Pushing the Boundaries of Creativity: How Designers are Combining Realism & Flat Design

What mixing these design styles means for the future of graphic design.

Image credit: Ali Shah.
Pushing the Boundaries of Creativity: How Designers are Combining Realism & Flat Design
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There was a time when everyone thought the world was flat. In recent years, creatives have applied the same theory to design.

Flat design marched onto the scene with the minimalist movement and provided visual appeal across the web and a variety of devices. It was everywhere in 2018, but now creatives are pushing back.

Forward-thinking designers are experimenting with ways to combine the best of flat design with realism — which embraces three-dimensional elements that closely mirror real life — to create a new style that’s all their own.

The future is the best of both worlds

In 2019, we are seeing designers enter a brave new world that combines the best of both realism and flat design. By pairing 3D objects and textures with minimalistic elements, they bridge the gap between the simplicity of flat design and the visual complexity and uniqueness of realism.

The new method results in images that are more interesting to the eye. It forces viewers to stop and take a brief moment to digest what they see. It gives the mind a reason to linger a bit longer in that visual space.

“This new style creates more room for individual voice,” says Lisa Maione, an art director, designer and assistant professor at Kansas City Art Institute. “There is more room to inflect the visual with your point of view, and more opportunities to connect to the audience and engage with ideas.”

Lisa believes that combining realism and flat design appeals to our modern culture of curiosity. Flat design, while clear and simple to digest, doesn’t have much mystery. It’s very clear how the images were brought to life and what tools were most likely used to create them. But by bringing elements of realism into the picture, the audience can experience the sense of wonder that comes from great works of art — the feeling that makes you stop and say, “How did they do that?”

Designers that embrace the new style welcome the opportunity to elevate the flat, more minimal design they already do so well.

“This trend creates a truly modern twist by taking two different design elements and mashing them up,” says Amanda Limardi, a freelance graphic designer who experiments with both design forms in her work.

Challenges and considerations

Like any creative endeavor, combining two very different design styles comes with its own unique challenges.

Until the last decade, realism was the status quo in graphic design. As demand for digital content grew, it became difficult for designers to keep up. Realistic designs are by nature extremely resource-intensive. The high level of detail required to mirror the depth and variety of the world around us takes time for designers to replicate — time most of them don’t have. So, flat design became the status quo.

Text and styled typography were more readable and easily streamlined than in realistic or skeuomorphic design. Flat graphics were also more adaptable when it came to displaying creative works on different devices. The simplistic elements meant designs could be loaded on a range of devices more quickly, giving designers more options for where and how they showcased their work on the web.

Bringing elements of realism into flat design may increase the time it takes for designers to finish their projects.

“When I have a client request this style, I have to explain the additional time to them,” Amanda says. “You’re trying to get as many details as you can to make the objects look more real. Things like shading and gradients just take more time to create than a typical, simplistic flat design.”

Another challenge designers face as they experiment with mixing design elements is striking the right balance between realism and flat styles. Designers can’t forget about all the reasons that flat design became popular in the first place, especially when their designs will appear on a screen.

“Graphic elements — be they icons or typography or colors — in the digital context are built to help a person navigate needs as much as they create a memorable visual experience,” Lisa says. “These designs still need to do that, and they need to load quickly.”

Embracing a new design form

What will these new designs look like?

In the coming year, we expect to see designers mix photographic-style images with hand-illustrated art. We’ll also see flying, floating, and 3D elements on top of flat objects to add more dimension to designs.

This mix of real and flat already has been appearing in editorial photography, and we predict it will soon spread to mainstream advertising.

Ali Shah’s design project, Abstract Nike, is the perfect example.

This experimental design combines 3D, realistic elements with flat abstract shapes. Ali said his goal was to add texture and softness to his design. He researched several brands and landed on Nike because many of its shoe designs feature these elements.

Ali created the project in Adobe Photoshop where he could easily play with the shapes, colors, and images. The result is a playful combination of soft and hard, flat and three dimensional.

“Mixing these styles makes my designs feel fresh and more realistic,” Ali says. “You have a feeling that you can touch it. I think you can connect with people more when you incorporate realism, rather than just using flat design.”

Opening doors to future innovation

Marrying realism and flat design is making more room for designers to play with defined styles and movement, pushing them toward future artistic discovery and innovation.

“This trend shows that predetermined spaces in design don’t need to be separate,” Lisa says. “There are a lot of things we still need to discover how we produce and show our images.”

Design always has been an interpretive reflection of the world around us, and since our world is constantly changing, the design will do the same. The creative process will continue to embrace collaboration and unexpected combinations.

“It’s an exciting time to be an image-maker and a designer,” Lisa says.

Whether you’re a pro or just starting out, Adobe Creative Cloud has all the tools you need to explore new styles. And check back on The Adobe Blog for the latest trends and inspiration. 

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