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(Last updated on March 29th, 2021)

Are you aware of flat design? Have you been using it in your graphic design work? What is flat design anyway? Find out in this definitive guide to flat design.

Graphic design has gone through many different styles that have become culturally appealing for various reasons. Just look at how far web design has come. There was a time when a mere gradient, some gifs, and a life-like texture were all you needed to impress a client.

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Nowadays, designers and consumers crave something more straightforward and less imposing (and far less tacky). This is where flat design came into play as the top style favored in numerous graphic design areas. It’s become one of the most favorable of design trends that have remained for a long time.

Flat Design started life within web applications, designed to be relatively simple and pleasing for the user. That design format has continued to protrude into other areas of graphic design, spanning everything from logos to commercials. As such, it has become one of the more versatile graphic design styles.

What is Flat Design?

The main idea behind a Flat Design is to keep things simple, minimal, and easily useable. It’s a design form that may look artificial but also benefits from looking clean and light. The looks are two-dimension, and the colors are bright and inviting.

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You can see a perfect example of how this is implemented with the evolution of Microsoft’s interface. For Windows 8, Microsoft favored the Metro design, which utilized simplistic and colorful tiles. This interface would carry on for future Windows releases as well as the short-lived Windows Phone.

The Metro designed seemed to be the perfect counter to the skeuomorphic design favored by Apple. Apple’s interface utilized more detailed illustrations in various icons that were housed in the toolbar. By comparison, Windows’ flat design was calmer and eye-pleasing with its basic form.

Most tiles were designed with straightforward artistic interpretations of their tools. One can easily take one look at the calendar’s primary form and get the exact information you would use as a detailed drawing. It’s the simple things that make a flat design so appealing.

Where Did Flat Design Come From?

The idea behind flat design didn’t just materialize out of nowhere. Some influence came to make such a style so typical in the modern 21st-century. The inspiration came from the 20th century.

Flat design came from a Swiss-style known as International Typographic Style and first came about in the 1920s. It was generally criticized for its, well, flatness. By the 1940s, however, it started becoming a brighter and better-acknowledged style in Switzerland.

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The creators of the flat design style were Josef Müller-Brockmann and Armin Hofmann. Josef Müller-Brockmann was a representative for the Zurich School of Arts and Krafts, while Armin Hofmann was a part of the Basel School of Design.

The tenants of establishing flat design during its early years favored simplicity, legibility, and objectivity. Other elements that gave the style its unique form were sans-serif typography, grids, and asymmetrical layouts.

Here are some of the core Swiss elements of flat design.

  • High contrast: Make your shapes, colors, and type highly distinct from one another.
  • Minimalism: Don’t crowd the space and allow for more giant blocks of various art elements.
  • Color and contrast with depth: Using colors with remarkably distinct contrast can create a sense of depth.
  • Efficient use of space: Use your space wisely and be afraid to embrace white space as it can be an essential aspect of flat design.
  • Symbols to convey ideas: Something as simple as a combination of shapes can be used to form anything from people to buildings, spanning far more than just logos.

The most common usage around the design’s origins was for posters. The mixture of photography and typography may not like the modern flat design we use today, but it went a long way in establishing such a format.

The many flat design posters became prominent in the 1950s, and the appeal was easy to see. They had simple forms, yet they were bold in their usage of color (or lack of color). The formatting was also quite strict with the typography that allowed for better readability.

How Flat Design Had a Rebirth

Before the flat design is the style of choice for websites and apps, this arena’s choice style was skeuomorphism. You may recognize skeuomorphism as the glossy representation of realistic objects. It became quite a popular trend for some time.

You can see this significant shifting just in the colors alone. The skeuomorphism design used lots of gradients, brightness, and shadows to create showy icons. Such a method was meant to make sense of tactile slickness that looked detailed and attractive.

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More importantly, however, skeuomorphism was meant to create an easy association. For example, if we wanted to delete a file on our desktop, we would drag it to the recycling bin. We associate the deletion of files with throwing away trash and thus the familiar design of a recycling bin, complete with balled-up waste when getting big.

But after so many years of using computers, most people are now adept enough to know where most apps and tools are located. The concept of skeuomorphism doesn’t seem as necessary and can even look garish at times. This is where flat design came into play.

Flat design started becoming a more favorable design style adopted by Microsoft, as mentioned earlier in this article. It was the perfect counter and evolution of digital icons. It took all the simple iconography of skeuomorphism and made it simpler by favoring solid colors more than gradients.

Flat design made itself distinct from skeuomorphism by favoring more of an icon’s idea than a realistic depiction. This has changed just about every aspect of our computer interface, where we come to see flat design be the most prevalent with websites, applications, and tools.

