Coming off a great reception to the four-part "Critical Sharks" series, I'm starting a new multi-part series: "Fall of the Designer." This series will engage with the threats that face design practitioners and the industry at large, whether self-imposed or external.
In June of 2001, on the release of the first guidelines for OS X Aqua icon design, Corey Marion of the Iconfactory and Alan Graham of Mac DevCenter were interviewed by O’Reilly. The interviewer recalled from WWDC: "Apple stressed the importance of building high quality icons for OS X...They recommend that engineers hire graphic designers to handle their UI and icon design."
The Biggest Mistake Developers Could Make
The interviewer then asked Marion "What's the biggest mistake you see developers make?" Marion responded: "Starting too late in the process so there is not time to develop icons and obviously not hiring designers to do the UI design."
Graham exclaimed "You know the remark that stuck with me from WWDC? When an engineer got up and said 'Designing icons for OS X was the hardest part of the development.' Today, thanks to flat design, any designer who uttered these words would be laughed out of the industry.
The interviewer asked Marion what he saw for the future. Marion's response: "A lot of jobs creating fewer icons that take more time." Since the emergence of flat modern minimalist design, this is the opposite of the case.
Before iOS 7, icons were highly differentiated. You could immediately discern which app belonged to which brand, and you knew the app's purpose.
In iOS 7, Apple has done away with the concept of branding. Popular companies like Facebook have eagerly followed suit not only in their icon concepts, but in their palettes too. One might assume that Apple bought Facebook given the striking similarity of their icon designs post-iOS 7.
Notice Apple’s Remote app and Safari in comparison to Facebook’s Messenger. Or consider Apple’s Game Center in relation to Facebook’s Groups. Each app, Apple or Facebook has roughly the same appearance.
This is true not only of Facebook. Almost universally, the designers at the standard-setting tech companies throughout the industry immediately employed flat design as an opportunity to increase their efficiency and prove their adherence to trends.
Easy and Cheap
Flat design emerged as a convenient set of training wheels for shortsighted front-end developers and the increasingly disposable visual designers who blindly embraced the aesthetic. However, whether or not flat design would go on to increase interfaces' enjoyment or usability for users was not a matter of importance for these designers or developers.
As I explained in Critical Sharks Part Four,
The crucial point here is not only that Apple does not support independent development. When app development is unsustainable, design itself must accordingly suffer too.
This is why iOS 7 and flat design have been such a boon to developers. It means that on their cash-strapped budgets, they no longer have to pay to get a mediocre design. Now they can make it themselves. These developers, and the blind designers who followed their lead, loudly cheered on as truly custom design experiences were thrown out the window by OS makers.
It used to be that a visual designer was both desired and needed for excellent software design, in everything from the UI to the icon design. Thanks to flat modern minimalism, a developer can make icons on their own, or on the cheap. Better yet, they can just use stock elements. As Marco Arment put it, he really "lucked out" by using standard UI elements, "because what's in fashion today is much easier for non-artists like me to do." Arment explained, "a designer is no longer an absolute requirement to make a good-looking app."
Similarly, designer Bill Labus said "So sad that iOS 7 has destroyed UI design expectations from Apple to the point that Yosemite looks good to most people by comparison." Both Arment and Labus are right. The standards for what constitutes "good-looking" have plummeted dramatically.
Arment continues, "iOS 7’s redesign gave indie developers a huge advantage by making the stock UI cool again." For developers, "Apple is greatly helping our efficiency." Arment optimistically concludes, "and that's better for everyone." Everyone but users and the designers who might otherwise have advocated for them.
In my own polling of developers, I've received a similar sentiment. Görkem Güçlü, the iOS developer of UMass BusTrack with whom I collaborated on iOS icons and UI, had this to say: "before, you had to really invest into design and pay a designer to make the app pretty or outstanding" On the other hand, he felt that today, "Yes, every app is white now and just has a different tint color to differentiate from other apps, but design is not nearly as time consuming as it was before." This was helpful for him because "I don’t have money for a designer, so I welcome iOS 7/8 everyday."
Mike Rundle, the designer and developer of the iOS app Interesting, argued similarly that "Mediocre designers love 'flat design' because it takes minimal effort to execute." Product Manager Jonathan Libov admitted that "if you're an untrained, not-so-great designer like me, please relish this era of flat design."
When Josh Topolsky probed Google's "Design Dictator," Matias Duarte about the lack of visual diversity in modern UI design, Duarte initially tried to sidestep the question. But thirty minutes later in the interview he unintentionally brought the conversation back around in order to lament this very problem of modern minimalist design. A problem that Google has done its part in contributing to.
We were talking about UI design and if you look across the platforms, Android, iOS, Windows Phone…it’s moving towards a unified, flat, clean place. I’m not saying I want skeuomorphic to be a thing again, but have we lost a little bit of…are we past the moment where people are really excited about what you could do in those spaces? And are we going to ride this familiar, similar…are we in the valley of sameness in design? Things are not as differentiated as they once were.
Duarte replied with a diversion:
I think it’s true, there is a certain sense of fashion that plays into UI design, actually it was always there, there’s a fashion in visual design that’s more pronounced now…because of resolution and rendering, and so that gives us a greater expressive range. And with that expressive range we get a little bit of a sense of fashion.
It seems more than a little strange that a "greater expressive range" would lead to a convergence towards minimalism. After a while though, Duarte found it unavoidable to acknowledge the homogeneity in UI design compared to yesteryear: "Our products are still very generic...If you compare the diversity in software to something like the diversity in clothing, it's orders of magnitude different. Right now it feels like there's one jacket." Unfortunately, Google's Material Design is not helping.
Duarte concluded, "There’s a sense of convergent common successful solutions. I think there are periods of consolidation, periods of settling...I like to be optimistic about it."
What is there for Duarte to be optimistic about? As Jonathan Walford astutely points out in his book Shoes A-Z, "Fashion is born the moment design transcends purpose." This could not be more applicable in today's design world. All that is currently permitted in visual design is the most purposeless fashionable vacuity.
The issue that people in positions of authority similar to Duarte should, but have not grappled with is whether there is actually any justification for "settling."