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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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Google Maps will soon display traffic lights

(TECH NEWS) The addition of traffic light positions to Google Maps promises to boost navigation accuracy. Now you won’t run a light while looking at navigation.

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At over 150 million monthly users, Google Maps’ value is not to be understated. With a new feature that shows traffic light positions rolling out to select devices and locations soon, one can expect that trend to continue.

A common issue with navigation via an app–especially when navigating solo–is a lack of precision that can lead to confusion, missed exits, potentially dangerous driving, and, worst of all, spilled coffee. By adding the location of traffic lights, Google Maps will improve both landmark recognition and automated navigation by providing drivers with more accessible information.

It’s worth noting a couple of arguing points, the first of which is the assertion that Google is starting from scratch on this feature. They aren’t. In fact, Japan-based Google Maps users have had access to traffic light positioning for years; Google is simply expanding the feature to include a larger number of cities and population density.

In a similar vein, Google also isn’t the first company to implement an ease-of-access feature such as this. Apple Maps has incorporated traffic light recognition since the release of iOS 13, and while its use is hit-or-miss (my iPhone 11 fails to pick up most traffic lights in my admittedly rural town of residence), the option to have Siri direct users to the nearest traffic light rather than saying “in 213.7 feet, turn left” is helpful.

That said, Apple Maps is a service which sees a little over 20 million monthly users–a far cry from Google Maps’ monthly base. For Google, accuracy and speed of updates will be paramount for a successful, routinely helpful launch.

At the time of this writing, Google plans to release the traffic light feature in New York, San Francisco, and a few other United States cities. The feature will be available on Android devices–sorry for now, Apple users–and will ideally expand to encompass most of the country if the initial release is successful.

It will be interesting to see how comprehensive Google’s coverage is and how quick the company is to adjust positioning of lights as cities do what cities do best. For now, if you have an Android device, keep an eye on your Maps app–good things are coming your way.

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How Microsoft plans to upskill millions of workers during COVID-19

(TECH NEWS) Microsoft is providing affordable and accessible resources to upskill workers during the COVID-19 economy.

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Microsoft helps

While the undeniable amount of job loss in the Unites States, thanks to COVID-19, may have lost some steam in the news, there are many people out of work and job searching. As of June 6, 2020, “Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 4.8 million in June, and the unemployment rate declined to 11.1 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today.”

This means many Americans are quietly pondering their next move. Some are freaking out over what their next place or type of employment will be, while others are taking a minute to pause and re-design their life’s path. Both may be hopeful that their career is aligning with their ultimate goals or ways in which they would prefer to live their life via professional pursuits and family preferences. There may be an optimistic outlook as well if they have been able to score interviews and feel some excitement about new opportunities amongst the angst and uncertainty.

However, as you may likely know, after a job loss, the job seeker has some extra time to think and this can be scary for some. They may catch themselves with extra worry or spinning in the what ifs? What if I don’t have the skills for the jobs in demand? What if I’m too old? What if they are not looking to hire someone with my credentials? What if I am unable to replace my salary?

Let’s look at the data when we cannot get out of our heads. What are jobs that are in demand and will be growing? According to VentureBeat and Microsoft, here are the top 10 jobs that are in demand and likely to grow over the next decade:

  1. Software developer
  2. Sales representative
  3. Project manager
  4. IT administrator
  5. Customer service specialist
  6. Digital marketing specialist
  7. IT support / help desk
  8. Data analyst
  9. Financial analyst
  10. Graphic designer

In tandem, Microsoft is providing access to “learning paths” and resources for users to develop skills for these jobs, which will be available from today until the end of March 2021, and includes a series of videos to help jobseekers start off on the right foot for each role. Microsoft will also connect more technical roles with other resources and tools, including its bot-powered GitHub Learning Lab where budding coders can practice new skills. And feeding into this, Microsoft said that it will join the dots through to qualifications, by offering “low-cost access” to industry-recognized Microsoft certifications “based on exams that demonstrate proficiency in Microsoft technologies,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a separate blog post.”

Venture Beat goes on to say that “Microsoft has announced a slew of new initiatives designed to open up access to new digital skills, including cash grants, providing access to data, affordable certifications for Microsoft products, and a new learning app baked directly into Microsoft Teams.”

