This isn’t the part of the story where I bore you with my input in the ever-waging “flat” design debate.
I’m probably about as sick of that conversation as you are.
In fact, with the unmistakable decline in gradients and drop shadows, the infectious popularity of stroked buttons, and the Great Texture Purge of 2013, it seems like that’s a battle no longer worth fighting. Not that I would if I could.
For me, this one’s a bit more personal.
If you want to call your design “flat”, by all means, you reserve the right to title it so. I’d argue that this classification, by itself, largely undermines the importance of contextual clues that do indeed offer some sort of non-flat hierarchy and actually place more importance on the style over the actual substance of our work; but alas, for those who choose to call it so, flat it is.
But when I saw word, “flat” making its way into how we classify illustration, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I cringed.
I’ve been working in this space longer than I remember it being called flat so when it suddenly became a qualifier (which I supposedly build within), there was something that didn’t quite sit right with me. Maybe "flat illustration” and its vocal proponents are addressing the lack of texture and gradient shadows in a given work. Maybe they’re referring to the limited colors that artists within this field strive to work within.
Whatever it is they’re choosing to single out, to me, it fails as an acceptable qualifier of the work we build. It’s a one-dimensional decree on a multi-faceted process that’s being boiled down to one or two stylistic traits. What’s more, many of us are actively working against the idea of “flattening" a scene out. We strive to achieve contextual hierarchy and even dimension within this digital plane of pixels; flat as the canvas itself may be.
If "flat illustration” is merely dissecting the lack of shadows and spacial cues, then I’ve failed at what it is I’m striving to build. I don’t wish to remove dimension from imagery. I don’t want to take away lighting and shadow. What I do want to create is a space by which these variables can be established in my own interpretation.
The very idea of “flattening" a scene is actually the opposite of what I’d ever want to achieve.
My building on a grid and working with familial geometry has little to do with just how “flat” a given environment is, or so I’d hope. We’re not cutting out spacial reasoning, we’re reimagining alternative solutions on how to render them.
Working with lighting and depth is one of my absolutely favorite things to do in a piece. They’re opportunities to create atypical distinctions within your work that add more than just a few extra pixels to a scene. Their presence can drastically alter a composition or even a mood. But our “flat” classification completely dismisses these critical variables and lumps them into a crude, misleading bucket.
More importantly, its pervasiveness as a buzzword within our community is actually restricting a lot of creative freedom. I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve seen or read on various design networks encouraging other users to flatten their illustration work—to remove a gradient here, a drop shadow there. We’re so fixated on what it is we think we should all be doing, that we’re missing what it is that we could be doing.
It’s a shortsightedness that’s going to cost us if we’re unwilling to reimagine how things could look in a new light.
Obviously, things change. Trends come and go and fashion is fleeting. But if we could drop the misused attribution that we’re slapping on to things because it’s en vogue, we could be seeing a lot more nuanced solutions. We’d see people who finally understand that these rules we’re setting up to box ourselves in don’t have to be there after all.
Whatever you create, in however you decide to reinterpret, reimagine, or remix the world, you’re not bound by one style over the other. There aren’t rules by which you have to contain your creative problem-solving; too paralyzed to traverse the unknown waters of stylistic departure. How you see the world and the ways in which those visions manifest themselves makes your worldview unique.
So whatever it is: skeumorphic, flat, long-shadowed or whatever the hell we'll next call something, let’s think beyond the buzzword.
Let’s strive to create work that’s as unique and divergent as the products we build for.
It can mean the difference between a lasting impression and one that’s merely another fading reverberation in a very loud echo chamber.
After all, it’s getting pretty crowded.