The Ultimate Guide to Flat Design

July 16, 2020 by Julija Popovic

Flat design best practices

What is flat design?

Flat design has been around for quite a while. But, it wasn’t always as popular. Just think about the iconic Jurassic Park line. Designers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think whether they should.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be realistic, skeuomorphic design. Far from it. But here we will take a look at the merits of flat design.

The popularity of flat design has skyrocketed in the past few years. But, many people don’t have a clear picture as to what it is. So, first we will take a look at what flat design is in fact.

Chances are you came across it, even if you’ve never heard of it. It’s ubiquitous in digital spaces. Flat design is in its essence simple. It’s minimalist and distinctive.

flat design examples

Flat design heralded a new era in digital design. Many designers turned to flat design. It offered precision and polish that was uncommon until then.

It rose to popularity with Windows 8, iOS 7 and Google material design. All of them used some form of flat design. It made the user interfaces feel sleek and less cluttered.

You’ve probably seen good examples of it in google doodles. Remember a few of them. They’re simple, as a rule, and depict only the necessary elements. Despite that, they’re the most charming little things. And they convey their messages in a clear, understandable way.

They also capture the users’ interest almost at once. There are a few ways it succeeds in doing that.

This brings us to the first characteristic of flat design. Flat design is bright. By bright, we don’t mean aggressive neon colors. Bright here means cheerful, but not euphoric. Some might say it’s the color schemes of children’s books.

Patterns & mood

They have happy colors. Still, they mustn’t be overbearing. They need to enhance the simple beauty of the design. Every element of flat design needs to stand out on its own. But, it also needs to work within the entirety of the project.

Something about flat design evokes aesthetics of times past. Put in simplest terms, it feels like something we’ve seen before. The bright, peppy colors bring the feeling of vintage ads.

This is interesting in of itself. How is it that the digital world found its retro groove? There are many answers to that. One of them is because of nostalgia.

In recent years there has been a massive resurgence of 80s and 90s aesthetics. This translated into the realm of digital design.

Many designers drew inspiration from the carefree-ness of their childhoods. Hence the children’s books color schemes.

Another reason might be the fact that technology has evolved at an incredible rate. Perhaps we weren’t ready for that yet. People are sentimental beings.

So, the cold edge of the digital sphere needed to be softened. Cyberpunk is all well and good, but it can often feel too harsh.

And people like to be cozy and snug. Even if we don’t always admit it.

But, we still like our tech to work wonders. And we want it to work without a hitch.

Flat design does that. It blunts the edge a just a smidge. It’s still polished and sleek, but it’s approachable. Its 2D elements are often simple. Still, they’re quirky and delightful enough to keep the users’ attention.

That’s not to say flat design has no drawbacks. With the use of flat colors, some icons and buttons can appear unresponsive. This can cause confusion for the users. It’s why many UX/UI designers opt to use some form of shadowing in flat design.

It’s what some people call semi-flat design, or flat design 2.0.

This makes the UX much more effective. It also allows the designers to keep the funky aesthetics of flat design.

Flat design comes with many advantages. With such simple graphics, it scales to any screen with little problem.

It also allows faster loading times. This is a huge advantage, as people have gotten quite impatient. We’re all familiar with the frustration of having a site lag. Flat design enables the apps and sites to load as fast as we’d like.

The solid colors also look neater. You might imagine an intricate and beautiful design. But it can look messy on a digital platform. Screens can’t quite render images as our imagination can.

That’s why it’s smart to use symbolism and basic shapes. They can get our message across and look sleek. Then, it’s up to the users to construct their own version in their heads.

We will examine the best practices in flat design. What makes for an effective use of shapes and colors? What are some of the most common pitfalls? Which products are best suited for flat design?

Read on, and you will find out.

The do’s and don’ts of flat design

Flat design doesn’t have a set of strict rules. Like any creative field, it mostly relies on the skill of the designer.

But, there are some things you should keep in mind. Especially if you’re a novice in the field.

Some things just don’t work well in flat design. But, let’s first start with tried and true practices.

First of all, you should keep it simple. This is the one golden rule of flat design. You don’t need frills. Simplicity is the name of the game.

Your icons need to be symbolic. Let’s say the project is a website for an online shop.

It’s enough to put a stylized doodle of a dress and a shirt to know it’s the clothes catalog. A doodle of a bag can symbolize the accessories department.

A basket or shopping cart signals where the buyer can review their purchases.

All of these icons don’t need to be realistic; the customer knows what they represent.

This brings us to the next piece of advice. Because they are so simple, elements of flat design need to be neat. They have to be polished to perfection. Otherwise, the design will look amateurish.

The appeal of flat design lies in its crispness. It’s high effort high reward. It might seem like it’s easier than skeuomorphic design. It’s not. The devil is in the detail with this one.

Or rather, the absence of detail.

Think of it this way. It’s quite simple to dress tacky and over the top. Elegance is harder to achieve. You have to think of colors and tones. You have to mind the state of your clothes. They mustn’t be fraying or tatty.

