Ludwig Wendzich

What is "truly digital" anyway?

Max Rudberg in Flat UI is not the only way forward:

Some would say a “flat” look is “truly digital”, but I think the flat style is just that; a stylistic choice.

The more I hear people talking about “truly digital” user interfaces, the less I’m sure I actually know what they mean. I used to be in the camp that opposed skeuomorphism and argued that for a digital piece of design to be honest it needed to be flat and not pretend to be something else. The flatness that I’m talking about is the Windows 8 UI which, when released, I touted as being a truly honest, digital interface.

Marc Edwards has a great post, “Just like print design”, wherein he speculates about why he thinks “flat” is considered truly digital and why he thinks that assertion is false:

8bit games looked 8bit-y, because of limited colour palettes and giant pixels. 16bit games looked 16bit-y because of better colour abilities and slightly smaller pixels than their 8bit counterparts. Newer games look newer, because GPU hardware developed to the point where full 3D games were possible. These aren’t stylistic choices, they’re hardware limitations, dictating how software looks.

I don’t know if I believe that “flat design” is “truly digital” anymore. I still vehemently believe that design should be honest, and that for a piece of user interface design to be honest it shouldn’t pretend to be something it isn’t (eg. Contacts on Max OS X Lion or Notes in Max OS X Lion/iOS.) There’s a charade that’s more than required. Notes doesn’t actually need to look like a notepad, this doesn’t explain anything further to the person who has to use it, it’s purely decoration. Address Book also doesn’t need to look like a physical address book — it doesn’t in iOS.

I think this is the crux of what I think “truly digital” means. It’s not anything to do with flat design, it’s to do with honesty (truly). Introducing concepts of physics in user interface design isn’t lying. It’s a set of rules that we all understand extremely well and when we bind our interfaces to these laws, the people who interact with our applications already has some understanding of how our design will react to their interaction.

Throwing a drop shadow below a tile when it is “picked up” in Letterpress is not superfluous. We know in reality that when we pick something up, we have to hold on to it until it has reached the point we want it to rest, otherwise it will “fall” along the way. Seeing that drop shadow instructs the user that they need to tap and hold, drag, and release.

Throwing a drop shadow below the navigation bar at the top of an iOS app is not superfluous. We know in reality that when we move an object beneath another it has not vanished, we can drag it back out by reversing the action we performed to place it there. Same with a scrolling list in iOS, disappearing underneath a drop shadow.

Making a button look like a button is not superfluous. Those gradients, drop-shadows and bevels tells the user that, yes, this is in fact a button, and just like in reality, if they press it, something will happen.


As long as we obey the rules we tell the users of our application, through our design, that the application is supposed to follow: then we’re being honest, and truly digital.

Update (29/01/2013): Further thoughts: Almost flat design