CX Insights

Flat Design Is Going Too Far

6 min read

Flat Design was the design trend of 2013. Momentum is showing no sign of slowing as more and more sites jump onto the idyllic san serif bandwagon.

With so much going for it, it’s perhaps justified that Flat design stands as the design trend of the minute. So, you ask, why do I think flat design may have gone too far?

It is hard to argue a case against it. Flat design brings with it everything that is appropriate for the modern web. Simple, minimalist web pages. This simpleness translating to a medium that is relatively easy to implement. The use of low contrasting colour pallets are easy on the eye. Sans serif fonts creating a feel of cleanliness.The removal of the ‘bells and whistles’ leaves us only what is important: Colour, Shape and Content. A presentation method which is effective at being both minimalist and beautiful. And with the rise of mobile computing, minimalism is a key advantage. Reducing the stress on low power systems.

Net Magazine recently released nominations for their annual Net Awards. The chief prize going to agency of the year. Looking at the sites in question, it is difficult to argue Flat Design has taken the world by storm (See here for an album of the nominees, provided by Reddit user awkwwward).

However, this also raised some of the major issues I have with Flat Design. These are the best in the business, yet they encapsulate my 3 major pet peeves with the Flat World:

Extreme Minimalism

The ethos of flat design is to implement ‘Swiss Style’ design philosophy onto the web. A philosophy that places heavy emphasis on minimalism amongst other things. Don’t get me wrong, minimalism has it’s uses. It has served to tidy up, and condense sites. Cleaning them, creating a user friendly atmosphere. In the meantime, also reducing stress on lower power devices, such as mobile, by creating simplistic web pages.

Minimalism is a fine line however. It is all too easy to overstep the line where minimalism becomes a featureless site.


(Source: Mark Boulton Design)

We begin with an example from Mark Boulton Design. A renowned web design studio, and a Net Award nominee. You’d expect them to be showcasing their talent on their own site. Instead we are presented with an ultra-minimalist spectacle. Creativity seems lacking. Flat, boring colours with basic text explaining what they do. It may be enough to fulfil its purpose, but does little to inspire us with their talents.

That is not to say this extreme minimalism doesn’t have it’s place, Google has done it for over a decade. It just has to be in the correct context. I don’t think a web design agency, where creativity is key, quite fits that.

Mobile First Design, Taken too Literally.

The great, if not the greatest, selling point of flat design is its accommodation for mobile devices. With over 28% of web traffic now mobile, only a fool would not ensure their site was optimised as such. Flat design’s previously mentioned minimalism drops intense graphics, and process-heavy items. Favouring a clean and basic design.

This is all great. Many designers however, seem to forget about the medium on which the majority of the web is still consumed. The humble PC.


(Windows 8’s Metro UI)

Windows 8 is the obvious example. Microsoft attempted to create a uniform experience across all devices. Utilising their ‘Metro’ interface on Mobile, Tablet, Xbox and of course PC. Metro had shown great success on Mobile, Tablet, and Xbox, and the eventual movement to PC was an inevitability.

An inevitability met with much disdain – you either love it, or you hate it. With hidden off screen gestures, and on screen gestures more suited to fingers than a mouse, Windows 8 provides a usability nightmare for any new user, or experienced user. The clunky Metro ‘Start screen’, ‘Apps’ obviously designed for tablet with little or no regard for PC, oversized text, amongst many other wrong doings.

All of these apply to many modern websites, designed to offer a ubiquitous experience over all devices. Unfortunately, if that experience appears far superior on one device over another, why handicap it – especially if it is your largest market? The user has to be first.

Fear of Breaking From Normality

Flat design has seen so much success of late, everyone is desperate to jump on the bandwagon, or risk being left behind. We’re at a stage where if your site isn’t flat, you’re not keeping up with web standards. You’re living in the dark ages. Your site is a failure.

It is no surprise then, that everyone is jumping on – joining in. With the redesign goldrush constrained by relatively strict rules on what Flat Design is, combined with other current web trends, we’re seeing a huge rise in generically designed sites. Designers appear scared to do something different – at risk of not being current. This schoolgirl mentality is stifling creativity and innovation. We are seeing people play it safe in order to conform. Why change when everyone expects, and seems happy with flat design?



(Sources:Teehan+Lax, Meta Lab Design)

The two sites above are again nominees for thenetawards’ top prize. Two top web design agencies we would expect to be forging a creative path. Yet everything is so generic, so similar. These near-identical sites have nothing to do with one-another, other than being in the same industry. Yet the placement of elements is identical in both, down to menu options and company name/logo. Even the background image has stark similarities.

The scramble to conform only serves to turn each site into a template to be ever so slightly customized for the site it belongs to. Is this really what we want – a generic web?

Will Flat Design’s Popularity be Its Downfall?

Flat design has become the template for budding websites. We’ve seen it feature in a plethora of flattened redesigns of late (The New York Times, iOS 7, Flickr). There is no denying that great flat design really is great. That flat design certainly fulfils problems with ubiquitousness and touch interaction found in older styles.

The issue with flat design is that it has become too powerful. We’re at a stage where creativity is being stifled in preference of sticking to a template that ‘works’. Where sites are becoming generic, sites are conforming. Usability is being sacrificed because… flat design works right?

We’ve covered the issue of whether flat design is here to stay before. I’d certainly agree that its principles will have a lasting impression on the web and elsewhere. It has certainly been a welcome change from the messy skeumorphisms of the past. It just feels as if the internet has lost it’s ‘Wow Factor’. I’m becoming tired of being confronted by the same template site after site. It feels as if every designer is being handed a set of 8-10 WordPress templates to deal with, and adapting sufficiently.

Where’s the creativity gone, and when will it return?





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Oliver McGough
Passionate UX Designer and Marketer.