It’s the same with flat design.

The shapes need to be well thought out. The lines have to be clean and not cluttered. The shapes in flat design are often playful. Their simplicity makes them more dynamic than skeuomorphic elements.

You need the same attention for coloring. It’s not enough to slap some primary colors in there and call it a day. As with any kind of design, you have to bear in mind the idea of the project.

The design has to be thoroughly in line with it. There are many different styles you can go with flat design. It can be retro, as we’ve seen before. Alternatively, it could be playful and cheery. It can also be utilitarian. The choice is up to you.

But, you must pick a style that matches the idea of the product. It sounds basic, but designers often lose sight of that.

Flat design & animation

Animation is another great way to lift up your flat design. Just a simple movement here and there can make a world of difference. Still, as with everything, you should use it in moderation.

Too much animation can divert the attention from the main idea. This is, in fact, solid advice for all flat design.Everything in moderation.

Flat design is all about synergy between elements. Color, shapes and animation need to showcase and enhance one another. So, you need to give all those elements room to breathe.

If there’s too much going on, the users might overlook something. Many elements clash for attention. This makes the design weaker.

Elegance is, after all, making an impact with limited tools. Understating serves this purpose much better than overstating.

Flat design makes interfaces polished. But, it’s up to the designers to make them interesting and functional.

Font choices

Fonts are also a vital part of good flat design. With a vast array to pick from, you can play and try many. Trial and error is part of the fun of design. In general, you should stick to simpler fonts when dabbling in flat design.

Flowery fonts with lots of loops could clash with the simple aesthetics of flat design. But, if you’re doing a letter logo, you could experiment. Again, think of google doodles for examples of this.

Balance out a flashy font with minimal details. It makes quite a centerpiece. It needs minimal augmentation. But, if you’re getting into flat design for the first time, you need to be careful about this.

Flat design is quite versatile. It can be the perfect choice for many kinds of projects. In the next section, we’ll take a look at the kinds that best go with flat design.

Flat design in projects

UX/UI design relies on both practicality and aesthetic appeal. It’s all about baking the cake and eating it too. And that isn’t a bad thing at all, is it? It’s how most digital spaces run nowadays.

Flat design is unique because it caters to both of these needs. Functionality and beauty wrapped up in one delightful package. Here’s the clincher, though: you need to stand out also.

It’s a good idea to research other flat design projects. That way you can both find inspiration and see what’s been done before. It’s best if you create something that people haven’t seen. Using inspiration from many different designs can help with that. But, it’s even better to follow your own ideas.

Flat design can seem a bit repetitive. It’s easy to make a basic, undistinctive design. This is where most newcomers in flat design struggle most.

A good way to avoid this is to think about what makes the project/product special. Why is it different from other things on the market?

Gaining traction in the web space

Flat design is most popular in web and app interfaces. It’s easy to see why. The clean lines and wide spacing are as user friendly as it gets.

More and more apps are transitioning to flat design. Even some which weren’t designed this way have changed their look.

This also goes for websites. Flat design makes them easier to load. It also allows them to stay more or less the same on any given screen. This makes the brand even stronger. All this contributes to the pleasant user experience.

But, flat design isn’t limited to the digital sphere. Lots of designers make popular minimalistic posters. People love the clean lines and bright colors that liven up a space. They can depict anything from landscapes to popular movies.

Book covers also use flat design. It’s interesting to see a fresh new design on stories we’ve known and loved for a long time. It can make the readers feel like they’re experiencing the story for the first time. And that’s something special.

This is not to say that flat design is the only path for the future. Not at all. It never was. It’s something that offers variety and fun to the design world. It can and should stand together with other types of design. People might prefer one or another, but this way they can appreciate the beauty of both.

Sometimes, flat design is the best style for the project. Sometimes it’s not. As designers, you need to feel the idea of the project. This will tell you how it will look the best. So have some fun. Explore.

Conclusion – flat design, its virtues, and faults

Its surge in popularity might have made flat design seem a bit passé. This is understandable. After all, we all like to say: “I liked it before it was cool” once in a while. But, one shouldn’t disregard it.

No one can deny it has many advantages. In the digital world maybe most of all. It softens some of the edges. But it also brings a polished, fresh look to the interfaces. This is something that’s vital to digital design.

It has something of a groovy, retro vibe to it. Most of the time, at least. This make flat design projects be recognizable from the start.

But, you can have too much of a good thing. It would be a monotonous world indeed if there was only flat design.

With such a vast array of different designs, it can be tough to make something stand out. It’s not impossible, though. Designers should try many ideas and see what works.

Flat design can be jazzy, as well as somber. That’s the best part of it. You can make it fit almost any type of project. Sometimes, bright colors don’t suit the tone of the project.

But, they do make a pop when you can get away with them.

Flat design is all about precision and making maximum impact with minimal elements. As such it makes a great tool for digital design. It’s no wonder many of the biggest digital companies use it. So, if you need a fresh new approach to design, give it a whirl by all means.

Last updated: July 16, 2020