Material design is the official design language for the Android ecosystem, developed by Google in 2014 and announced at Google’s I/O conference. Since its release, there has been an on-going debate about the merits of material design versus the reigning favorite – flat design. If you take a poll, you will probably get a split vote because each designer seems to lean towards one or another and there is no unanimous decision. Opinion is divided because both the opposing design styles are in fact somewhat similar and the differences between the two are quite subtle for the untrained eye. So, to understand and differentiate the two, we must first understand the design ideology of skeuomorphism and how both flat and material evolved as a radical break away from it.
Skeuomorphism: Skeuomorphism is the design approach that uses lighting and shading effects to create depth for the UI so that the elements on the mobile interface appear similar in dimensions to the real-world counterparts. It was popular because it helped achieve a 3-D effect on a 2-D surface. A good example of how this works is the way buttons appear to be raised until clicked and then appear to lower as though physically pressed when clicked.
For the longest time, skeuomorphism ruled mobile OS designs and it was helpful because it helped people transition to the smart screens on mobile phones due to the realistic effects.
But soon the design philosophy moved away towards a simpler, modern, minimalistic look also known as Flat Design.
Flat Design: Flat design doesn’t have a fixed set of guidelines or rules that describe it as such. This is because it evolved as a rebellion against Skeuomorphism. Flat design is mainly influenced by the International Typographic Style (also known as Swiss Style). It was introduced by Microsoft and adopted widely by many web applications and mobile apps with Apple adopting it in 2013 for iOS 7.
- It streamlines the design and avoids any unnecessary graphical and animated elements to reduce loading time.
- Flat design’s simplified sites are highly adaptable making it ideal for making responsive designs.
- Since immersive and 3-D elements of a skeuomorphic design consume loads of app space, they also harden the loading process. Flat design uses simple elements leveled on a single plane so it is easy on the loading time and resources.
- Flat design takes away all the ‘innovation’ and design distractions and allows users to focus on the content.
- It gets rid of stylistic elements like gradients, textures and shadows etc. again speeding up page load time.
Google’s Material Design: Material design is the first of its kind ‘branded product’ that has a set of well-defined rules and guidelines. When a designer uses Material design – he needs to stick to the ground rules set in the principles set out by Google to give uniformity of design on all Android Devices. The main difference between Material and Flat is ‘depth’. Flat design elements look somewhat ‘flat’ and print like. But material design adds depth and hierarchy to the applications by setting a uniform light source and shadows programmatically. It follows the simplicity and minimalism of Flat but adds to it ‘light and shadows’ for depth of perception.
- Introduces the concept of Z-axis for designers making everything more real using elevation and shadows.
- It mimics the ways of the physical world but in an utterly simplified manner. It uses realism as a means to make the users perceive the interface better. Not realism for the sake of it but to an end.
- Material design builds off of flat design but has more interaction with a color system, layout and functionality that creates a design ecosystem for the user across many products and devices.
- More intuitive. It’s easier to use than flat design, both for seasoned and new/inexperienced users.
- It promotes the use of motion in design. The sense of motion helps users understand what’s happening on screen and where to focus their attention.
Flat or Material Design?
Both Flat design and Material design are excellent for the purposes they have been evolved for. There is a common myth that Flat design is ‘owned’ by Apple but in reality, any designer can use the principles of Flat design. However, material design is well-documented and the more prescriptive of the two, used widely for Android UI and also for the web. Many custom iPhone app development companies use the principles of Flat Design quite well to create apps that blend beautifully in the iOS ecosystem. Both are modern designs and very stylish. As a rule, material design is used for Android projects and flat is used for iOS, but there are wider applications and use for both. So, it is not a question of whether one is better but how well you implement the principles of each for your target audience and their sensibilities. Have you worked with these design theories recently? What is your preference? Please let us know in the comments section.