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Deciding against dictated design

By Gwynn Kirk, Designer & Editor

Design trends, especially in graphic design and tech, tend to be picked up faster and more pervasively than in any other industry.

Flat design in particular has taken over in the last couple of years. One of the most recent companies to adapt the style is Netflix, whose logo revamp has received mixed reviews. The positive ones say the change signals a new Netflix “that is everywhere.” The negative ones say the move was unnecessary, with Fast Company going as far to say that “it has no excuse to exist.”

Many design experts attribute the revival of flat design, at least in the tech world, to Microsoft, when they unveiled the Windows Phone. Joe Belfiore, who managed the software design of the Windows Phone, said that the choice was made to go against Apple “with something that would be competitive, but not the same.” Since then, many tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google have used flat design in their products. Many other companies, not only in tech, followed suit. The Next Web even cites Apple’s move away from skeuomorphism as the last straw for designers to make the change because of the company’s heavy influence on early adopters.

There is supposed to be a practical reason for the shift to flat design of course – now that mobile is increasingly taking a lion’s share of web traffic, dropping unnecessary design elements like shadows and gradients means that apps and sites can load faster. The move away from skeuomorphism also acknowledges that this generation is more technologically literate than ever, and that today’s tech users don’t need visual cues to know what an app does. Simplicity is also another driver of flat design. In a recent Financial Post article about Larry Page’s latest Founders’ Letter cited the original success of the simple Google homepage and how the idea could be applied to all of their products. The author, however, also mentions that Google is behind Apple when it comes to tech design.

Corporations are dictating modern design standards more recognizably. This phenomenon is fairly new, but in a way it makes sense in today’s highly connected and commercialized world. Microsoft realized that they needed to prioritize design “because the dollars sit there”. Apple had long been several steps ahead of many tech companies because of their high regard of design in their products. There is a lot of importance given to the aesthetic of a brand, but if it looks wildly different from the current looks of other brands, they risk being ignored, or worse, criticized for doing so.

Because of this risk, how can designers innovate and stand out with their work? How much of a negative effect would going against mainstream and widely used design elements have on designers and new products? Should a corporation be setting design standards?

If designers aren’t mindful of the financial motivations that corporations have for declaring ‘the next big design trend,’ they risk embracing aesthetics that are merely new, rather than best. We must remember (and help clients remember) that every design should be its own perfect solution rather than jumping when Apple says jump.