From organised chaos to flat design: 10 years of digital design

Jordan Dalby
By Jordan DalbySenior Designer
5 minutes to read

When we formed back in 2008, web design was in its experimental phase and sites more often than not compromised elegance for functionality. But fast forward 10 years and things are incredibly different. We’ve had a look at the journey along the way and how we’ve gone from the slightly garish to slick, clean design.

Finding its feet

In 2008, websites wore trends for about as long as a crepe paper jacket would hold up in the rain.

It was quite an experimental time and designers certainly didn’t hold back. From handwritten fonts, sketches and virtual sticky notes attached with paper clips to splatter ink backgrounds that made content unreadable and grungy textures garnished with swirly vector illustrations. It was a time of no holds barred, anything goes.

And with web 2.0 there were glossy buttons with bevelled edges, plenty of drop shadows, gradients reigned and over-sized calls-to-action gave users a visual banquet.

And then came along the smartphone

Desktop was still king and we were beginning to feel comfortable with the rules. That is, until Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in 2007. We instantly knew this device with redefine our relationship with our phones and how we interact with the web. The mobile revolution had begun.

As it gathered pace, we had to not only think of how websites worked on desktop but consider designs for mobile too. This soon became the norm and stripped down ‘mobile’ versions of a website became part and parcel of a designer’s workflow.

And then just as we were getting used to that, 2010 struck and brought with it a new idea. Ethan Marcotte, one of the day’s well known designers, proposed a different approach to conventional design. He wanted to take the same content and change the layout through CSS and media queries so the design worked on different screen sizes. Perfect for the rise of mobile phones.

Responsive web design (RWD) meant that designing for fixed sizes was a thing of the past and we now have to consider how content will adapt to different screen sizes.

Apple’s heavy use of skeuomorphism helped to galvanize it as a trend. So now, the web was full of exaggerated textures to add a degree of realness and make elements instantly recognisable.

Flat design takes over

As users became more proficient in interacting with computer interfaces, heavy-weight photo realistic icons and illustrations became obsolete. Digital design began to find its natural form.

And so flat design came about.

Based on visual clarity with clean, minimal and simple aesthetics which are free from unnecessary clutter. Minimal use of simple elements, typography and flat colours makes it easier to design responsively. It looks crisp on high resolution and is leaps and bounds ahead of the clutter of just four years before.

Microsoft was an early adopter introducing it to Windows 8 in 2012. Apple quickly followed suit in 2013 with the release of iOS7 headed by Jonny Ive which featured flat UI elements.

This trend filtered down to most digital interfaces.

In 2014, flat 2.0 arrived and brought with it subtle gradients and shadows to add depth plus a better user experience.

And that brings us to modern day

Bold, bright and vibrant colours permeate throughout our device screens to give us a modern ‘digital’ feel.

Video fills our screens.

Typography has quickly become a way for brands to establish a strong identity with many choosing to create custom ones. For instance, Airbnb recently created a new font called ‘Cereal’ in a bid to create brand distinction and build on its personality.

The web is much slicker than it once was, with many users delighting at the subtle animations rewarded for interactions. Javascript, CSS and SVGs (scalable vector graphics) help us enhance the user experience and make even the most serious of websites a little bit more fun.

Relationships between designers and developers have never been better (for some anyway!). The minimal and simplistic approach that flat design brings has loads of advantages for build which keeps the devs happy. Flat design improves usability, increases site performance, results in cleaner code and is easy to adapt designs across multiple platforms. All in all, it’s a win-win-win (can’t forget about the users too!)

Photoshop is slowly starting to revert back to what it originally set out to be which, unsurprisingly, is a photo editor. Design tools such as Sketch, XD and InVision have come to the fore which each have their own workflows and boon to productivity.

We’re now more equipped than ever to design for a modern, digital world.

So where are we headed?

Well we’ve already talked about how quickly design trends come and go. But rather than wait for the next ‘thing’, we should each be proactively defining what the future is going to look like.

From the current climate though, user experience and user satisfaction is a key focus for many online businesses. This will inevitably continue to progress and will ultimately shape how we design digital products.

As a whole, digital products will become faster, more intelligent and easier to use.

Seamless integrated design tools will undoubtedly continue to flood the market and we will be spoilt for choice with which ones to use.

And as ever, design terminology, job roles and coding language will continue to evolve. Looks like we’ll have to keep up!

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