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Flat Design: the Latest Fad, or Philosophical Ideal?

September 6, 2013
Posted by Jerome Gaynor

“Material honesty” is an architectural idea that suggests that objects are more beautiful when they seem to be made of what they’re actually made of.  It’s an idea that’s been around for hundreds of years, and it’s easy to come up with examples: just compare a solid oak table to one that’s finished in plastic veneer that looks like oak.  Compare a brick house to one that’s made of cinder blocks painted to look like bricks.  The superiority of the authentic option is pretty self-evident.

I never knew what it was called, but I’ve been intimately familiar with this idea since I was a child.  Alas, the 1970’s were a decade when this concept seemed to have been nearly forgotten.  The artificial sweaters that I was forced into on Sunday mornings looked like wool, but were made of a synthetic material that was as uncomfortable as it was dishonest.  And the aforementioned vinyl-veneered furniture assaulted one’s eyes at every turn.

In “Material Honesty on the Web,” Kevin Goldman extends this idea to websites.  A website is a virtual object on a flat screen.  According to the author, making websites that look like books, or old-fashioned stereo receivers, is inherently less beautiful than just making a website look like what it is, because the former is “dishonest.”  He even suggests that drop shadows, bevels, and all those other respectable old website standards are merely tacky artifice that ought to be dropped in favor of minimalist flatness.  This is an idea that lends legitimacy to the current trend in “flat” design, but I wonder if flatness is inherently better because it is more “honest,” or if it’s just this year’s trend?

I can’t help but think of the wonder that I felt when computer graphics started feeling “real”: in the 1990’s, and well into the 2000’s, every new version of Microsoft windows sported increasingly convincing glows and bevels.  Was my amazement at Windows ’95 the same as that which was felt by my father the first time he witnessed the miracle of the wood-paneled Ford station wagon?

I prefer flat design, but I’m not sure if it’s because of its novelty, or because it is inherently superior.  Check back with me in 2023 and I’ll tell you for sure…

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