Flat vs. round: the 500 year old world debate rages on, but this time, in UI design. Flat design has been making its steady climb to the top, splashed across countless UIs and spurring the question: is it just a trend? Trends, just like puka shells and birkenstocks, come and go over the years. Birkenstocks came and went…and wait — they’re back. Why? Functionality. Many would insist flat design is here to stay for exactly the same reason: removing unnecessary design ornamentation gives us a better working product. Yet, round design exists to create an experience much like what we would experience in the physical world, helping us create associations with real world objects to make product use easier. While both have their respective places in the design world, choosing between one or the other for your company’s design is a question of preference and necessity.
Flat design is a style of interface design without the illusions of three dimensional objects and letters. That means no drop shadows, gradients, textures, or beveling to support that illusion — instead, flat design adheres to a minimalist use of typography and color. Flat design is a return to simplicity, and truly good flat design works with tried and true design principles. It does not attempt to hide the parameters that come with designing and viewing on a screen, rather it embraces that medium to create a more functional, responsive UI. Flat design eliminates graphical and animated elements that increase loading times in webpages and mobile apps. Without those elements detracting attention from the content, users progress through content faster. Flashy graphics are replaced with a focus on typography and color, and ultimately this gives both users and designers increased functionality.
Round design, or skeuomorphism, attempts to create a sense of familiarity for users encountering a tool/app online. In other words, it mimicks real-life objects in digital space. A few years ago, this was cutting-edge design. And frankly, it was necessary in order to introduce new users to the world of online interfaces. Now, we see that skeuomorphism can lead to some pretty tacky designs. Take, for example, the felt in the Apple Game Center, or the leather bindings in the Find My Friends app. However, there’s more to skeuomorphism than the past-its-prime designs of the previous 10 years. Those shadows, textures, and gradients give online objects a 3-dimensional feel that can be necessary clues for users in an online environment. In other words, it helps users understand what a button, device, or app is capable of — much like a knob clues you in on how to open a door.
Why Should You Choose One Over Another?
As mentioned before, both have their uses. The flat design ‘trend’ is probably here to stay — not because skeuomorphism is without its function, but because it reminds us that added ornamentation without usability isn’t smart design. Truly, that’s what the flat design movement is giving us: a careful consideration of function and responsiveness built in with aesthetics. Flat design enables beautiful typography and colors to shine through, while making design more manageable for developers with clean code, quicker pages, and better adaptability. Round design, on the other hand, can limit creativity and functionality. Often, ornamentation in round design slows down the building process and the user experience with more complex code.
Also, skeuomorphic elements often take up valuable screen space and look out of place in combination with non-skeuomorphic elements. At the same time, round design that helps usability is still necessary. A flat button that has no clues that it’s ‘clickable’ is not going to increase value for your users. Rather than choosing one option from the get-go, you should take into account what kind of tools your users will need to get the most functionality out of your app, and consider the audience. A children’s game that requires an intense visual experience will be a lot more appealing with round design. Turbo tax, geared towards getting you in and out quickly and easily, will work better with flat design because it focuses on the content and actions. The best way to answer this dilemma is to harmonize round and flat design in a way that taps into the best of both worlds. Creating a stripped down, user-friendly UI is the ultimate goal — and that means taking the functionality of both elements into account to create the best product.
Ultimately, the question of which to use isn’t about which is better. It’s about which elements of design will function properly for your product. Visual styles are not the goal, they are the tool. As a principle, it’s generally better to keep things lightweight and focus on the important foundations of design. The principles of flat design bring function and aesthetic into harmony, taking us closer to the foundations of digital design. In the end, we don’t need to pit round vs. flat against one another, we simply need to ensure function.