Flatlining: is flat design just the death of any better ideas?

Flat design is having a moment. In the last twelve months the gloss, the gradients and the drop shadows have all been banished from some of the biggest brands on the web.

This week has seen the much anticipated unveiling of Apple's latest iteration of iOS, revealing a radical pivot away from the humanist design philosophy championed by Steve Jobs and the now departed head of iOS development Scott Forstall. Apple's often confusing and occasionally garish emphasis on 'real-life' analogs and faux-textural appropriation has been replaced by a fairly strict interpretation of modernist classicism, complete with spindly Swiss fonts and an excess of horizontal lines where they don't need to be. It's a big jump. It prizes elegance over whimsy, minimalism over extremism. And yes, it's all rather flat looking.

The upshot is that flat design is now the dominant style across all three of the major mobile operating systems. iOS, Android and Windows Phone are now all more or less variations that riff off the same minimalist language. Arguably this is the first time digital design has been this homogenous since the original (and much loved) debut of flat design.

The Commodore 64 load screen – flat before it was cool

And it doesn't seem as everyone's all that happy about it. Even with iOS7 months away from release, the bluster against it has blown strong, sourced as ever from the ongoing anxiety about the decline of the post Steve Jobs Apple and a creeping suspicion that they might just have done the unthinkable and copied a whole bunch of ideas from Android.

It'd be easy for us to add a voice to the chorus by declaiming flat design as the end of anything interesting, but the truth is that Wipster itself could be described as rather flat if you were to glance at it in the right light. There's a fair amount of flat examples pinned to our ideas board, and many of them are quite lovely, and certain parts of iOS7 look fantastic.

It's interesting is to consider where things might possibly go from here. Typically, when minimalism appears as a trend in an art form, (think painting, music) it tends to represent the end-point of a wave of expressionism, the logical conclusion to trying every other option, boiling the whole lot down and seeing what sticks to the pan at the end.

Up until about now digital design has typically been lead by its nose after the technology that's available to it. We only got user interfaces at all once processors had the power to handle them, and Apple's glossy,  detail-rich approach has always been geared towards a demonstration of the incredible displays that light up behind it. Generally the web has become a more pleasant place to look at as the technologies under the hood have developed and the speeds needed to deliver it all have increased.

Yet, there's been no particular leap in technology that has heralded the arrival of flat design, and it doesn't show up any new feature in a better light, if anything the enabling technology has all but plateaued to a state of anything you can dream up being possible. Potentially we're about to see something different, the end of certain kind of design progression and the start of something new. In art the reduction of everything to its bare essentials tends to signify that there's no where left to go. So what could be coming next?

If we're sticking with the analogies to other creative pursuits, then maybe digital design is mired in the ennui of its own late-modernist period. Imagine the state of painting circa 1960. It could just be we're about to witness the inevitable postmodern explosion. It isn't outlandish to imagine the nostalgic sprit of revivalism and pastiche creeping it's way past the edges and onto a user-interface near you. Maybe the Warhol of interace design is just around the corner, about to caste all this careful restraint and taste into a very dull light with something outlandish and incredible. Maybe we'll spend the next twenty years endlessly reviving and reinterpreting that last twenty, and digital design can join the list of things Vanity Fair complains about.

Or potentially this is it, we've reached the end of design history. We're stuck with flat design forever. According to some visions of the future, that's not a terrible world to live in...

Flat design on Star Trek. Always on point.

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