Wells RileyBlog


Less Aesthetic, More Design

Jan 24, 2013 3.5 minutes

Talk about “Flat Design” has exploded over the last two or three weeks. It’s almost become as much of a meme as Skeuomorphism became a few months ago. There’s a critical piece of this discussion missing – that’s got to stop.

“Flat” and “Skeuomorphic” aesthetic, not design.

Aesthetic (how something looks) properties do not wholly describe the overall design of a thing. “Design” as a descriptor represents the process, intentions, and execution of an idea, and aesthetics makes up a very small part of that. To distill our discourse on design down to the aesthetic choices is seriously disturbing – it discredits the most important considerations we as designers must make in order to create good design.

It’s not your fault

Aesthetic fads are easy to talk about, and fun to brag about. The entire function of sites like Dribbble are to ogle pretty things made by other designers. Writing inflammatory blog posts about Skeuomorphism generates lots of banter on Hacker News, and drives tons of traffic. Products redesign to fit in, also generating loads of designery buzz.

Talking about user stories, usability studies, or accessible UI elements isn’t sexy – those posts don’t generate much traffic outside of UX designer circles. It’s not easy to ogle a screenshot of a DOM network performance inspection.

Symptoms of a bigger problem

Why is there such an outcry against Skeuomorphism? The main argument is that it gets in the way of usability. Flat aesthetic is lauded for being more honest, simple, and easy to understand. It removes the extra ‘stuff.’ But Flat is just as guilty – just look at the comments about Dropbox’s new iOS app:

“unfathomable icons thrown all over the place.”

“It’s a bit weird. It doesn’t indicate “Edit” or Change or whatever to me visually. I’d no idea what it did until I tried it.”

“So I’m supposed to remember the positions now? What happened to designing intuitive icons? It took me a while to understand why the check mark meant Edit.”

These pain points go far beyond aesthetic – down to the levels of user experience and usability. Skeuomorphism and Flat are disparate visual solutions, yes, but neither is a solution to the massive usability problem. They don’t even scratch the surface.

Useful Design

I’ve got a new metric we should use to evaluate our work. It’s not a new idea, but it happens to be the most practical metric by which to evaluate any product you’ll ever make, and the only one that really matters to your customers:

“Is my design useful?”

Think first about the problem you’ve set out to solve. Think about implementation. Think about utility. “Easy to use” and “beautiful” are awesome goals, but ultimately mean nothing if a product isn’t useful to begin with.

As UX begins to mature from just being a vague buzzword, more visual designers need to consider usability and utility concerns in their work. Before you post that shot to Dribbble, think about who will appreciate your hard work more – a handful of anonymous designers, or the customers you’re creating the design for?

Don’t get me wrong – aesthetic choices are important. They set user expectations, elicit emotion, and reinforce a brand – our brains make these judgements in milliseconds. Great UI is a crucial building block of great design. Many UI elements play a huge role in affordances (the ability to intuit function from form) – working either for or against.

Unlabeled icons look great in a screenshot, but will a user understand what they do? WIll they make the product easier to use? WIll they help make the product useful? Think about whether or not your aesthetic decisions will hinder your solution to the customer’s problem.


Flat aesthetic is great. Skeuomorphism is fine too. It’s even okay to gush over sexy UI on Dribbble and explore aesthetic fads in your own work. Just don’t forget the other 90% of what makes a design comprehensively great.

Design is a form of problem solving. Never forget that.

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