It is the natural progression of language that new ideas are communicated wrapped in metaphors of the familiar. Once established, these become the new familiar. Metaphorical images are typically simplified into iconic representations. Examples are not hard to find; Chinese characters, Byzantine religious icons, and of course, the icons on your IPhone.
Such simplification is useful as it enables more dense information in the same relative space or cognitive bandwidth. Reduced overhead of information density can make interaction more efficient and feel simpler and easier.Flat design is such a progression. In fact, the radical flip flop from skew-morphism is such a vivid example of this as to be cartoonish. Cartoons, yes. The classic cartoon is itself a simplification of a complex idea into a simplified and notably flat rendition of an idea.
I wrote about this recently in my blogpost, “Where have all the affordances gone
Degraded usability is the primary concern in that post. But there are other downsides, maybe less impacting, but at least as annoying. The trouble with flat design in practice is that graphic designers, robbed of the option for excessive skew-morphism, tend to crank up the noise on other superfluous elements such as color, scale, grids, and random white space that make for excitement, but muddle the user experience in new flat ways. Minimalism is good because it quiets the supporting players in the scene to allow for more new stars to be scene on stage. But make no mistake. Metro isn’t minimalism.Like some others, I don’t actually see the flat trend and skew-morphism as polar opposites necessarily. Both are eccentricities. Neither has communication as its primary objective. Swapping one stylish distortion for another is a sad trade-off. Every new style or fashion is, to some degree, a rebellion against the last one. What is truly new is that technology has become so mainstream that the whims of pop culture drive so much of its design. Us old techies aren’t used to that.Prediction: Much of the flat trend will stick because it is the natural progression of language, it can add efficiency, and it just makes sense. However, pushed too far, it will incite a rebellion which may manifest itself in a nostalgic return to skew-morphism, though likely with a new twist. What that twist is remains to be seen.
Designers like flat because it is fresh. Keep in mind that freshness only lasts a little while. Skew-morphism was itself considered fresh as it departed from the overly widgety look of the 1990s GUI. What expiration date is on the freshness of flat, like that on a milk carton, may be hard to read. But know that there is one.
What is flat and fresh today will eventually be just as exciting as flat beer.
Also, keep in mind that skew-morphism was over-emphasized in the past, because it was fun. Beyond communicating ideas in the metaphors of the familiar, it poked fun at the very technology it represented with the deliberate intent of deflating the beast of intimidating technology. My metal artwork, in turn, poked fun at skew-morphism, rather overtly. ( See MyFavorite Machine ) Why? Because it was fun, of course! Now that Flat is all the rage, I feel obligated to poke fun at that in my art. This poses an interesting challenge, but stay tuned. 🙂