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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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Tech News

Google set to release new AI-operated meeting room kit… and it’s pretty baller

(TECH NEWS) Google’s newest toy is designed to “put people first” by alleviating video and audio issues for conference room meetings.

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Google Meet Series One is a new meeting kit that puts people first.

Remote meetings can be the worst sometimes. The awful video and audio quality are frustrating when you’re trying to hear important details for an upcoming project. Even with the fastest internet connection, this doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to clearly hear or see anyone who’s in the office. But Google is re-imagining conference rooms with their new video conferencing hardware.

Yesterday, the company introduced Google Meet Series One. In partnership with Lenovo, this meeting room kit is made exclusively for Google Meet and is poised to be the hardware that “puts people first.”

The Series One has several components that make it stand out. First is the “Smart Audio Bar,” powered by eight beam-forming microphones. Using Google Edge TPUs, the soundbar can deliver TrueVoice®, the company’s “proprietary, multi-channel noise cancellation technology.” It removes distracting sounds, like annoying finger and foot-tapping noises, so everyone’s voices are crystal clear from anywhere in the room.

The hardware also has 4K smart cameras that allow for high-resolution video and digital PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) effects. Processed with Google AI, the device knows to automatically zoom in and out so all of the meetings’ participants are framed in the camera. With an i7 processor and Google Edge TPUs, the system is built to “handle the taxing demands of video conferencing along with running the latest in Google AI as efficiently and reliably as possible.”

The meeting kit has Google grade security built-in, so the system automatically updates over-the-air. The system also works seamlessly with Google services and apps we already use. Its touch control display is powered by a single ethernet cable. From the admin controls, you can manage meeting lists and control room settings. Powered by assistant voice commands, their touch controller provides a “touchless touchability”; if you want to, you can join a meeting just by saying, “Hey Google, join the meeting.”

These new meeting kits are easy to install and are versatile. They can be configured to fit small, medium, and large-sized rooms. “Expanding kits for larger rooms can be done with just an ethernet cable and the tappable Mic Pod, which expands microphone reach and allows for mute/unmute control.”

According to the Google Meet Series One introductory video, the meeting room kits are “beautifully and thoughtfully designed to make video meetings approachable and immersive so everyone gets a seat at the table.”

Currently, there is no release date set for Google Meet Series One. However, pre-orders will soon be available in the US, Canada, Finland, France, Norway, Spain, Ireland, United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Netherlands, Denmark, and Belgium.

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Tech News

One creepy way law enforcement might have your private data

(TECH NEWS) Wait, geofences do what? Law enforcement can pull your private data if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Man walking on crosswalk with phone, but his private data could be vulnerable.

By now, it’s pretty common knowledge that our smartphones are tracking us, but what you might not be aware of is just how much law enforcement is taking advantage of our private data. Now, the good news is that some places have gotten wise to this breach of privacy and are banning certain tactics. The bad news is: If you were ever in the vicinity of a recent crime scene, it’s quite possible your privacy has already been invaded.

How are law enforcement doing this? Well, it starts with a geofence.

At its core, a geofence is a virtual border around a real geographic location. This can serve many purposes, from creating marketing opportunities for targeted ads to tracking shipping packages. In the case of law enforcement, though, geofences are often used in something called a geofence warrant.

Traditionally, warrants identify a subject first, then retrieve their electronic records. A geofence warrant, on the other hand, identifies a time and place and pulls electronic data from that area. If you’re thinking “hey, that sounds sketchy,” you are–forgive the pun–completely warranted.

With a geofence, law enforcement can dig through your private data, not because they have proof you were involved in a crime, but because you happened to be nearby.

This practice, though relatively new, is on the rise: Google reported a 15-fold increase in geofence warrant requests between 2017 and 2018. As well as invading privacy, these warrants have led to false arrests and can be used against peaceful protesters. Not to mention, in many cases, geofence warrants can be extremely easy to acquire. One report in Minnesota found judges signed off on these cases in under 4 minutes.

Thankfully, there have been signs of people pushing back against the use of geofence warrants. In fact, there have been multiple federal court rulings that find the practice in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” including your electronic data.

If you’re still worried about your privacy, there are ways to keep your electronic data on lock. For example, turn off your location services when you’re traveling, and avoid connecting to open Wi-Fi networks. You can also work to limit location sharing with apps and websites.

These and other tips can be a great way to help you avoid not just geofence warrants, but others who want to use your electronic information for their own gain.

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Tech News

Incoming! Amazon drones will be dropping off packages soon (we hope)

(TECH NEWS) The Federal Aviation Administration has approved Amazon for drone delivery service, but when will the drones actually take flight?

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One of Prime Air's drones ready for test flights.

Amazon has finally received the stamp of approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to deliver packages by drones. This pivotal step brings the online retailer closer to their promise of delivering packages to customers in 30 minutes or less.

In 2013, during CBS’s “60 Minutes” interview, Amazon CEO and Founder, Jeff Bezos, said drones would be delivering customers’ packages within five years. Although the estimate is a couple of years off, it seems like that day might be right around the corner.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when little floating presents are sailing through the sky (Animal Crossing balloons, anyone?). Despite our excitement to see our latest Amazon impulse purchase land on our doorstep, it isn’t going to happen overnight.

The Part 135 Air Carrier Certificate Amazon obtained for its fleet of Prime Air drones will allow the company to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) “to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight.” Although the FAA certification is allowing Amazon to begin test trials, Bloomberg reports that the retail giant still has “regulatory and technical hurdles” to overcome.

In addition, the FAA has yet to set regulations that will “serve as a framework to expand drone flights over crowds, a building block necessary for deliveries.” Amazon hasn’t said when and where it will start testing the delivery service either.

David Carbon, Amazon Vice President who oversees Prime Air, made this statement: “This certification is an important step forward for Prime Air and indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver packages to our customers around the world.”

This approval is definitely a step forward, but Amazon has been working on the drone delivery service for years. Early last year, the giant retailer revealed they would start offering one-day shipping. They have followed through on this, at least. And during a Las Vegas Conference in June 2019, they revealed their “fully electric drones that can fly up to 15 miles and deliver packages under five pounds to customers in less than 30 minutes.” But it still doesn’t answer when we can expect to see whizzing drones overhead.

I’m not sure when Amazon will fulfill their last promise. But it is getting closer. What I do know is that I look forward to the Amazon drones taking flight. I can’t wait to place my orders knowing that I will get that last-minute present I ordered just in time.

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