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A long shadow on short design trends

Flat design with a long shadow is all the rage in design circles right now, but let us take a look at history and at whether or not this is just a fad.

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The long shadow trend of today

Remember back in the mid-2010s when flat design was all the rage? Oh whoops, we still have five more years before we can look back objectively on this era of graphic design and really have an opinion on it. For now, we  know flat design and long shadows are all the rage, with Apple basing the design of its new OS on it. To a degree, Apple’s decision seemed to stem not only from the design trend but technical considerations as well – complex textures embedded in the OS are a tax on memory. Simplifying the design can, in effect speed up performance.

They also seemed to be releasing the new design in lieu of say, an actual product, something that didn’t go unnoticed by Wall Street.

That said, let’s take a cursory look at recent graphic design history to put things into perspective.

Taking a look at design history

Although I got to play around while in my teens at the agency my mom worked for with traditional tools, my first professional experience coincided with the Macintosh’s quick takeover of the industry. However, talking about what it was like before this transition is important because before computers, designers could use “reverse type” (white on black or a photo) in an ad. But doing so required several complicated and easily-screwed up (at least by me) steps in a darkroom that we’d often only wish to do so if the client requested it. In fact, in David Ogilvy’s seminal book, one of his “rules,” still quoted verbatim without regard for changes in taste over the past 60 years, is to avoid reverse type. I often wondered if it was because, at the time, reverse type was just simply unprofitable.

When the Mac took over, all of a sudden we saw reverse type everywhere. Suddenly there were all sorts of possibilities that designers were capable of before, but often too time-pressed to produce by hand such as gradients on type,  strokes on type and the like.

Since this transition from hand made designs to computer, many trends have actually been driven by new software capabilities than actual design skills. Inversely, many other trends are driven by a rebellion against the computer. Somewhere in the middle is using the computer to make designs that look like they were not made on the computer. In Apple’s case, the revision of the OS design is also a clean break from the leather and felt textures that were the more hippie-esque aesthetic that Steve Jobs enjoyed.

Computers allowed us to suddenly have access to design capabilities that were unthinkable. At the same time, like 80s synth pop, just because you could make a special effect didn’t mean its impact could stand the test of time. Once the novelty wears off, all you have left is the cringe you feel 5 years later when you look back at your work. Great design is timeless – when design is hitched to a trend, the designer has stolen the opportunity to create something that can last forever.

Photoshop filters are to blame

No bigger culprit in ghastly design has been Photoshop filters. When I had my first big-agency job, more senior creatives would pull out last year’s award show books and show me beveled type in award winning ads and demand I figure out how to make it. This was before adding a bevel to a layer with the press of a button was possible, largely because this was before you could add a layer to Photoshop. (I still get stunned looks from  younger designers when I tell them how we’d simply save like 100 versions of a file to preserve all the different iterations.) No, back then you had to use Channel Ops, a complicated series of maneuvers in Photoshop, that, like doing reverse type on a stat camera, was easy to screw up and a giant pain in the ass.

It was only with the invention of layers and the button did effects like bevels and drop shadows begin to pollute design. Since then, there’s been a pendulum shift throughout the years back and forth from “simple” or “hand-drawn” design looks to more computer-centered effects. The flat design is merely the pendulum shifting far in one direction. It was only a few years ago that Web 2.0 design was featuring websites that largely looked like they were constructed by hand with distressed textures. We’re over it, so here’s the shiny new object.

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Learning from history – is this just a fad?

So the pressing question: is flat design and long shadows just another fad? “A fad yes, but one of the biggest trends in design today. So big in fact, that the ideals behind it were adopted for Apple’s new iOS and in turn, produced one of the most poorly received interface designs (for a worldwide company) in a long time. People hate it. I hate it. And it just goes to show that if abused and misunderstood, the fundamentals of that design practice can be unsuccessful. It’s just not for everything.” says Austin Roesberg, Art Director/Designer at Catch24 Design in New York.

When deciding whether to follow a design trend, it’s important to understand whether it has longevity. “I think it’s ok to use ideals and principles from the design trend, but I don’t think that the full circle of shadows and pastel colors is always the best thing to latch on to. There are some great details that can come from the trend, but over time I think it’s only those details that will remain and the overall bells and whistles will fade away.” continues Roesberg.

Since both long shadows and flat design are not as aesthetically ghastly as heavy-handed filters of the past, it’s possible this could be a trend that’s here to stay, or evolve over time. “Personally, I like flat design but I most of my appreciation comes from the inspiration and ideas I think I can draw/repurpose from it. Not necessarily because I think it’s appropriate for all designs.”

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Marc Lefton is a creative director and tech entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience. He's a partner in Digikea Digital based in NYC and Gainesville, Florida.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Tinu

    August 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    You touched on something critical here, Marc, one of those things that I know when I see it, but can’t seem to put into words. How do you know whether a design will stand the test of time?

    What are some criteria for a “classic” look that will stand up after fads are long gone? Do you have some Don’t-Dos maybe?

  2. halffiction

    August 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    @Tinu:disqus Simplicity and classic fonts – they’re classic for a reason.

    • Tinu

      August 1, 2013 at 3:58 pm

      I like that answer. I used to love Avant Garde but it must not have been classic because it’s out of vogue now. Bookstyle Antiqua close second.

  3. Maestro BK

    August 1, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    Nice one!

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Career consultants help job seekers beat AI robot interviews

(TECH NEWS) With the growth of artificial intelligence conducting the job screening, consultants in South Korea have come up with an innovative response.

