The context surrounding web design as trends began to shift towards flat design was one of rapid technological change and promise. In the two decades since Tim Berners-Lee pioneered the World Wide Web in 1989, internet use grew exponentially. Some estimates reveal that the number of internet users grew from 73.9 million to 2.94 billion between 1996 and 2014. Moreover, between 2004 and 2014, the number of users grew by approximately 2 billion. An deluge of new hardware helped to spur the popularity of the internet. The first generation iPhone was released in 2007 and competitors would follow nearly immediately after. Tablets were soon to follow, with the first generation iPad and the first generation Galaxy Tab released in 2010. This new hardware also brought about new ways of interacting with technology. Touch interfaces were finally responsive, easy-to-use, and offered users the possibility of pinching, rotating, and double tapping too. Gyroscopes in mobile devices allowed users to literally flip or rotate their devices to interact with them.
Not only was internet use growing exponentially, but the uses of the internet were growing too. Sites like Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Tumblr, Twitter, and Flickr all launched between 2004 and 2007. Apps like Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Waze, and Spotify were all launched between 2008 and 2011. Our relationship with the internet was rapidly changing and rapidly becoming more important as services all across society began to digitize. Both the advent of Modernism and the advent of flat design saw rapid technological progress made within a short time period, bringing about the promise of redefining and reimagining our world. This desire for newness, for eschewing tradition and ushering in the modern world played out similarly in the aesthetics of architecture and web design.
In the realm of web design (and interface design at large), skeuomorphism was the prevailing trend of the early 21st century. Skeuomorphism can roughly be defined as the practice of designing things with cues that point to the real world. Designs that referenced real life through wood grain textures, buttons with extreme drop shadows, and reflective textures were the status quo. Put simply, the calculator app looked like a calculator.
While no doctrines or manifestos were written in the same manner as in Modernist architecture, the advent of flat design was pushed forward by industry titans. The shift away from skeuomorphism and towards flat design in interface design (and web design) is often roughly marked by the release of iOS 7 in 2013. The update from iOS 6 featured a major user interface overhaul for Apple mobile devices. The UI no longer featured bezels, reflections, or shadows. Icons were simplified and applications themselves removed skeuomorphic elements such as wood and velvet texturing or reflective buttons. Similarly, Microsoft shifted away from skeuomorphism between the releases of Windows 7 and 8. This change towards flat design actually predated Apple’s own (Windows 8 being released in 2012). Similar to modernism, flat design was about stripping out details in favor of simplicity. Rounded edges often became right angles, gradients became single tones of color, any excess ornamentation removed, and layouts more rigidly defined by grids as designers felt they needed less reference to real life in their digital products.
Much like Modernism, web design’s move to flat design was concerned with stripping out excessive ornamentation. Clarity and simplicity were valued by both flat design and modernism and both were concerned with replacing the status quo with the new. For flat design, the increased user base of the Internet meant that digital literacy was improving. Interface designers no longer had to mimic the real world as strongly in their products in hopes that this would help users understand how to use their products — the assumption became that people already knew how to interact with the digital world. This meant that the skeuomorphic elements of the past (like reflections, texturing, shadows, gradients, and highlights) that helped set elements apart gave way to flat panes of colour, simple geometries, and gridded layouts — elements that seemed to lay the structure of digital experiences out clearly and transparently.
Both flat design and Modernism were concerned with redefining the visual identity of their fields as a response to the status quo, and did so in formally similar ways. Moreover, both fields sought to integrate society’s new understanding of their fields by way of their aesthetic. Buildings and the internet both held new possibilities for what they could be and architects and designers reflected this in their stylistic shifts. Newness and modernity embodied the contexts during which flat design and modernism emerged and are reflected in how both trends moved forward stylistically. Both trends praised usability, transparency, clarity, simplicity, and universality (in web design, specific reference to the real world was removed, in modernism, references to specific time periods and styles were removed). For web designers and architects, design in the modern age was to be rational, clear, and universal and needed a suitable visual style...