44 comments

  • Patrick SmithPatrick Smith, over 3 years ago

    My belief of user interface design in the past decade is that skeuomorphism was only partly about appearing realistic for the benefit of familiarity.

    It mostly was style. The icons and interface elements of OS X’s Aqua felt more realistic than the simple designs that came before, but they never actually looked real. It was an aesthetic, and one that inspired a generation of software and web designers. Web 2.0 styling never looked real, it just looked appealing. It was fun to render with shadows and shading and transparency and light effects.

    This went overboard with the awful Calendar and Contacts designs on iOS and OS X. Legibility and clarity was sacrificed to style. They were just bad execution.

    There are benefits to stripping back and reassessing what is really needed to communicate visually. You strip back and refine a design no matter what style it has.

    The problems with the flat design trend are much the same as those of the skeuomorphic trend: aesthetics are prioritised. Skeuomorphism was about going as far as possible with as much as possible. Flat is about going as far as possible with as little as possible. Neither is a particularly noble goal, it is just a constraint.

    What is needed, I think, is more talk about clarity, communication, and personality in design. The aesthetics are only to help those goals, and so they can take any look they like. I think these goals transcend style, for if they have failed, it doesn’t matter what look your design has.

    Communication is sometimes well executed and sometimes weakly executed, and I think this hasn’t changed much from the move from skeuomorphism to flat, it’s just that there’s less to dress up with now: many design ideas were quite basic but had the ability to ‘improve’ by being made more flashy. Or perhaps a more positive way of looking at it was a detailed rendered design took more time, and so it had more chances of being checked for clarity and communication ability. Maybe that was true some of the time.

    The overall personalities were quite homogenous in both styles, where everything looked alike and carried the same voice. It’s partly due to there being so many digital products out there now.

    The tropes of UI design have changed, but the hard things remain the same. It remains hard to communicate well, it’s not easy to create a personality, and clarity is a ceaseless task.

    This allegiance to one era or the other misses that a bit, but still I think there are some valid arguments here. The flaw I think is that they are tied back too much to the skeuomorphic approach rather than underlying principles. Negative points seem to be hurled with much more force than those that are positive, and I think that inhibits thoughtful criticism but benefits the story.

    56 points
    • Eli SchiffEli Schiff, over 3 years ago

      A very thoughtful comment. Well put.

      17 points
    • Mitch BartlettMitch Bartlett, over 3 years ago

      Very refreshing to see a comment like this.

      14 points
    • Arix KingArix King, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

      I think UI design is going to evolve much like how taste in fine arts did over centuries. There will be the understood "standard" and those pushing limits on the fringe, but ultimately there will be an advance towards a median. In the grand scheme of things, UI is still VERY young.

      I just can't wait until our UI start looking like Cy Twombly's work. Lol

      3 points
    • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, over 3 years ago

      The problems with the flat design trend are much the same as those of the skeuomorphic trend: aesthetics are prioritised. Skeuomorphism was about going as far as possible with as much as possible. Flat is about going as far as possible with as little as possible. Neither is a particularly noble goal, it is just a constraint.

      Well said. I agree entirely. Blindly following either is a poor choice.

      The tropes of UI design have changed, but the hard things remain the same. It remains hard to communicate well, it’s not easy to create a personality, and clarity is a ceaseless task.

      The thing I miss most with the current trends is the lack of personality. Minimalism typically beats all the life out of a design. Many products that were fun to use previously are now just functional. And in many cases, not as easy to use.

      I wish more designers took a level headed approach that draws from as many tools, patterns and styles they have at their disposal.

      8 points
      • Connor Tomas O'BrienConnor Tomas O'Brien, over 3 years ago

        Your point about products that were once fun to use now being merely functional is a really interesting one. If we're looking at well-known apps like Instagram, I think it's sometimes useful to see the 'fun' component as a scaffolding, that's almost destined to fall away once the product gains traction. Moves toward genericism in a mobile context can go a long way, I think, once a product reaches a particular critical mass of users. In this case, the play seems to be to move Instagram from a brand, to a utility – a user's 'default' camera app, as opposed to a secondary, strongly branded camera app that's fun and delightful.

        That said, I think it's really a cycle. When apps strip away personality to make a play for pure functionality, a space opens up for a new competitor to step in and compete primarily on fun UI. I definitely think there are still fun UI experiments taking place, but very rarely in apps working at Instagram's current scale.

        (Btw, I completely agree with your point. I think designers that look toward the big players and unthinkingly ape their design aesthetic tend to produce work that's lifeless, and usually barely functional, either. They haven't understood the process that's led large apps to look and work the way they do.)

        1 point
        • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, over 3 years ago

          I think it's sometimes useful to see the 'fun' component as a scaffolding, that's almost destined to fall away once the product gains traction. Moves toward genericism in a mobile context can go a long way, I think, once a product reaches a particular critical mass of users.

          I read your comment as “one of the reasons you liked a thing will be removed when it gets popular enough”, and I’m not sure how comfortable I am with that. Big changes rarely go down well, even if they’re well considered and well executed.

          I used to really like that I could spot Instagram open on someone’s phone from a few metres away. Now it could be Mail or any other pure white-with-black-text app. Is that good for Instagram as a company and a brand? In a highly competitive market, shouldn’t delight be seen as an advantage?

          Why do useful things need to be purely functional? If the fun worked at the start, why wouldn’t it work when they’re bigger? Wouldn’t a normal path be to do the exact opposite — get it working, then make it more approachable?

          Worth noting: There’s many aspects of the new Instagram design I like, and it seems clear that at the very least, the icon was overdue for some changes.

