Is ‘flat design’ really flat?

I’ve been following the growing trend for ‘flat design’ with interest. But is it really ‘flat’ or more a reaction against over-used design details like the drop-shadow?

I would argue that the visual impression of depth in a UI is very useful and not something we are going to lose, particularly for very complex UIs. Take this page from Layervault, for example (Layervault’s Allan Grinshtein is one proponent of ‘flat design’):

In the design shown above, the boxes for each plan are clearly designed to be placed in the foreground, relative to the other elements on the page, an effect created by use of contrast. The text that contrasts less with its background colour seems to fade into the background. The same is equally true of the rest of Layervault’s excellent UI design. And it is true of Microsoft’s new web app UIs.

A page doesn’t really have any depth of course – it is flat as your screen. So maybe an extreme anti-skeumorphist would take issue with the use of contrast to create the impression of depth. But the fact is, depth is an extremely useful tool in UI design that helps us establish context and focus. And this impression of depth on a flat page inherits its potency from the way we perceive real 3D objects in the world around us.

I really like some of the new refreshing ‘flat design’ UIs and I think generally simplicity is good. I may well end up moving some of my own design work more in that direction. But I also don’t see anything wrong with the occasional subtle gradient or shadow. And sometimes these can help reinforce the impression of visual depth of in interface in a useful way, like with buttons.