CMYK Lab: What’s after flat design?

September 9, 2015

Each month, the CMYK team debates and discusses our favorite ideas - from future trend forecasting to the psychology of design to the latest tech gadgets we are lusting after. These roundtable discussions broaden and sharpen our ideas - and are often the catalyst for new innovations we can then bring to our clients. We’ve decided to share with you the inner workings of this process with a new feature CMYK Lab.


This month, over lunch at the Pickle Shack (because we love our ‘hood, Gowanus) we tackle the question, “What comes after Flat Design?”. Over the past few years, flat design has saturated everything - web, mobile, animations, video, and even influencing design in real life. As users become ever-more digitally savvy, flat design is able to remove some of the design catches - navigation, descriptive icons, text - that was once a necessary guide to navigating the information.

But what’s next? Is the future even flatter? Or will it be more multi-dimensional? Perhaps the future of design is no design at all?

Kadi Hughes: In the office, we've been talking about what comes after flat design. Because right now everything is flat and has been flat for awhile. It’s getting a little…

Adam Scher: Flat.

KH: Right! So, what's the next thing then?

AS: A lot has been written about how Google is moving away from flat design and moving to what they are calling "material design." Material design brings in elements of dimensionality, of perspective but not necessarily the skeuomorphism that Apple first introduced.  When Apple first designed the iPhone, the Game Center had a felt background; the Contact Book had leather. They were bringing in elements of real life. Then everything moved into flat design and all of that was taken out. But now there is a trend of bringing in more depth, layers and gradients to give people the sense of materials and object, without having a direct correlation to physical objects.

Brandon Phillips: Do you think it will still be vector based?

Chris Langer: I think it will be more - I mean it is more - texture-based. But it’s very subtle. It’s like paint on a wall, where you can see the texture of the wall but it’s not real.

BP: What would that look like if Apple used it for their next iOS platform? How would things change if everything then had an edge and shadow?

AS: It could just be the way Apple uses transparency. Like how the lock screen is over the image in the background.

KH: It’s interesting because so much of design seems to be a reaction or response to the technology. Flat design is a reaction to iPhones, tablets and screens. I think that the design is going to be driven by whatever new technology comes out - and is successful.

BP: Or vice-versa, though. Apple didn’t update their iOS until awhile after the iPhone had taken off.

Current design also a reaction to better interactivity.

Devon Bussell: Current design also a reaction to better interactivity. Web 2.0 brought in these fake looking references to real life - shadows, gradients. But when you have better interactivity you don’t need that because what you are accomplishing with your mouse clicks and touches is more obvious. I think that’s the reason that Web 2.0 ultimately went away. We’re moving into even better interactivity. Right now, interactive design is a big thing whereas before, you never really thought about interactive design in such a deep way. Also, better interactivity, allows you to do away with order and structure to a certain degree.

AS: But don’t you think that is because we are more educated as users?

KH: Absolutely, everyone is so savvy about how to browse content. You can see this in how advertisers are reacting to this. For example, if you are in a web browser, you can open multiple tabs and browse away from any sort of advertisement messaging that comes up. Which is why things like Snapchat ads are going to be so successful. You can’t leave the space. You’re locked in. This is the key thing advertisers want to figure out. Now that people are smart enough to not watch ads, or block the ads or to use their phone while the ad is playing before the tv show, how do you get those people to see your content?

We don’t need to do that anymore. People are smarter.

CL: To draw a parallel, look at general media construction, like film and television. One hundred years ago, if you were watching a film and there was editing in it, that was pretty groundbreaking. To see two images placed next to each other and to then draw meaning from them. If you watch those old movies, in terms of pacing, the edits are really slow. That is why a lot of people today say “I hate those old movies! They’re slow and they’re boring.” The reason why they are “slow” is that as we progressed as a cultural society we start to understand the grammar.

When you watch media today, the cuts are incredibly fast, and it’s totally fine. You understand what is going on because you speak the language of media editing, media grammar. This goes back to what we were saying about a interactive literacy. We have established things like “slide to unlock” and scrolling with your finger or pressing the button to return home. All these things come into play, and you no longer need the interactive instruction you once did. Do we need to show this as a button? No. Because everyone knows now that if there is an “x” in a corner, that means close out. We don’t need to physically show a “close” button. We don’t need to do that anymore. People are smarter.

KH:  People are smarter, but they are also more distracted. A question when thinking about the future of design is: how do you figure out how to hold the attention of distracted people? Can you do that with design or do you have to find another way?

CL: Design for me is completely utilitarian. You use it to have people walk through your site in a specific way. You are always going to have to use design to help people navigate through a problem, whether its navigating a site or a house. You want it to look good and feel good, but it is also useful. If you look at the internet, there is only utility. I am going to this website to find out something or watch something or consume media. Its utility is as a space to help us consume - either in the real world or in the media world.

I was thinking about this the other day on the walk to work - wouldn’t it be crazy if we got a url address, a random string of numbers, and on that random string of numbers, on that website, there was an art piece. This art piece would have its own unique identifier. That was it. It was only there. It becomes like a a painting. It’s really beautiful but it doesn’t do anything. It has no utility, except for emotional response.

AS: But internet art is not new.

