Design Trends 101: Everything You Need to Know about Flat Design, Skeumorphism, Minimalism, and More
The last few years have seen a lot of flux in web design trends. It almost seems like there’s a new trend emerging every other year. With all this volatility, it’s easy for designers to get caught up in the latest craze, while ignoring the more meaningful trends that have longevity.
Here we take a look at some of the most significant design trends in recent memory and what’s in store for them in the future.
Skeuomorphism allows design elements (like icons, buttons, etc.) to look like their real-life counterparts. For example, an envelope icon in a user interface will have 3D effects like drop shadows, depth, and textures to make it look more realistic.
This was all the rage in the 2000s and the first couple of years of the 2010s, and Apple was a big proponent of it — thanks to Steve Jobs’ influence. Its popularity took a nosedive when one of its most prominent supporters, Scott Forstall — Apple’s then-senior vice president of iOS software — left after Jobs’ death. Apple’s current chief design officer, Jonathan Ive, didn’t think highly of skeuomorphism, so when he took over after Forstall, Apple officially abandoned skeuomorphism at its 2013 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.
Things are looking dour for this design trend, with no visible sign of it making any big comeback any time soon. When two of the biggest tech companies — Apple and Google (with its Material Design) — embrace simpler and flatter design, it’s safe to say that the complexities of skeuomorphism are a thing of the past.
Flat Design was originally introduced as early as the 1950s, thanks to the popularity of the International Typographic Style or Swiss Style (a graphic design style). However, it would only become digitally popular in the 21st century, when Microsoft used elements of Flat in prominent products:
- 2002’s Windows Media Center
- 2006’s Zune MP3 Player
- 2010’s Windows Phone 7
- 2012’s Windows 8
As its name indicates, this trend is characterized by:
- 2D elements
- Simple typography
- Long shadows
- Bold colors
Flat’s future is exceptionally bright. That’s because Flat Design is the broader design category, but since its popularization several years ago, other offshoots/subsets of Flat have developed and gained their own strong followings. Notable examples are Flat 2.0 and Material Design. Look out for additional design languages to emerge that build on the Flat concept.
Flat Design 2.0
Flat 2.0 is the perfect example of a direct offshoot of Flat. Developed in 2014, Flat 2.0 was the designer’s response to some of the perceived UX shortcomings of the original Flat, just as Flat itself was a response to the excesses of skeuomorphism.
Flat 2.0 still embodies all the sleek, minimalistic characteristics of Flat with a few, notable exceptions that move it a bit closer to 3D. For example, it introduces only subtle shadows and gradients to offer an improved UX. Many felt that Flat’s purist tendencies to be exclusively 2D made it challenging for users to accurately identify which buttons or icons were clickable or could be tapped.
Flat is currently dominating web design on everything from desktop to mobile UIs. Apple’s macOS has gone Flat, as have most of the major mobile operating systems, including BlackBerry, Samsung, and Android. Flat 2.0 will continue to be adapted to more UIs on desktop and mobile; the focus is keeping the understated aesthetics of Flat while enabling better UX with very subtle 3D touches.
Google debuted Material Design in 2014 and had rolled it out to most of its products and services on Chrome and Android by 2015. In essence, Material Design is Google’s interpretation of Flat 2.0, seeing as how Material’s design elements display mostly flat elements with subtle 3D touches for superior UX.
With YouTube for desktop being redesigned in the Material design language in 2017, the company continues to expand the reach of this trend. In the future, all of Google’s properties will display this trend, as it’s only fitting that Google’s own design language is showcased on all of its products and services.
Minimalism is extremely interesting; some designers consider it to be the basis of Flat in the first place, according to the UX experts at the Nielsen Norman Group. In that sense, think of minimalism as the ultimate answer to the excesses of the skeuomorphism popular in the 2000s.
This is more than a trend. Introduced in the early 2000s, it has stood the test of time for almost two decades and has spawned many of the other trends on this list, including Flat, Flat 2.0, and Material.
Minimalism is characterized by:
- Flat textures
- The use of white or negative space
- Limited color palettes
Because of minimalism’s ubiquity in web design today, expect to see it integrated with other design movements that have become popular or are on the verge of breaking out. This includes in the use of video and augmented reality.
While minimalism is popular in design today, it’ll be interesting to see if it’s still as popular five or 10 years from now. It’s important to remember, web design is never static. It constantly evolves and pushes back against perceived excesses. Some of those evolutions can also just be slight modifications to existing trends, which result in entirely new trends for us to discover.