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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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OnePlus swears to kinda stop collecting invasive data from users

(TECH NEWS) Inadvertently discovered during a hackathon, OnePlus was ousted for collecting insane amounts of data on users’ phones and promises to make a small change.

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Users of OnePlus phones were alarmed to learn this week that the company has been collecting large amounts of data from users without their consent or knowledge.

Software Engineer, Christopher Moore was participating in a hacking challenge when he discovered that his phone was sending excessive amounts of data to the OnePlus servers.

While it’s normal for your phone to automatically send data to headquarters when you have a bug or a system crash, OnePlus was collecting data every time the phone was turned off or on, and whenever apps were used.

“Moore says that OnePlus is collecting data such as phone numbers, serial numbers, WiFi and mobile network information, MAC addresses, and information about when and how apps are used, including Outlook and Slack.”

An opt-out option was buried deep within advanced settings. Most users were not aware that their data was being collected and transmitted.

In response to the user outcry, OnePlus posted an explanation on their support forum, saying that they were using the data to “fine tune our software according to user behavior” and to “provide better after-sales support.”

The company has promised to stop collecting MAC addresses, phone numbers, and WiFi information by the end of the month. They also say that they will update their terms of service to be more transparent about the data they are collecting, and will set up an opt-out option in the operating system’s setup wizard that will allow users to decide whether or not they want to join a “user experience program.”

While OnePlus claims that they have never given or sold information to a third party, users are suspicious that the types of data OnePlus is collecting would eventually be sold to marketers.

Even if you choose to opt out of the “user experience program”, OnePlus will continue to collect your data, but it will not be directly associated with your device. Users have generally not been satisfied with this response, saying that the company should give users the option of stopping all data transmissions.

Says Christopher Moore “Unfortunately, as a system service, there doesn’t appear to be any way of permanently disabling this data collection or removing this functionality without rooting the phone.”

You kind of blew it, OnePlus. You were caught red-handed, and it will take more than a partial opt out program to regain your customers’ trust.

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With reward comes risk: facial recognition and privacy

(TECH NEWS) Facial recognition and artificial intelligence are awesome rewards from technical innovation but with reward comes risk.

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Technology is an omnipresent force in all of our lives. It is the core of innovation, providing us with quick, new ways to research, socialize and entertain ourselves. It seems like everyone is taking advantage of rapidly changing technology.

However what one person thinks as a reward of new systems may actually be a risk to someone else.

Take for instance, facial recognition software. Facebook uses it to identify familiar faces in photos and Apple uses it to unlock phones. It’s everywhere.

Even the porn industry is getting in on it. PornHub, a major online source for adult content, announced their new plan to use AI to help categorize the 10,000 plus videos that are uploaded every day.

Prior to this update, the site used a system of tagging videos to keep them organized. I would go into examples of such categories, but I’ll leave that up to the imagination.

One non-explicit example is organizing content based on the names of the stars of the film. Both the site itself and users had the ability to add tags to videos.

Regardless, this was not fast enough. By integrating AI software, PornHub hopes to expedite this process.

While this may sound like a smart business decision, this seems like high risk beginning to inadvertently diminish privacy rights.

Many people in the porn industry have alternate personas to separate their work and personal lives. Facial recognition software may pull from sources from both sides of that spectrum and end up merging the two.

This has already been the case on Facebook via the recommendations the site makes for “people you may know” via your internet practices.

However, it’s not just a matter of protecting the identity for a professional or amateur porn actor, it’s also about the privacy of clients.

Imagine being recommended to friend the star of the last video you streamed. This industry in particular, requires a level of discretion.

To combat some of the fears, PornHub has insists that the AI software only tags from the 10,000 stars in their database. Though as this update has proven, they could expand their database to keep up with the demand in the future.

It’s a technological advantage for their organization, but at what cost to others’ privacy?

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Be My Eyes app offers eyes to those that need ’em

(TECH NEWS) Even with the best coping techniques, some people need help from time to time — enter Be My Eyes for the seeing impaired community.

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It’s nice to see a free app that connects helpful volunteers with folks seeking assistance.

“See” being a relative term here, because the free Be My Eyes app is designed to assist people who are visually impaired or blind. The anonymous and free app allows visually impaired users to connect, via video, to sighted volunteers who can then provide “visual assistance” to help with tasks such as identifying objects or describing environments.

Visually impaired users seeking assistance simply call in and the app finds the first available volunteer, usually within 45 to 60 seconds. The app automatically connects to a sighted volunteer who speaks the user’s language. There are currently volunteers representing 90 languages in 150 countries.

Be My Eyes also tracks the time zones in users’ locations so that visually impaired users can access the service 24 hours a day without worrying that they’ll disturb volunteers at night.

After dark, the app will even find a volunteer in the opposite hemisphere. Users are encouraged to ask for assistance whenever they want and as often as needed.

Sighted volunteers receive a notification when a visually impaired user seeks assistance. The volunteer can then decide whether or not to receive the call. If they aren’t available, the call is simply forwarded to the next appropriate volunteer.

Visually impaired users say they’ve used Be My Eyes to get help with finding lost items, reading instructions, navigating new places and public transportation, shopping, and more.

The app itself was invented by a visually impaired innovator, Hans Jørgen Wiberg, a member of the Danish Association of the Blind who began losing his sight at age 25.

Says Wiberg, “It is flexible, takes only a few minutes to help and the app is therefore a good opportunity for the busy, modern individual with the energy to help others.”

Wilberg presented his idea for Be My Eyes at a startup event in Denmark in 2012. He was able to recruit a team of developers, who rolled out the app in 2015.

Some critics have pointed out that the app tends to reinforce the stereotype that visually impaired people, and people with disabilities in general, are helpless and dependent on others to get by. Presumably, blind people have developed inventive strategies for solving everyday challenges long before Be My Eyes was ever invented.

According to the reviews from sighted volunteers, many wait weeks at a time to get an inquiry. The Be My Eyes network currently has about ten times more volunteers than users, which begs the question: Do blind people actually want to use this app?

If you’d like to try it out, as either a visually impaired user or a sighted volunteer, you can download the app for Android at the Google Play Store or for iOS at the App Store.

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