The beginner's guide to flat design

Designer Luke Clum examines the trend for flat design and what you can learn from it.

In the past, web designers put a particular focus on showing off their skills and design portfolios by packing sites with flashy illustrations and animations that supposedly wowed their visitors. Then came a shift toward skeuomorphic design, which attempted to bring real life to the screen, with faux-realistic textures, drop shadows and real object characteristics.

That gave way to the flat design, which opposes all of these 'artificial' design techniques, in favour of a more simplified, classically digital aesthetic. This user-centric web design style has been around for a while now, but if you're still not sure what it's all about this guide might be just what you need...

What is flat design?

What is flat design?

Windows 8 was at the forefront of the flat design trend

Flat design is a minimalistic design approach that emphasizes usability. It features clean, open space, crisp edges, bright colours and two-dimensional/flat illustrations.

Microsoft was one of the first to apply this design style to its interface, seen by some as a backlash against the popular skeuomorphic design that Apple kicked off with its iOS interface. Instead of converting a real-life object, such as a calendar, into a tiny realistic illustration, advocates of flat design identify apps with simple, icon-like images.

Rather than bringing aspects of real life to an interface, this illustrates a clear separation between technology and tactile objects.

Minimalist doesn't mean boring

In flat design, ornamental elements are viewed as unnecessary clutter. If an aspect serves no functional purpose, it's a distraction from user experience. This is the reason for the minimalistic nature of flat design.

However, just because it lacks any flashy design doesn't mean this style is boring. Bright, contrasting colours make illustrations and buttons pop from backgrounds, easily grab attention, and guide the user's eye. The purpose of minimalistic imagery also contributes to flat design's functional character.

Quick to grasp

Simple images convey messages more quickly than detailed illustrations. Images like icons can indicate universal actions or purposes so that everyone can easily understand them.

It's easy to see an immediate difference between a skeuomorphic and a flat design. Notice how the bigger, solid colour blocks are more attention-grabbing and the meaning of the icons can quickly be perceived.

What is flat design?

Xero's guide to cloud computing uses flat design to make its message easy to follow

This cloud computing guide (above) from online accounting service Xero uses a combination of flat illustration and iconography to demonstrate different benefits of working with the cloud. The simplicity of the imagery makes it easy to understand the message, which takes away any need for excessive copy.

What you can learn from it

Flat design reverts back to the basics of design as a functional tool. A website is designed and judged by how well it works, as opposed to what it looks like.

This raw functionality forces a site's focus to be on user experience, so websites that employ this design style successfully are likely to receive positive feedback as being user-friendly.

How to do it

To design an effective flat site, all design elements must be centered on this idea of simplicity.

Solid, vivid colours give aspects the emphasis needed to set them apart in place of illustrative detail; sans serif typography provides a clean, crisp supplement to illustrations; text is concise and to-the-point; UI elements like buttons and links are clear and noticeable.

Everything should be designed with the same goal in mind to create a cohesive visual and functional web design. Below are some great examples of flat design...


Examples of flat design: Tripfinder

Colours and icons help make meaning clear with minimal copy

This trip planning app design by Indonesian user interface designer Bady makes it extremely easy to book a flight based on packages and budgets. Everything is clear and understandable, and the design relies mostly on colours and icons to give meaning. The copy is concise, and the UI aspect of searching for an ideal flight is obvious.

Weather app

Examples of flat design: Weather app

Flat design doesn't depend on bright colour

This weather app UI design shows that flat design can be successful even without the use of bright colour. The crisp iconography and large typography draw attention to the most important aspects of the weather, which is what the user is looking for.

When exploring flat design in your work, make sure to design every aspect with a minimalistic and user-centric perspective to ensure a unified interface. Once you've successfully done this, your users will appreciate the functional nature of your website.

This is an updated version of an article that previously appeared on Creative Bloq. Add your views on flat design in the comments below...

Contributor: Luke Clum

Luke Clum is a designer and web developer from Seattle. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeclum.

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Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design and technology. He was previously associate editor at Creative Bloq and deputy editor at net magazine, the world’s best-selling magazine for web designers. Over two decades in journalism he’s worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, Heat, Company and Bella. Follow him on Twitter @tom_may.