Published on December 8, 2015
Design doesn’t stand still. By its nature, it needs to evolve - not only with trends but with technology.Every day we’re seeing newer and more creative applications of technology - from wearable tech to virtual reality - but how will it affect the design of applications we use every day?
In this post I’m going to take a look at what I think is approaching for digital design. It’s something that Creative, UX and Development teams discuss a lot – because whatever’s coming next, we need to aim to keep one step ahead.
The big thing you notice after you’ve been a designer for a long time is that the big trends fall and rise like a rollercoaster. As they rise in popularity, everyone jumps on them and soon everyone out there is following. But then, pretty soon, you start to feel that so many people are copying each other and doing the same kinds of things, that everything is beginning to look the same – and clients start to notice this too by looking at their own markets.
It’s at this point that we try to break from the herd – do something different and new, to make a project (and our clients) stand out from the competition. The only way to do this is to take the rollercoaster in a whole new direction.
This has happened many times over the history of digital design, from its love affair with tacky animated gifs, its fascination with animated Macromedia Flash websites, (as it was then) through to optimization for fast loading time.
Skeuomorphic vs flat minimal
A more recent example of this kind of trend swing was the transitions from skeuomorphic into minimal design.
Skeuomorphic design is where the visual style replicates reality – for example, a real desk texture with real sheets of paper on it and a scattering of real looking photographs. But it’s still a website, built in the same way.
Creatives, clients and advertisers jumped all over this – here was a way to show off, to be the most impressive, richest experience – and the least like a digital experience as visually possible.
But this quickly got out of hand when site owners realised that having a lot of graphics meant longer loading and also a real restriction on both the flexibility and scalability. Technology just wasn’t able to support it and it began to turn their users away.
Flat minimal design
For this reason, a new approach emerged. The objective was to be smarter with graphics, and to use the strengths of digital design alongside its imagery. At the same time, technology was changing, bringing in new levels of build flexibility with CSS and HTML. The combination of the two led to faster-loading, cleaner-looking designs, using flatter graphics and employing the design space to make an impact, with careful layout consideration to make a statement.
Soon after this, technology changed again and a new era began. The technology boom introduced new devices capable of viewing websites away from the desktop. Responsive Design is where one digital design will work across multiple devices – from tiny smartphone screens, through to full-sized desktop monitors and TVs.
But in order to do this, the design needed rethinking. No longer was a design static – it needed to stretch and grow no matter what size was required. As such, over time, layout practices evolved to allow both designers and developers to achieve this objective – and these principles are still very much in focus today. But is there a cost?
“All websites look the same”
Earlier this year a discussion began at Beyond when Lee Stacey, our Senior Content Strategist, flagged an interesting article written by Dave Ellis, a Freelancer in Leeds:
In it he shows how responsive sites are beginning to look very similar and cites examples. He uses this to promote his own freelance services, but it raised an important discussion at Beyond. My immediate reply was to point out that there is a very important reason why this is is the case:
The difference with responsive design is that its not just a trend – its a technical solution, too. Responsive design has to work as well as look good, and there’s only a number of ways you can do it. So I don’t think it will die out as quickly as previous trends.
David Plunkett, our Front End Team Lead, was quick to also weigh in:
The big focus recently has been on optimisation and efficient delivery of responsive assets across multiple devices/browsers and rightly so, the next step will be better utilisation of modern browser features (e.g, Flexbox) to allow for more advanced designs to be realised. Sadly IE (non evergreen) always holds us back, but things are starting to progress, there are some great new techniques coming that will enable us to move closer to the sexier (and less predictable) pastures of print design. That’s not to say this can’t be achieved now, it just frustratingly takes a lot longer and sacrifices always have to be made.
Breaking the grid
It’s clear that responsive design has technical requirements that have steered its course – but can this be pushed further?
I believe that it can, by once again working to a technology’s strengths but in more innovative way.
Take a look at this example site, created by Burger King as part of a joint venture pitch with McDonalds:
Its visuals style is very consumer-led, almost as if it’s an advertisement or poster. But what’s interesting as you scroll down through the site is how the designer has tried to break the conventional grid of a website at every opportunity – from realistic textures, through to softer, hand-crafted boundaries between the content.
And here’s the real surprise: It’s a fully responsive design!
With clever use of graphics, textures and coding, the designers and coders built something that looks like a custom, skeuomorphic, visually rich experience, but still within the rules and requirements of a responsive framework.
And I believe that’s the direction we need to move as we head into 2016 – taking what we’ve learned from our experience with responsive design and trying to ‘break the grid’ with every trick in the book we can.
And it’s not just breaking the grid – I think there are a few other areas that will be huge influencers in upcoming design…
A third dimension
Google’s Material Design guide, which lays out a toolkit of visual design for its many applications, has a ‘third dimension’ at its core. By using design and technology, they see that though a screen needs to graphically look flat, it doesn’t need to act flat. Interactions and animations can be employed to bring content closer and further away from the user, creating a whole new experience.
This rise of 3D will also play into the growth of Virtual and Augmented Reality. On top of the gaming industry, engineers and visionaries are exploring more and more uses of an interactive 3D space for creative applications – in very real terms, this could lead to sites requiring to become Three Dimensionally Responsive in the not to distant future.
Bringing graphics to life
Animation, video, clever interaction. These are all tools that we should now be including wherever we can. We live in a visually rich, content on demand world – if you want to grab attention you need to do two things: be smart and be pretty. By this I mean that we need to address the technicalities and be sure things work as cleanly and efficiently as they can, be we also need to catch the eye of passers-by as they glance fleetingly across our work. Full-screen, immersive video, animated icons and graphics triggered in smart ways to catch attention (eg. scrolling midway down a page) are already popular – but in conjunction with ‘breaking the grid’ I believe it will complement the experiences we need to achieve.
Conclusions: back to skeuomorphic?
We started out by looking and trend waves – designs rise and fall repeatedly depending on the world around them. The big initial push was to create realism – to be the biggest and the flashiest to make you feel as if you weren’t looking at a screen at all. Then, we changed to make everything cleaner, faster, more minimal – very much a digital experience, creating design principles that we still follow today. And now, we’re starting to look for ways to bring the two together, to create efficient, real experiences where people can be drawn into a story – even adding a third dimension into the mix.
In that regard, is skeuomorphic now evolving into 3D?
Whatever happens, it’s going to be some exciting times in the industry with a prospect of some real innovation in 2016 and beyond.