Flat design is great for mediocre designers like me

Lost amidst the hubbub around flat design is the fact that the flat trend makes it really easy for mediocre designers to do merely passable work.

May 12, 2013
Jonathan Libov

I'm a UX-oriented Product Manager with no formal training in design. In the last two years I've designed two apps, two websites and dozens of mini design-ish projects. I'm astute enough to take the share of compliments I've received for my work with a grain of salt, as most people generally say nice things when they look at your work.

What I lack for design skills, I make up for in being good at organizing information, keeping up with trends, and putting in effort. Although it takes me five hours to do what a pro designer can do in one, this competence has helped me at work and in my personal projects, as I don't need to rely on finding designers to make my work at least passable.

There's also an external circumstance why I've been able to "pull it off" in recent years: the flat design trend. Flat design entails austerity: reducing the UI to eye-catching levels of minimalism. More practically, it entails using fewer features and techniques in Photoshop. No gradients, shadows, nuanced lighting effects, textures, patterns, and complex shapes. Conveniently, these are the things I'm not good at.

Über-designer Mike Rundle hits the nail on the head in this series of tweets:

In short, flat design makes it easier for all designers to do decent work, and much more difficult to do amazing work. Amazing flat UI is quite rare and largely comes from an elite group — Christopher Downer of RealMac Software (the makers of the Clear app), Loren Brichter of Letterpress and a handful of others. I'll be generous and include Microsoft's Metro designers because, in spite of some severe usability issues on Windows 8, the homescreen is gutturally striking.

What you may have noticed is that Clear, Letterpress and Windows 8 rely on stunning color schemes and extraordinary animations that respond delightfully to the touch. Replace them with decent color schemes and decent animations (cough, Android, cough), and you end up with shippable work that's delighting no one.

Lobster anyone?

Actually, in the spirit of "those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones", I'll point the spotlight at myself. In designing Snapix, a just-for-fun side project I did with two friends, I more or less followed Rundle's guide to mediocre flat design to a 'T'.

I chose two colors (which frankly don't work perfectly well together)...

I grabbed a few icons (that have no business appearing in the same UI)...

And I committed yet another sin that Rundle didn't even mention: I used 2012's trendiest font, Proxima Nova. Thank goodness I trashed our original Lobster-font logo for a more passable Interstate-based logo:

Enjoy it while it lasts

This is not to say that flat design makes anyone capable of being a decent designer. Even decent work requires good taste, resourcefulness — I use Colour Lovers for lifting color schemes, The Noun Project for icons, I maintain a good font library) and basic fluency in Photoshop or Sketch. Not to mention a lot of time and stress.

But if you're an untrained, not-so-great designer like me, please relish this era of flat design. Whenever the pendulum swings back to more ornate designs, or whenever animation quality becomes the primary differentiator between good and bad apps, it's going to become really difficult for an untrained designer to pass as a decent designer.

In other words, these Freebie-PSD chickens will eventually come home to roost.