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When it comes to resume screenings, women and people of color are regularly passed over, even if they have the exact same resume as a man. In order to give everyone a fair try, we need a system that’s less biased. With the cool, calculating depictions of artificial intelligence in modern media, it’s tempting to say that AI could help us solve our resume screening woes. After all, nothing says unbiased like a machine…right?

Wrong.

I mean, if you need an example of what can go wrong with AI, look no further than Microsoft’s Tay, which went from making banal conversation to spouting racist and misogynistic nonsense in less than 24 hours. Not exactly the ideal.

Sure, Tay was learning from Twitter, which is a hotbed of cruelty and conflict, but the thing is, professional software isn’t always much better. Google’s software has been caught offering biased translations (assuming, for example, if you wrote “engineer” you were referring to a man) and Amazon has been called out for using job screening software that was biased against women.

And that’s just part of what could go wrong with AI scanning your resume. After all, even if gender and race are accounted for (which, again, all bets are off), you’d better bet there are other things – like specific phrases – that these machines are on the lookout for.

So, how do you stand out when it’s a machine, not a human, judging your work? Consultants in South Korea have a solution: teach people how to work around the bots. This includes anything from resume work to learning what facial expressions are ideal for filmed interviews.

It helps that many companies use the same software to do screening. Instead of trying to prepare to impress a wide variety of humans, if someone knew the right tricks for handling an AI system, they could potentially put in much less work. For example, maybe one human interviewer likes big smiles, while the other is put off by them. The AI system, on the other hand, won’t waver from company to company.

Granted, this solution isn’t foolproof either. Not every business uses the same program to scan applicants, for instance. Plus, this tech is still in its relative infancy – a program could easily be in flux as requirements are tweaked. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll actually have application software that can more accurately serve as a judge of applicant quality.

In the meantime, there’s always AI interview classes.

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Tech News

Google chrome: The anti-cookie monster in 2022

(TECH NEWS) If you are tired of third party cookies trying to grab every bit of data about you, google has heard and responded with their new updates.

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Google has announced the end of third-party tracking cookies on its Chrome browser within the next two years in an effort to grant users better means of security and privacy. With third-party cookies having been relied upon by advertising and social media networks, this move will undoubtedly have ramifications on the digital ad sector.

Google’s announcement was made in a blog post by Chrome engineering director, Justin Schuh. This follows Google’s Privacy Sandbox launch back in August, an initiative meant to brainstorm ideas concerning behavioral advertising online without using third-party cookies.

Chrome is currently the most popular browser, comprising of 64% of the global browser market. Additionally, Google has staked out its role as the world’s largest online ad company with countless partners and intermediaries. This change and any others made by Google will affect this army of partnerships.

This comes in the wake of rising popularity for anti-tracking features on web browsers across the board. Safari and Firefox have both launched updates (Intelligent Tracking Prevention for Safari and the Enhanced Tracking Prevention for Firefox) with Microsoft having recently released the new Edge browser which automatically utilizes tracking prevention. These changes have rocked share prices for ad tech companies since last year.

The two-year grace period before Chrome goes cookie-less has given the ad and media industries time to absorb the shock and develop plans of action. The transition has soften the blow, demonstrating Google’s willingness to keep positive working relations with ad partnerships. Although users can look forward to better privacy protection and choice over how their data is used, Google has made it clear it’s trying to keep balance in the web ecosystems which will likely mean compromises for everyone involved.

Chrome’s SameSite cookie update will launch in February, requiring publishers and ad tech vendors to label third-party cookies that can be used elsewhere on the web.

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Tech News

Computer vision helps AI create a recipe from just a photo

(TECH NEWS) It’s so hard to find the right recipe for that beautiful meal you saw on tv or online. Well computer vision helps AI recreate it from a picture!

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Ever seen at a photo of a delicious looking meal on Instagram and wondered how the heck to make that? Now there’s an AI for that, kind of.

Facebook’s AI research lab has been developing a system that can analyze a photo of food and then create a recipe. So, is Facebook trying to take on all the food bloggers of the world now too?

Well, not exactly, the AI is part of an ongoing effort to teach AI how to see and then understand the visual world. Food is just a fun and challenging training exercise. They have been referring to it as “inverse cooking.”

According to Facebook, “The “inverse cooking” system uses computer vision, technology that extracts information from digital images and videos to give computers a high level of understanding of the visual world,”

The concept of computer vision isn’t new. Computer vision is the guiding force behind mobile apps that can identify something just by snapping a picture. If you’ve ever taken a photo of your credit card on an app instead of typing out all the numbers, then you’ve seen computer vision in action.

Facebook researchers insist that this is no ordinary computer vision because their system uses two networks to arrive at the solution, therefore increasing accuracy. According to Facebook research scientist Michal Drozdzal, the system works by dividing the problem into two parts. A neutral network works to identify ingredients that are visible in the image, while the second network pulls a recipe from a kind of database.

These two networks have been the key to researcher’s success with more complicated dishes where you can’t necessarily see every ingredient. Of course, the tech team hasn’t stepped foot in the kitchen yet, so the jury is still out.

This sounds neat and all, but why should you care if the computer is learning how to cook?

Research projects like this one carry AI technology a long way. As the AI gets smarter and expands its limits, researchers are able to conceptualize new ways to put the technology to use in our everyday lives. For now, AI like this is saving you the trouble of typing out your entire credit card number, but someday it could analyze images on a much grander scale.

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