web page can play a critical role in the success of the project.
- Every time you add something to the design—be that an element, a color, and icon, or anything else you can think of—always ask yourself, “Is this really necessary?” It can be so easy to get attached to something you find clever, but what you deem clever may not always work for a particular design. Remember that the main goal is to simplify, so take away anything that doesn’t serve any real purpose.
Note that in a flat user interface, it can be a bit tricky to insert interactive elements. You may want to keep a couple of tips in mind. First, you have to remember that contrast is key. Let’s say the main color of your layout is gray. You could design the interactive elements in red or orange. If you are using a text-based design, then the interactive elements could be in the form of icons. Second, you’d want to use conventional placements for your interactive elements. For example, if you plan to use a Back arrow, then it’s best to place it on the upper left corner, where the Back button usually is.
Design is more artistic than scientific, of course. This means there can be no hard and fast rules. Even if you choose to create a flat and minimalist design, therefore, nothing should stop you from incorporating a few gradients, shadows, or texture here and there. In fact, a webpage is sometimes made more interesting by a nice balance of simplicity and dimension.
As mentioned earlier, flat and minimal interface design may be the trend these days, but that doesn’t mean it is the right style for every project. There is no particular style that will ever be the right one for every project. The key for web designers is to apply each style appropriately and approach each project with care and thought. For its part, the minimalist style may be ideal for web applications that focus on user-generated content. But, as always, it’s best to keep the website owner’s preferences in mind.