Just look at the changes made to the Gmail icon. Gmail’s icon was once an envelope with a red M to make it crystal-clear what this Google app is used for in your browser. Now we merely have a flat-design M that still gets across the general idea of this app being used for email.

We now see flat design being everywhere. Google adopts the style to create unique splash page banners on special occasions for their homepage. Various commercials use this style for creating animated advertisements as well.

Though the market is now saturated with flat design, there’s a reason it has remained dominant for so long. It has an inviting and unimposing nature, the way it communicates so much so simply. All you need is a handful of shapes, some colors, and a keen eye to use both accordingly.

Minimal and Simple

A key component of making an effective flat design is to keep things functional without much clutter. This means that icons and designs have to be simplified to such a degree that they’re free of many excesses. If an aspect of an invention is looking too bloated or busy, trim it.

The trimming of the fat essentially creates a sense of minimalism, communicating enough information with little detail. Don’t confuse this with a boring design. Minimalism can still be a compelling form of the design if creatively implemented with great thought behind the simplicity.

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Where flat design is at its strongest is in the realm of designing computer icons. You can see it in everything from Chrome circle to the Twitter bird. These designs represent the brand with limited usage of shapes and colors, making the brand recognizable even when shrunk down to double-digit pixels.

You can also see how this design’s evolution came about over time by observing the Firefox logo. When Firefox first came about, the logo of a fox circling a globe was quite detailed. Now the fox and the world have grown to be more simplified with a less busy design of simple shapes and colors.

The simplicity of these icons makes them far more recognizable in a shorter amount of time. Detailed designs may make the mind reel a bit longer to process. A flat design is designed to get that message across quickly.

Flat designs also grab attention a lot more. People will more quickly associate a flat design icon with the application or service it represents with less to read. This means less time figuring what a design is saying and more time associating it with the intended purpose.

Of course, flat design is a trend and runs the same risks as any trend. Namely, overexposure comes into play, and flat design is undoubtedly starting to show its age in duplicate designs. This has even led to deep controversies amid the redesigns of Google and Firefox branding.

It’s essential to keep in mind the current trends when utilizing Flat Design. It’s currently a hot design trend that companies favor. However, as it becomes more common, the less likely it is to be preferred in graphic design.

How to Create Flat Design

Creating a logo or illustration with a flat design isn’t exactly a difficult task technically. It does, however, require a bit of thought when it comes to identifying what makes a compelling yet straightforward design. There needs to be a certain balance between the shape, color, form, and assembly.

What helps is first to establish a color scheme. This will give you an idea not only of what colors you’ll be using but deciding how many elements will be present. For example, if you’re using a square color scheme, you may want to vary the number of colored shapes and typography.

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You’ll then need to decide how you’ll be favoring your shapes and typography for your design. Think of this the same way you would any graphic design project. It can help the first sketch out what you’re going for and then find a way to simplify it.

If you’re making a design where you require people to be in the graphic, think about how you want them to appear. Will they be tall, short, thin, large, athletic, easy-going, etc.? All of these aspects can help you decide how to start assembling them from simple shapes.

There are several graphic design programs to consider for this design type, but I’d highly suggest favoring a program using vector artwork. Vector art is best suited for not only creating simple shapes but pushing, pulling, sizing, and tweaking them as well.

One of the most prominent vector programs out there is Adobe Illustrator. You can create simple vector shapes with a handful of tools and then use the pen tool to tweak them further. You can also shift the colors around with simple fill tools.

Vector artwork is far more favorable for the flat design than raster design programs such as Adobe Photoshop. With raster graphics, you can’t precisely shift the size and structure of basic shapes without issues resulting in the resolution and quality. It’s not as well-suited for the style in terms of experimentation.

Vector graphics allow for the ease of creating such shapes and colors. More importantly, favoring a vector program can also make edits less of a hassle when you don’t have to worry about a loss in quality if this shape has to look rounder or that color has to look bolder. A few tweaks such as this can be made easily in Illustrator.

Enter Semi-Flat Design

Flat design has been around for quite some time, that it was bound to spawn some variation. Designs can only look the same for so long before somebody decides to take an alternate approach. That change came with a semi-flat design.

Also known as flat design 2.0, semi-flat design can be thought of more as a compromise between flat design and skeuomorphism. The style has the familiar shapes of flat design and a mixture of shadows and tones more notable in skeuomorphism. Think of it as a flat design with a bit more detail.

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Semi-flat design can be used to give a bit more depth to your projects. If you’re designing buttons but want to make it more apparent that they’re clickable, you may rely on some tones and shadows to get the message across. It lets the designer break out of the stricter box in flat design.

