What is Flat Design (and how do I do it)?

Gabrielle Gosha
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Last year saw the emergence of many new and reinvented trends across the world of design. Some trends outshined others, in particular the appealing trend towards flat and almost flat design that made itself apparent in everything from icon design to mobile interfaces to classic web design.

While flat design is far from being a new trend, it certainly appears to have plenty of staying power. Today’s article features not only a breakdown of the flat trend, but we’ll also run through two mini-tutorials to get you off on the right (flat?) foot in Photoshop.

So, what exactly is this Flat Design thing?

As we noted earlier, using flat color and simple geometry is certainly nothing new. One hundred years ago, german Bauhaus designers were railing against the finicky, intricate decoration of the dominant Arts and Craft movement.

bauhaus-flat-poster-design

Their bold type and flat-color shapes arguably look fresher and more modern than ever in 2014. Similarly, Apple’s famous iPod commercials from the early 2000’s revolved around flat design elements.

Microsoft was one of the first to implement this current incarnation of the trend in a digital interface with their Windows 8 redesign.

Their original Metro UI design was reportedly inspired by the simple shapes and colors of the London Underground’s signage.

There’s a clear lesson here: Like those train stations, the digital landscape is a busy, complicated place, and often it takes simple, direct design elements to cut through the clutter.

Flat and Almost Flat

Within the realm of flat design you have two styles. The first is, of course, classic ‘flat’ design. There is no depth — no gradients, no shadows — to any element and they appear to be entirely integrated into the background.

Microsoft’s Windows 8 UI is a very pure example of this approach.

Google plus

Google Plus uses subtle shadowing to give the UI a card-like feel.

A variation on flat is the use of the ‘almost flat’ look. Google have championed this design aesthetic, originally through their Gmail interface, and now through their Google Plus UI.

The almost flat look often features gradients, outlines, semi-transparent panels, glowing effects and drop shadows which are implemented very subtly. Typically almost flat designs look like they are made from cut cardboard. Though subtle, almost flat design elements provide a distinction between the element itself and the background of which it is against.

While both flat and almost flat designs have their own appearance they are both commonly used with bright and inviting colors. They often take on geometric shapes that are spaced and sized evenly so that the page flows and is complementing to the design motif.

Keeping the elements with sharp and clean lines maintains a minimalistic look that most designers aim for.

How and when should I use it?

Like most new trends you are probably asking why you should use flat design when it comes to your design projects — especially when more decorative, 3D elements have taken such a dominant role within technology.

Well when you think of it like that, why wouldn’t you want to take a step in a different direction? Flat design is a refreshing direction for the design community whether you are for the trend or against it.

As you have probably noticed more and more designers are embracing the trend and implementing it in their personal portfolios, design agency websites, mobile navigation menus and in so many other areas to mostly positive reception.

Flat design does have its problems and detractors. If all interface elements are truly flat, how do we identify what parts are interactive and what is decoration? Buttons and panels can look the same.

This by no means should be a deterrent — you can design around these potential limitations. The great thing about using flat elements is that it tends to give your final look a clean and minimalistic feel. Flat design look is also so simple that you are often able to combine various trends without your design appearing cluttered.

It also generally cuts down on development time and makes for more readable, navigable content. The overall user experience is heightened with not only the ability to read the content but to also easily navigate from page to page and from content to content.

So, now that you understand flat design, lets run through two short tutorials to get you creating your own flat elements.

Make a Flat App Icon

This quick tutorial will walk you through creating a truly flat app icon design.

Step 1: New Canvas

Create a new canvas and give it the dimensions of 512px x 512px. Press OK for the canvas to appear.
app1

Step 2: Background Color

We want to add color to our background so change your foreground color to # 424d56 and fill in your canvas.

Step 3: Set up the camera body

Our flat app icon will be a camera design which means we need to create the body first. Select the Rounded Rectangle Tool and give the corners a 20px radius. With the color #efe8e7 create your camera body in the center of your canvas.
app3

Step 4: Rectangle

Change your foreground color to ## 4a6b8a and with the Rectangle Tool create a long rectangle in the center of your camera body like so.
app4

Step 5: Flashes/Lights

Use the Ellipse and Rectangle Tool to create your flash and orange light. The orange is #ff6528 and the white is #ffffff.
app5

Step 6: Lens

Now it is time to create our lens. The lens is composed of several simple ellipses. Below you will find each ellipse and its color listed from largest to smallest. Of course, feel free to adjust them to your taste. That’s how you learn.

