Flat Design, Skeuomorphism and the Museum of Things

The rise of the flat aesthetic within graphic and interactive design over the last several years has kick-started many debates about its merits, especially when compared to the previously-popular skeuomorphic aesthetic. Flat design has approached near-ubiquity on the web, and its sudden dominance is a result of the stagnation of the previous trend mixed with the greater capabilities of newer technologies to handle newer approaches to design.

Generally speaking, flat design features the removal of the shadows, gradients, and other faux-realistic elements that had previously existed, along with an abundance of parallax scrolling effects and solid hits of colour and lighter typography weights. There have been numerous articles about the usability concerns some of these changes pose, yet for all of the hand-wringing and the widespread determination to create trendy sites and experiences, the discussions we’re having — about the role of technology in driving design decisions, or about matching previously held aesthetics to newer developments — are nothing new. A lot can be learned from taking a look through historical examples of other sweeping aesthetic developments.

A good example of this is Berlin’s Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things), which houses a collection of everyday products and objects created over the course of the 20th century. While it’s primarily focused on objects from Germany, the timespan and technological developments it covers ranges from the maturation of the industrial age in the late 19th century through to contemporary devices.

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If you look at objects from the late 19th and early 20th century, you can see the first examples of mass-produced, machine-made objects (from tins of mints to typewriters). For the most part, the graphic design and branding from this time period features a delicate aesthetic that doesn’t match the burgeoning technology. Flourishes, detailed hand lettering, and other human-influenced design elements decorate cold, machine-made objects and, while they’re well crafted and very detailed, there’s a disconnect between the previous aesthetic approach and the new, unfamiliar materials.

This process — designing for a new technology using pre-existing approaches instead of designing in response to the realities of the new technology — reflects the intellectual and artistic debate that’s going on now within digital design. We’ve shifted from visually mimicking the physical objects of address books and desks in favour of a digitally native, minimalistic aesthetic. While I feel like the pendulum has almost swung too far towards a stripped-down design trend, this recent leap mimics the one that graphic design took in the early decades of the 20th century.

Another emergent trend is the full-screen deployment of primary or secondary colours. It’s not a new technique but – in terms of stopping power – it’s incredibly effective. One of the most interesting areas of the Museum of Things showed the divergence in design when Germany was split after World War II. The products of West Germany reflected the broader, Western design trends from the second half of the 20th century; and, while there were differences in the design, the objects from the DDR were a far cry from the cold, grey, monotonous objects you might have expected. Though the brands were unrecognizable to me (which makes sense, as I grew up in Canada in the nineties, not 1970s East Germany), the use of solid, primary colours for all manner of objects immediately stood out on the shelves due to their vibrancy and friendliness.

This raises another question: How much do the art trends that are “in the air” have on any finished product? I’d like to think that every designer sits down with his or her client and creates something suited to their needs regardless of broader trends, but we’re all products of our environment, and our work reflects that. As breakthrough as any initial steps into a new direction might be, the months and years that follow it simply give rise to a herd of copycats until the next trend comes along.

We see this now with the runaway popularity of the flat aesthetic, and the influence of broader trends is made infinitely more obvious by wandering through a museum that contains examples of product and graphic design over the course of decades. One of the more unsettling but fascinating examples in the museum was a poster that employed the simplified, angular graphics, powerful colour palette, and striking compositions of travel posters from the 1920s and 1930s. However, instead of promoting the natural wonders of Switzerland or Canada, it was a propaganda piece for the Third Reich. It was a familiar aesthetic, but it was now paired with haunting content.

The argument I’m trying to make in alternating back and forth between current debates on interactive design and examples spanning twentieth-century Germany is that the debates we’re currently having aren’t new, and that interacting with pieces of design from a century ago reveals insights as relevant today as they were then. Graphic designers didn’t hit their stride until they stopped trying to emulate the flourishes and intricate detailed work of the Victorian age and instead adopted an approach that answered the problems at hand regardless of prevailing aesthetic tastes.

It’s only once we focus on the substance of the problems we’re tasked with creating solutions that we can move beyond this and start creating the most appropriate work. It may be a simple lesson, but it’s one worth keeping in mind, regardless of which aesthetic is presently in vogue.

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