Modernist design: Beyond flat and simple

Earlier this decade, the big players in software adopted modernist design for their user interfaces. With this redesign, digital came of age, with a look and feel that’s no longer bound by last century’s conventions or bound by the inexperience of those new to computing. Modernist user interfaces focus people on their current task, supports fast-paced use, and embraces the fact that the interfaces are digital.

You’ve seen and used modernist interfaces, on your Apple phones and tablets, in Google products, and in Microsoft Office and Microsoft Windows. But let me explain what modernism is and what it isn’t.

Modernism sometimes gets reduced—incorrectly—into two guidelines:

  • Put fewer elements on the screen.
  • Make what’s still there look simpler and flatter.

Blindly applying those two guidelines without understanding the underlying principles can lead to puzzling and inconsistent experiences. In some cases—including in products by the big players—fewer items and less visual detail on screen has resulted in the removal or omission of the necessary cues that separate content from controls, the cues that allow people to learn and use the software effectively. In other words, overzealous application of the two oversimplified design guidelines has made some modernist products less usable.

Let’s examine each of the purported benefits listed above. Continue reading “Modernist design: Beyond flat and simple”