“The World’s Gone Flat!” — Evolutions in User Interface Design

What’s GUI?

When the first IBM personal computer was introduced in 1981, it came with Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system that required users to key in command prompts that would execute specific tasks on their PC. Needless to say, it was boring-looking, tedious and required users to remember a lot of different commands to complete tasks. Three years later, everything changed when Apple released its highly successful Macintosh; a computer that popularised the use of Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) on personal computers. It was revolutionary, with some even arguing that it was almost as huge as the moon landing, spearheading a paradigm shift in the way users would interact with their PCs for decades to come. Users would use their PCs not just because they had to, but because they wanted to.

When GUIs first became a staple on PCs, there were several considerations put into the way it was presented. Many users were new to the concept of personal computers and the learning curve was extremely steep. The GUI was seen as one of the main catalysts that led to the exponential rise in people who owned and used PCs after the 1980s. It was made to simplify the way users navigate around the functions of their computers, drawing references to familiar, real-life objects or visual representations that aided users in their understanding of how things worked in an unfamiliar environment.

By Jeremy Sim. Image sources: Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Nokia

I’m Sorry, Skeuo-what?

With technology rapidly advancing after the widespread implantation of GUIs across many personal devices, displays got better. Graphic processing got better. The push for better-looking, professional and more eye-catching visuals became the next big thing for manufacturers and developers to parade their technological prowess. The rise of touch screens also meant that users now had to transition to new means of interacting with their devices, pushing for developers to implement visual languages that would ease this transition. GUIs started drawing even more real references to real-life objects and textures, because they could. This type of design was known as skeuomorphism.

Things started getting really detailed in the graphics department of interface design in the early 2000s. The visual upgrades of Mac OS X, Windows XP and even the launch of the first iPhone, heralded a phase in interface design where things like icons were being designed with the aim of being as realistic as possible. There were leather textures, glass surfaces and shiny brushed aluminium finishes that seemed to wrap around every single icon on every user interface from PCs to phones. There were reflections, gradients and shadows that made things “pop” more.

It seemed as though the better displays and processing power got, the more inclined we were to mimic reality in our digital realms, in an attempt to “push our technological boundaries”. It was an exciting period for interface design! People were impressed at how realistic something on a digital screen could appear. It seemed so cool! You could flip pages on iBooks the same way you could on regular books. It seemed so futuristic, the way PC programs were encased in clean, reflective glass and metal.

After a few years though, we started to feel bored. If all digital spaces mimicked the way things looked like in reality, there was not much visual stimulation for the user. In fact, things started looking cluttered to us. That changed when the idea of Flat Design came out. Simple, clean, uncluttered buttons, no textures or reflective surfaces, no glass, no leather. Skeuomorphism, in all it’s textured, shadowed glory, started becoming an eyesore of the past. It was the right time to transition too. Touch-based interfaces had been in the market for a while by then and computers had been around for several decades. Users were already used to the way things worked and had little need for real life references to aid in their understanding of how things functioned.

“As interfaces grew increasingly complex, experiences were becoming cluttered and unusable. Skeuomorphism was becoming limiting and inelegant.”

– Iryna Korkishko, Syndicode

Flat, minimalist design was suddenly everywhere. From interfaces to company logos, designers hopped on the trend like it was a new drug, fuelling a new wave of minimalism that permeated every facet of graphic design, one that focused on delivering eye-catching graphics with bright colours and a minimum amount of detail. In the context of interface design, it was all about providing a streamlined, fuss-free user experience, even within a complex system of functions. Users could get straight to what they wanted with straightforward gestures and interactions that prioritised information by importance, without the need to tie them down to positions relative to one another as they would be in real life.

Flat designs also meant that applications took less time to load as interfaces became less graphic-intensive. They helped create an experience that was smoother and one of the best examples was Windows Phone OS and its “metro design” concept. Despite being a very half-baked OS with limited functionality and app support that eventually led to its demise, its native functions and applications ran buttery smooth and was overall rather aesthetically pleasing.

By Jeremy Sim. Image sources: Microsoft, Nokia, Google, Apple

What’s Next?

Design trends come and go. Skeuomorphic design and flat design are no exception. Looking forward into the next few decades of technology, many predictions have been made regarding how future interfaces might look like. There is no shortage of interface design concepts as people are constantly trying to imagine the possibilities. The world of Science Fiction has provided a great platform for people to express their ideas and fantasies too!

UI designs from popular Netflix series, Black Mirror.

In today’s context, flat design has hit its peak in terms of its ubiquity in interface design and designers have already started experimenting with how visuals can be made more appealing beyond sticking to just minimalism. Microsoft’s Fluent Design system is one example of a large tech company taking the lead in the next step of interface design. It combines what we love and what was helpful from skeuomorphic design with elements from minimalism.

Concepts from Microsoft’s Fluent Design System

Considerations have also been made to cater to interfaces of the future. Virtual Reality (VR) interfaces have the dimension of 3D space that factors into the way the interface is designed. Making use of photography to complement visuals and graphics on applications can create more immersive experiences with a more human touch. Skeuomorphism can play a very important role here, once again, by helping users transition into and adapt to new digital environments. In a way, interface designers can use skeuomorphism as a tool that adapts to theirs and the users’ needs.

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