  • Ellipse 1: #cdcdcd
  • Ellipse 2: #515151
  • Ellipse 3: #7b7b7b
  • Ellipse 4: #343434

app6

Step 7: Add Lens Reflections

Finish up your design by adding in two white lens reflections with the Ellipse Tool and drop the opacity to 50% for both. It’s tempting to want to make the lens reflections soft and graduated, but with flat design we have to stick with simple.

app7

And there it is.

The Almost Flat Calendar

In this tutorial you will learn how to implement the almost flat style by creating a calendar icon.

Step 1: New Canvas

As with the first example, you’ll want to create a new canvas and give it the dimensions of 512px x 512px.

af1

Step 2: Background Color

Change your foreground color to #5a4e5f and fill in the canvas with the Paint Bucket Tool.

af2

Step 3: Calendar Sheet

Set your foreground color to #fffffff and select the Rounded Rectangular Tool. Change the radius of the corners to 10px and create your sheet of paper.

af3

Step 4: Extra Calendar Sheets

We want to give some subtle depth to our calendar to match the almost flat style. To do so we will create two more sheets of paper, both with a different color. Simply duplicate the top sheet twice and place them underneath one another. The second sheet should be #dadada and the third should be #bababa.

af4

Step 5: Shadow

Now we want to add a shadow behind our calendar. Use #777777 and create your shadow making sure to change the layer mode to Multiply and to drop the opacity to 22%.

af5

Step 6: Top Shadow

We will also want to add a shadow to the top of our paper. Use the Rectangle Tool and with the color #b4b4b4 create a rectangle to cover a little bit more than half of the top sheet. Lower the opacity to 8%.

af6

Step 7: Binding

Change your foreground color to #ff6130 for the binding. Use the Rounded Rectangle Tool to add the binding to the top half of the calendar. Once it is in place rasterize the layer and cut off the bottom half so you have angled corners opposed to rounded ones.

af7

Step 8: Ring Holes

Use the Ellipse Tool and the color #858585 to create two small holes for the calendar rings to go.

af8

Step 9: Rings

Now change over to the Rounded Rectangle Tool and create two tall rectangles with #b7b7b7. Make sure to place them in the center of the ring holes like in the image below.

af9

Step 10: Make a date!

Finish your calendar up by adding your date. I used Impact here at 160pt with # f95d2d as the color.

af10

Conclusion

Flat design, while not a new trend is still a refreshing take on design, whether you are a fan of it or not. There are some issues that flat design poses but fans of minimalism and simplicity will definitely appreciate what the trend has to offer and hopefully will find a workaround. Even if you just want to take a break from the more detailed work often seen in design then you should definitely give the trend a try.

What do you think about flat design? Are you a fan of the trend? Why or why not.

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  • Anthony

    The Metro UI was introduced in Windows Phone 7, not Windows 8, and it was based on the Swiss design language, not the London Underground.

  • http://www.sovainfotech.com/ Sova Infotech

    Flat designs are perfect but I personally prefer usage of powerful background images. Usage of simply one or two colours in not always enough.

  • http://twitter.com/alexmwalker Alex Walker

    James, I think any time you can do it in HTML/CSS, go for it — as long as you don’t have to get too hacky and code complicated fallbacks etc to do it. If you can avoid extra HTTP requests to download JPGs and PNGs, your page is going to arrive quicker every time.

    Personally I think flat design is best-suited to vector applications like Illustrator or Fireworks, but people tend to use what they’re good at. The advantage of working with Illustrator or Fireworks (with an extension) going forward, is you can export pure SVG graphics which are tiny files and even embeddable straight into the page (so no extra HTTP requests).

  • http://twitter.com/alexmwalker Alex Walker

    Fair comments.

    I lot of the momentum behind flat design has been powered by the need for a design style that translates from big screens to small phones elegantly. Can you point out some really nice textured, or visually detailed sites that still manage that transition between devices well?