The semi-flat design may also become a more dominant format that overtakes flat design simply for much freedom it provides. You can use more colors, have more variance in the design, and make your design a bit more eye-catching. You’re not bound by as much simplicity.

It can also help to use a semi-flat design to avoid obvious comparisons. The complaints have started to pool in by various online users about the frequency of the flat design. Many social media posts have been made that essentially say they’re tired of seeing this style. They don’t know it’s flat design, but they know they’re tired of it.

Using semi-flat design can be an exciting way to subvert that design trend while still using it to a certain degree. While flat design can seem more traditional and efficient, semi-flat design can be visually exciting and subtly detailed.

The best way to look at semi-flat design is to add tones and highlights to your work. Start with the basics of flat design and then start adding some depth to make things a little more attractive to the eye. That being said, keep it simple enough not to be overly busy or too crowded for the eyes to keep up with the information.

When is it Best to Use Flat Design?

Most flat design projects generally have a sensation of something being efficient, simple, and straightforward. It’s one reason why many businesses selling specific management tools prefer this style of choice. It gets the message across that the product is not a difficult one to utilize.

Often flat design can be used as explanatory graphics. It can explain how a particular program works or a product is used not so complicated when the graphics seem so simple. A customer is more likely to take to an easy-to-read visual than an overly detailed diagram.

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Here are some common examples of where you might see flat design:

  • Infographics: An infographic can be thought of as a helpful map for communicating a complex idea with a more eye-catching combination of visuals and text.
  • Manuals: Instructions are essential for any product to ensure a customer is aware of how to use it. Flat design can help make the visual guide for these step-by-step instructions less of a chore and more inviting focus.
  • Advertising: We’re bombarded with advertisements in all media aspects that flat design can be a refreshing break from the overly detailed and frenetic landscape of ads.
  • Logo Design: Flat design works exceptionally well with crafting logos considering the limited use of shapes and colors. It’s a design that also bodes well for print as well, considering logos have been designed a similar sense of simplicities years before flat design became a significant trend.
  • App Icon: Like logos, application icons also require the design to be limited, thus making flat design the design method of choice for communicating app information in a simple space.
  • Mobile Gaming Interfaces: Casual gamers who favor a more easy-going experience are more likely to play a game with such a pleasing and straightforward interface accomplished through flat design.
  • Website Interfaces: Some websites present a whole lot of information that can overwhelm the visitor. This is especially true with websites that have multiple forms spread out across numerous pages. A flat design for a website can make the experience far less clinical and dense.

When to Not Use Flat Design

Flat design is best utilized when communicating ideas where readability is the most critical aspect. If you’re going for something that wants to stress more realism, a flat design may not be the right choice for such a project.

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You do often require a bit more detail that flat design simply can’t provide. Here are some examples of when it should not be used in a project:

  • Full-Color T-Shirts: Some T-shirts have straightforward designs, but they’re not as remarkable when they come in full color. If you’re seeking to design a colorful T-shirt, you’re going to need to use more detail to get the most benefit from something that doesn’t look as flat.
  • Mascots and Character Designs: If you have a central character representing a brand, the last thing you want to do is make them blend into the crowd. Flat design can often make for very same characters who lack detail and depth, so it’s best to favor a more detailed approach in this aspect.
  • Packaging: Graphic packaging design often requires a lot of detail and allure to pop out from the shelf. Flat design may not be the best approach when trying to draw the eyes to a product.
  • Service Websites: A website meant to communicate a service will most likely stress how genuine this service is for the public. It’s better to favor photography to get this message across rather than on flat design to interpret what the service is all about.
  • Covers for Fiction Novels: Although the flat design does have a place in the realm of book covers, it’s mostly relegated to the more non-fiction books. Fiction books often want to portray a believable and vivid world, and a more realistic book cover can help sell this aspect far more than flat design.

Final Thoughts

Flat design can be a compelling form of the design if appropriately used for certain projects. Just remember these key points about its usage:

  • Make your designs simple but not dull.
  • Embrace contrast and context.
  • Limit your colors to a color scheme.
  • Use fonts that are readable in a flat environment.
  • Less is more.

Frequently asked questions

Why is flat design bad?

Flat design is lacking in detail and is not suitable if you’re going for realism in your design.

What are the important elements of flat design?

Flat design can best be accomplished if using simple shapes, a limited color palette, and keeping things bold and readable.

Why is flat design so popular?

Flat design has become the design style of choice for being easy on the eyes and lightly inviting when it comes to communicating a lot of information with so little.

How can I learn flat design?

Flat design can be easily learned by tinkering with vector art programs to get used to limiting your shapes and colors.

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