Working in design is challenging. Everybody has at least some opinion about it, regardless of their background. They might not always be able to put into words (or pictures) what they consider to be “good design”, but they certainly know what they don’t like once they see it. We can all look at something and instantly know if we find it attractive or repulsive. It is instinctual, and as such difficult to put into concrete terms.
“Good visual design” is impossible to define, as the concept is primarily based on subjectivity. It is founded in personal taste, which shifts and changes over time. What we find pretty today might look silly two months from now, making “good design” a moving target.
There is an additional aspect of collectivity in this: personal tastes are often influenced by the broader population. As something gets used more frequently, it gets considered a standard over time. We develop a liking for it through the “mere exposure effect”, which states that we consider something better the more we see it. This phenomenon is a big part of how brands build a following.
When designing products, we are faced with the challenge of matching them up with people’s current perception of what is visually pleasing. With little else to go on, following the latest trend seems to be a reasonable and safe choice. The problem with this is that what we go for will eventually fall out of fashion, hard.
Look back at the 80s: leaving out some unfortunate comebacks, very few of the outfits and haircuts of that time would be considered acceptable today. Imagine having built your entire personality on bell-bottoms and plateau-shoes; it would be very hard to fit in with those today.
Over the last few years, we went through several phases of what design is supposed to look like. First we had “skeuomorphic design” and its sibling “realistic design”, where interfaces were made to closely resemble objects from the real world. We used leather textures with realistic-looking stitches, created voice-recorder apps that looked like real audio equipment, and generally tried to model everything after physical objects as much as possible.
This approach, which felt out of place on the minimal electronic devices of the time, was then pushed off the throne by “flat design”, which is the stark opposite of skeuomorphic design: textures were as good as banned, we only used very few colors, and unfortunately lost a lot of signifiers in the process. It became hard to tell what elements of an interface one could interact with; there was very little indication regarding whether or not something was a button, a link, or really just plain text. We somewhat learned how to use those interfaces over time, through trial, error, and annoyance.
The latest wunderkind in a long list of failed attempts to “solve design” is Google’s “material design”. It takes the clean approach of flat design and enriches it with dimensionality and weight, ascribing a physicality to all elements present in an interface.
While it gets rid of a lot of confusion inherent in flat design and solves many of its problems, it is not without its flaws either. It is Google’s attempt to put its own interpretation of aesthetics (which is not something the company is particularly well-known for) out for the world to see. Much of its popularity is certainly owed to this exposure.
In some cases, material design is a case of “function follows form”, sacrificing usability and accessibility for the sake of the central metaphor. My biggest gripe is with one of its most basic building blocks: it basically does away with one layer of information that can be added to input fields, making labels appear like placeholders and moving them out of the way once the field gains focus. This effectively removes the entire dimension of placeholders. There are other problems with it, but this example shows a particular weakness of the approach.
It is perfectly fine if you believe material design is for you, so long as you are aware that you are following Google’s idea regarding what “good design” is supposed to be like, taking the bad with the good. Additionally, your product will end up looking like one of Google’s own properties. While native Android-applications certainly benefit from using patterns that have been established across the whole system, you might not want to attach your entire brand to that of Google beyond the confines of the Android operating system.
At each of the stages during the evolution of “good design”, those that did not follow the taste du jour were considered to not be real designers. Not adding grassy textures to something during the prime of skeuomorphic design meant you were not a serious designer. Still putting shadows and rounded corners on buttons during the flat design-era meant you did not understand design at all. Not doing material design today instantly marks you an amateur. This too shall pass, and two years from now the current state of the art will be an entirely different one that you better follow to the letter.
Even with their prevalence, not everything needs to follow the exact methodologies put forth by the latest trends. Don’t just take any of them as-is. You can pick their best aspects, maybe even some of their visual cues, and build a design language that fits your audience better than any cookie-cutter trend.
If you identify any one trend as worth following, chances are you will feel obligated to follow the next one, and then the one after that, forever following the leader.
It is more helpful to you and your business to focus on the needs of your customers than it is to follow trends. Is your product really this generic and replaceable that your customers will flock to a more attractive alternative at the drop of a hat? Will they leave you in spades if your textfields are not just lines that animate quirkily upon selection?
A new coat of paint is not going to make your product any better either. If the underlying foundation already has a bunch of holes, literally painting over them is not going to help. Trends do not solve your problems, but they might calm you enough through lulling you into a fake security. Good design is about much more than pretty colors and rounded buttons; it is about solving problems well. Visuals can support this, but they are only part of the puzzle. It is important to strike a balance and not get lost in pretty pictures.
Take trends as what they are: a contemporary take on a subject that has currently won the favor of the general population. As our collective taste changes and evolves, so will our trends.
What sounds great at first will show flaws during its lifetime. Once those flaws become problematic enough, something new will come along, replacing the old with something that promises to be better. Rinse and repeat. Rarely do we see iterations which refine an existing concept, as revolutionary concepts seem much more interesting than evolutionary ones. These replacements will always invalidate the status quo, leaving you with little choice but to move to this new concept if you don’t want your product to feel outdated.
Outside of and unaffected by this unstoppable process, there is still a chance to be “timeless”. While visual trends will inevitably change, the underlying goals of our products and services do not. Your customers are not using your product because they love the way the buttons look, nor will they ever care for your parallax scrolling. They care about you only in how you can help them live better lives. Whether or not you are using skeuomorphic, flat, or material design is entirely besides the point.
Focusing on your customers’ needs will never go out of fashion.
(This article was also published on Medium.)