CL: It’s not new but it’s not good. I don’t think that anyone’s internet art is going to go in the Smithsonian, as one of the most beautiful art pieces that has ever existed. It will go in as “this is what CNN looked like in 1999 and this is what it looks like now.”

We want everything to be faster and more direct.

KH: Design may be utilitarian but it doesn’t have to look utilitarian. However, right now it often does. A big trend I see everywhere at the moment is “ugly”. Ugly design, raw design, authentic design. And I’ll bring up Snapchat again. Nothing in Snapchat is beautiful. Instagram is beautiful. You want a beautifully composed shot with the right filters. Snapchat is quick and raw and real. Also if you look at the way people are consuming news media now, it’s often via subscription newsletters. You sign up and get a digest every day that is just text. These are the five things you should know today. They are really effective. People just want the information. They want direct access to information and content. They don’t want to deal with the frills of design.

BP: Right, we want everything to be faster and more direct. As that happens, icons and iconography starts to fall off a bit. What if we made a site that was no icons, it was just “Next” “Back” “Search.” All text. But made it look good.

CL: If it was direct, it would work. You know me, I’ve always wanted to get rid of navigation. Always.

KH: If there is no navigation, then the whole site is intuitive?

DB: That’s the ultimate flatness.

CL: Really?

DB: Yeah! Hierarchy. Getting rid of hierarchy. Making everything happen in a two dimensional space on the screen.

CL: No. I would say it’s more about narrative and experience. If you take away the navigation you are directing people through the information by what you want them to know.

KH: It’s a guided tour.

CL: That’s the problem with all websites and their interactivity, especially when you are trying to guide an experience. You get that now with a parallax site, especially an “About” page. You get a narrative of who they are and you receive the information in a specific way. Five of the six websites I looked at yesterday in researching a project all had the same thing that we did on our About Us section of our site. Not because we did it first but because that is what is on trend, and why is it on trend? Because that’s how you craft a proper story. Go back a hundred years ago. How am I going to edit this movie? I’m going to show people specifically the next thing, so I know they are watching exactly what I want them to watch. On a website, you can’t do that. For a really long time, it was a mess of people not really knowing what to do.

A site without navigation is then ultra flatness and hyper real. These are two opposite trends probably happening at the same time.

DB: A site without navigation is then ultra flatness and hyper real. These are two opposite trends probably happening at the same time.

CL: You can have that concept without flat design.

DB: I mean flat “experience.”

CL: I’d say it’s a "controlled" experience. Flat would be I wasn’t getting anything. Think of it as a narrative arc.

DB: I’m talking about information hierarchy. If there is no information hierarchy, except for this one through line of beginning to end

CL: But there is. Essentially, in any case, if you say I have a story, I have a linear narrative that I am telling, there is a hierarchy. This point is first, this is second, this is third, this is fourth, this is fifth. You hit all the points. It’s linear and you may have have the option to dig in someplace else, but it’s ultimately a controlled experience. I wouldn’t say it’s flat. I would say it’s a controlled direction.

DB: It’s hierarchical ordering of experience.

CL: Right. I can’t dig out. Because as soon as you give additional dimensions to experience, it means you’re throwing an option.

DB: You loose all of the stuff in the depths because no one ever gets there.

KH: So what are we all looking at now and really like? What do we want to see more of?

CL: I’m drawn to sites and designs that are very molecular, flowy, half-transparent and simulate depth. And they’re beautiful. This style conveys a narrative of natural and organic structure. We see something and think “that’s so gorgeous. Look at the stars, they’re shimmering in the background, and moving around and it looks like space.”

KH: Sure but that is for a very particular type of content consumption.

CL: I don’t think so.

KH: Is that who you would like to read Mac Rumors every day? No. You want clear, text heavy information directed at you.

CL: Maybe. I don’t know. No one does it. I can’t say that maybe I would consume better if there was a canvas animation.

AS: Yeah but that would distract form the content.

CL: Do you consume content better when it is structured within a narrative in that one dimensional concept? And if so, could you put it in that molecular space? Look at how Apple does their animations. It’s video narrative but it is within that design structure that gets you to read the whole thing. There is no audio - in essence there is no video; it’s just text on a screen. So if you had a book that was like that does that help you consume it?

The next trend in design is still about minimalist and striping away everything but what is the most important.

AS: I think the next trend in design is still about minimalist and striping away everything but what is the most important. What is most important might be content, especially because we’re consuming so much more content, in so many different ways that there is not a lot of room for design to impede on that.

BP: I think you could have a successful website where the entire application was a search.

CL: You just go to the website, and it just says “what are you looking for.” You type it in and it takes you to what you want. But that’s Google. And do you really want just a Google search of your website?

KH: No, you do not. That’s very useful if you are huge retailer like Amazon and users know everything in the world is there. But if you are a small company, like us, it gets tricky. There is a wide array of things that we do. Some people who interact with us just know us for our web work. If they come to the site, they want to look at web and that is all the look at via the search. Then they will never know that we also do animations and video and events. People want direct access but you also want to know other things that we do - and design is how we can tell our story.

No matter what comes after Flat Design - be it more flatness or a move to even more intuitive navigation or stripped down content - storytelling and experience will be key. Check out our take on flat design in our Manifesto. Want to talk design, have an idea or project, or perhaps you want to let us dog sit your puppy? Contact us.