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Over the past several months, there has been a surprising resurgence of interest in user interface aesthetics. For a short moment, a particular subset of UI designers paid attention to something besides prototyping tools, flat UI colors and the latest design "disruption."
None of the UI concepts produced by these designers were particularly daring. Instead, they opted not to rock the boat, presenting slightly less bland versions of Google's Material Design–the primary difference being a more diffused shadow.
This trend reached its peak when Romanian designer, Paul Flavius Nechita, began a project entitled 100 Days UI in order to improve his interface design skills. What came as a surprise to many was how viral his project became. Nechita not only influenced others to follow in his footsteps, but inspired a website that sent out daily email interface practice problems for designers looking to similarly improve their visual design ability.
One might think this would be seen as a commendable development–designers improving on their skills and sharing their artistic progress. That was not to be the case. And frankly we should have known better, because as Volkan Günal, a UX Designer at ZenMate pointed out, "Design is not art, it's a profession." How ignorant of anyone to think it possible to produce artistic designs professionally.
In our industry, even a minor celebration of aesthetics as this must not be permitted. In short order, the attitude in the modern minimalist, anti-aesthetic West became apparent: 'if we can no longer make beautiful, expressive interfaces and get Dribbble-sourced dopamine hits of affirmation for our labor, then no one should.'
Consider designer Bobby McKenna who took to Twitter to say the following:
There is a mobile UI aesthetic that is very popular on Dribbble that I like to call Implausible Hypothetical Eastern European App. I've never seen an actual app that looks like this stuff, but it's everywhere on Dribbble. Lots of gradients and blur and insane animation."
McKenna is the rarity in decrying animation in these interfaces. In fact, the existence of animation in any of these designs should be expected to be a point in their favor given the fetishism for prototyped animation here in the West. Animated prototypes are one of the only remaining genres of visual design which are excused from the normal 'rigor' imposed on all static designs.
But let's take McKenna's critique at face value. Where did these non-Anglosphere designers learn to apply non-communicative neon gradients and blur to every element possible? Where did they learn that shadows are the sole acceptable decorative element? They learned these 'truths' from Apple and Google respectively. One might have thought the obsequious aping of Apple and Google's aesthetics would be something Western designers could get behind. The crucial difference is that some of these upstart designers had surpassed the tech giants–although that is hardly an achievement.
All that non-Western designers taking part in the 100 Days project did was take the interface aesthetic handed down from on high and slightly increase its visual appeal to actual users, rather than to self-congratulatory Californian minimalists, as was their professional obligation. But if we're to be historically accurate, the very same hypocritical designers decrying today's 100 Days UI trend were, not two and a half years ago, immediately doubling down on Google and Apple's half-baked flat OS redesigns.
Let's return to McKenna's argument, "I've never seen an actual app that looks like this stuff, but it's everywhere on Dribbble." This point is a mainstay for critics of Dribbble, but I find it to be a totally misplaced accusation. Most every designer knows that a great number of works on Dribbble are speculative in nature. Even a good portion of the uploaded designs that will eventually go into production are not the final browser or device rendering, but a best-case scenario mockup. This is to be expected.
Furthermore, in this case, the vast majority of shots in this aesthetic are fairly easy to implement–no one of sound mind could argue that a diffused shadow is a burdensome task for a developer to take on. The argument that these designs are, as a rule, totally impractical simply does not hold water.
Another argument that has been going around is to denigrate those entering the 100DaysUI challenge, claiming they are mere amateurs and their work looks terrible. Sure, some of the designers participating are amateurs first learning their skill set. For them, how can we possibly expect them to be creating masterpieces? They need encouragement if anything, not lambasting.
Axel Herrmann of Germany made a satirical Dribbble shot, entitled "Daily Nothing, Day 001," mocking the trend. Hermann wrote,
I decided to do nothing for 100 days straight. This is day one. I invite you all to go to the toilet, sit there for a while, enjoying a fart or two, just to find the right inspiration to rebound this shot and create your "own" thingy.
I suspect that we will not see the end of these lamentations of The Dribbblisation of Design even decades after Dribbble goes the way of DeviantArt and similar dead communities. It seems to be in the DNA of the self-flagellating design world to oppose aesthetic practice wherever it emerges, that is unless it is so de-emphasized as to no longer matter.
The international interest in aesthetics should not be taken as an affront to designers in the West. It should be received as a wake-up call to take visual design seriously. The real shame is that Western designers dropped the ball so badly it took non-Western designers to reinvigorate a slight interest in visual design.
It goes without saying that great design can emerge from anywhere–and it does as we can see here. But great visual design should not be so low on the list of priorities that it must emerge from outside industry leaders like Google and Apple. Visual design excellence should be part of their core values.