          3 points
      • Corin EdwardsCorin Edwards, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

        The thing I miss most with the current trends is the lack of personality. Minimalism typically beats all the life out of a design.

        Untrue. Any lifelessness in a modernist/minimalist design is a result of poor artistry not an symptom of an art style. Fun can't be constrained by an aesthetic. See:

        1 point
        • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, over 3 years ago

          Certain art styles lend themselves to likely outcomes though.

          Also, I wouldn't conflate branding and logo design with software design. Very different things.

          3 points
          • Corin EdwardsCorin Edwards, over 3 years ago

            Umm the article is about Instagram's app icon and its logo. Which are literally the same thing.

            0 points
            • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, over 3 years ago

              It’s also about the interface. I wouldn’t say a logo and icon are “literally the same thing”. They have different requirements. As a simple example, it’s okay or even good to use text in a logo. Icons that use text are almost universally bad. Logos need to work in black and white, icons don’t. Sure, some logos are also used as part or all of an icon, but they’re still different things.

              That example doesn’t relate to the Instagram icon, but it does show that icons are not logos and logos are not icons.

              1 point
              • Corin EdwardsCorin Edwards, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

                You can talk yourself in to broader and broader generalisations if you like, but to keep to specifics:

                • minimalism can be lively
                • Instagram's logo is 'literally' its icon
                • and the discipline of design encompasses software and identity. The two should be conflated.
                0 points
  • César MigueláñezCésar Migueláñez, over 3 years ago

    Fascinating how he keeps coming up with new ways of saying the same thing over and over again.

    45 points
  • P GBP GB, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

    because their ideology is contradictory to its core–their aim is simply to remove artistry in interface design.

    I do love his paranoia that theres some shady group of 'modernists' who are hell bent on removing all 'artistry' from interface design for their own nefarious goals...

    'The cult of Flat'

    13 points
    • Matthew O'ConnorMatthew O'Connor, over 3 years ago

      I'm one of them. If I had to really design things I would not have a job (or be as good at my job), but with modernism/flat design I just play with squares all day, and I'm happy to push my agenda at work to make my job easy for myself and developers.

      I'm luckily backed up by facts like a minimalist chrome is more light weight (due to no images), and therefor easier to build/maintain. And that quicker to design/build UIs work better in an agile working environment.

      But really I don't see anything wrong with a (done well) non flat UI. And I have been hellbent on removing artistry from my UIs and as I'm more comfortable using math to decide why/where I place UI.

      8 points
      • Daniel De LaneyDaniel De Laney, over 3 years ago

        There is a real, important difference between what it means to “really design things“ and just injecting illustration into everything you do for no reason. You can be a great designer without also being an artist. Artistry is great on its own merit, but it’s not the same thing as design.

        6 points
        • Matthew O'ConnorMatthew O'Connor, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

          I completely agree. Obviously I do design systems, flows, interactions and basic interfaces. But was being flippant with my words there.

          If you want your stakeholders to stop thinking design is only about aesthetics, stop reacting to the aesthetics of every new design idea.

          I was using hyperbolic language that matches the tone that "design is only about aesthetics".

          0 points
  • Christoph GromerChristoph Gromer, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

    Instagram's Abomination continues next week with Part III. Can't wait.

    11 points
  • Thompson GeorgeThompson George, over 3 years ago

    Please don't upvote.

    10 points
  • Kris KimKris Kim, over 3 years ago

    It's fascinating to see that his article seems to be constantly hated/unwelcomed, but still being posted here every single time.

    8 points
    • Seb Jachec, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

      Constantly hated/unwelcomed by some.. Could well be an unwelcoming vocal minority commenting.

      Either way, it's worth considering other people's arguments even if you disagree completely.

      4 points
    • Andrew Simchik, over 3 years ago

      Constantly, yes, but universally, no. I enjoy his articles and will take one of them over ten poorly spelled, awkwardly worded, meandering Medium "articles" any day of the week.

      5 points
    • Laurens SpangenbergLaurens Spangenberg, over 3 years ago

      While many of his works are hated upon and disagreed with, he does introduce interesting and different ideas that are worth discussing. There are quite a few articles by him that also quite fantastic.

      2 points
  • John PJohn P, over 3 years ago (edited over 3 years ago )

    Company redesigns logo 300 times

    Designers on Twitter "aesthetics don't matter"

    5 points
  • Jared White, over 3 years ago

    I must admit, for years I was as big a fan of 3D realism-inspired UIs as much as anybody. The transition to flat UIs was painful for me at first. Now I can say without hesitation that overall I think the movement has been quite a positive one. However, as with any design trend, it's easy to overdo things and lose the creative edge. Instagram's new app UI in general is just incredibly boring to me, and the icon is simply a byproduct of that process of taking minimalism too far. I appreciate that they're not really doing anything differently than a lot of default iOS 9-looking apps. I think it's our job as designers to examine the "default" style within a particular app genre/platform and find ways to push the envelope just a little bit to bring surprise and delight to users. Otherwise everything just gets lost in a vast wash of sameness.

    5 points
  • Guillermo MontGuillermo Mont, over 3 years ago

    I don't quite understand what he's going on about. I'm going to have to give this a re-read.

    3 points
  • Steven CavinsSteven Cavins, over 3 years ago

    I'm not sure it's necessarily that designers don't care about aesthetics, but that they just might not care about Instagram. I don't.

    2 points
  • Daniel FoscoDaniel Fosco, over 3 years ago

    Here are some variants I drew [...]

    This is so inelegant.

    2 points