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The evolution of flat design and how its journey so far can shape your online presence.Whatever the goal of your site, it has to have style and substance to succeed, but what if I told you that following one web design trend could help you to achieve both? Increased browser support for CSS3 saw an explosion of gradients and box shadows, but the web development world is taking a huge leap away from these traditional design details and embracing the clean, crisp nature of flat design. The move sees less vendor prefixes and shorter style sheets, two factors that mean less kilobytes on page load. Here we will explore the key principles of flat design, its impact on user behaviour, experience and ultimately conversion, and unveil how this particular trend is likely to evolve throughout 2016.

Flat design at a glance

Thanks to its minimalistic nature, flat design has been the go-to concept for web designers and developers everywhere, with its clean, crisp, bright and two-dimensional features favoured by small and large companies alike. Unlike previously used design techniques, flat design focuses less on austere principles and more on simplistic options that really emphasise usability. Contrary to popular belief, flat design doesn’t have to mean boring. The cutting of unnecessary clutter at the front and back end means a plethora of advantages can be embraced by those visiting the website and those managing it.

Microsoft is said to be the pioneer of flat design thanks to its use on the Windows 8 interface – a move that was seen by many as a slap in the face of the popular skeuomorphic design modelled by Apple on its iOS interface - and with many flat design heroes following suit, the trend is fast becoming best practice across all industry sectors. With the ever increasing use of mobile devices to browse the web, flat design is certain to be a trend that is here to stay.

flat design

One of the advantages of opting for flat design over its predecessors is that it scales well to smaller screens, making it a more practical option for mobile optimised websites. The use of white space and the incorporation of simple buttons makes it ideal for viewing on mobile and other devices. The lack of gradients, drop shadows and other details not only contributes to this contemporary look on both desktop and mobile devices, but also makes site loading much more efficient.

The use of fewer images and less complex code means fewer kilobytes on page load in comparison with traditional web design. Dated websites that do not use flat design tend to provide a poor visual which can have a major impact on user behaviour, experience and conversion. According to a recent case study, minimalism increases conversion rates by 261%, with the content-first, mobile-first approach preferred by the majority of users.

In addition to this, solid and brighter colours make for better design and bigger impact, great for clients that wish to make a statement with their brand. Whilst the utilisation of simple illustrations, minimalistic icons, vector artwork and clear typography makes websites using flat design more readable and easier for browsers to interpret, which is perfect for businesses looking to obtain a greater market reach as universal actions can be understood by all customers. This, however, was not always the case.

With its status as the pioneer of flat design came the highlighting of a few inherent flaws. During a usability assessment carried out by the NN Group, participants found some aspects of the metro design of Windows 8 difficult to read, with the interface’s actionable objects the main cause for concern. In its early days users found it almost impossible to distinguish between a label and a clickable command. Now, with an improved understanding and wider use, this ‘quirk’ is a staple flat design principle adopted across many websites.

The principles of flat design:

Research found that whilst good flat design has been proven to increase conversion rates, shape user behaviour and improve user experience, bad flat design can actually reduce discoverability and on-page interaction, so what key principles make flat design a success and how can these be implemented effectively?

Grid – The grid aspect of going flat is integral to its success and the usability of this popular design trend. The grid can and should be used to define content making it easy for users to digest. Utilising a basic layout, a grid can provide a visual hierarchy with simple alignment and spacing able to support the most complicated structures. Denser grids can be used thanks to the minimalistic nature of flat design, meaning large volumes of content can be conveyed without the chaotic look associated with more traditional layouts. Bootstrap provides a mobile-first, responsive grid system, as this example shows. flat design grid

Colour – When it comes to presenting a website or app that is just as vibrant and energetic as the brand your client is looking to represent, flat design certainly reigns supreme. Colour is critical to minimal interfaces, and with the option to use a broader colour palette, your selected hues will have the power to define content and carve out an enjoyable customer journey. To define the colour scheme, testing across an extensive value spectrum is important. View how colours behave in light and dark, and experiment with tone-on-tone and stark type. Typography – Sans serif tends to be the signature font connected with flat websites, but there is a plethora of font families with varying weights and styles that may work for you. Sticking with just one isn’t as necessary as it is with more cluttered websites, and flat design’s clean and crisp layout actually lends itself well to font size and weight extremities. The golden rule, make sure the fonts are fully legible as this will conflict with the flat theme. typography flat design

Interaction – Ensuring interaction between interface and user is what the earliest flat websites struggled with, and despite the popularity and wide use of flat design, this is still an issue today. There are however a few steps you can take to improve interactivity. Creating contrast is still possible, even without the use of traditional box shadows, drop shadows, bevels and gradients, by making clever colour choices and alternating font size. Following conventional rules when it comes to placement is also important. Aim to ultimately make the website as intuitive as possible without compromising its simple layout. Illustrations – The use of illustrations may sound a little old school, however the preceding flat design principles are only complemented further by the use of vector artwork. Made with flat shapes and distinct areas of colour, the vector style offers the simplicity needed to accentuate the features of flat design. Icon fonts also offer a fitting accompaniment to flat design. No longer do you have to use images as icons, instead icon fonts can be utilised for a crisper appearance across various resolutions. flat design drawn

We couldn’t talk about the benefits of opting for a flat website without mentioning a few of our design heroes. Our top three spans a number of industry sectors, a fact that backs up just how versatile flat design really is.
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