Looks like those software developers aren’t going away and you can hate on sales all you want, but those are needed for companies to keep their doors open and sell their products or services.

It seems apparent that the tech giant is looking to make a positive impact and help upskill workers to be able to explore and gain the skills they need to pursue these available and growing job opportunities. They are utilizing the data available within the LinkedIn platform to provide insights on job postings, as well as pledged to support access to learning and non-profit organizations. Microsoft is also making smart moves to grow and expand in an area where they see some major growth opportunities (within the LinkedIn Learning platform and MS Teams). Microsoft CEO mentioned that we have seen a 2-year digital shift in about two months due to COVID-19.

However, this does pose a question – how long will it take for hiring managers to catch up on reviewing resumes of those that had to make a job switch and may not have the previous experience they typically look for when hiring? There is fair room for a discussion that those reviewing resumes will also need to be informed of the career shifts of candidates due to COVID-19 and may need to spend a little bit more time making sure they are not dismissed for looking to make a switch after their upskill experience.

There may also be some questions from employees if they do not feel they resonate with any of those jobs listed as growing over the next decade. We may see a spike in entrepreneurial activity and people setting out to create and design their own work-life harmony – especially if the remote work opportunities are only going to grow exponentially.

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Study finds 1,000 phrases that accidentally activate smart speakers

(TECH GADGETS) Don’t worry about accidentally activating your nosy smart speakers… unless, of course, you utter one of these 1,000 innocuous phrases.

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It’s safe to say that privacy concerns, especially in today’s digital era, are unquestionably valid. With new video recording technology making it easier to identify people at a glance (whether they like it or not) and concerns that your smart speakers are eavesdropping on you, it may feel like you’re bordering on slightly paranoid around modern technology.

After all, even though there have been cases of smart speakers picking up on intimate conversations, there’s absolutely no risk of them overhearing private things without your consent, right? Even though it’s been documented that these devices — including Cortana, Alexa, Siri, and Google Home — have listened in relationship spats, criminal activity, and even HIPAA-protected data, you’re totally in the clear.

Oh yeah. The thing is, everything that gets broadcast into your smart speaker? There’s a completely random chance that someone back at headquarters may decide to sift through it in order to improve AI learning.

And while most of the time these conversations are totally benign, it doesn’t change the fact that a complete stranger is getting an earful of your private life. In fact, these transmissions? Are actually completely admissible in court, as several murder cases have already demonstrated. Their key evidence was none other than poor Alexa herself.

But wait, wait. These smart speakers can only get your information if you activate them, and that requires you to clearly enunciate their names. Right? Um. Not exactly. Even though you may think that you need to speak crisply into the speaker to activate it, it turns out that these devices are highly sensitive to any suggestion that you might be talking to them. It’s almost like your dog when you even remotely glance at his bag of doggie treats in the corner: one crinkle and Fido comes running, begging for some kibble and ready to serve you.

It’s the same for your smart speakers. As it turns out, there are over a thousand words or phrases that can trigger your device and invite it to start recording your voice. These can range from the perfectly reasonable (Cortana hearing “Montana” and springing to attention) to the downright absurd (Alexa raising her hackles over the words “election” and “unacceptable”). Well, crap. Now what?

It’s no secret that someone is listening in on your conversations. That’s been clearly documented, researched, dissected, and even accepted at this point. However, if you thought that they’d only listen to it if you gave them implicit permission by activating your device (which, to be fair, should not even count as permission in the first place), you were wrong.

So what’s a privacy-loving person to do? Just suck it up and try to choose between the lesser of two evils? On one hand, yes, these smart speakers are super convenient and can make your life easier. On the other?

Well, if you’re a fan of your privacy, then perhaps these devices aren’t meant for you. At this point, you’ve got little recourse. These companies will continue to use your data, and there’s nothing stopping them from spying on you. That is, unless you prevent them from doing it in the first place.

If you want to keep your private conversations private, either unplug your smart speaker when you’re not using it, or don’t get one in the first place. Otherwise, you’ll continue to give your implied consent that you’re totes cool with them butting in on your personal life, and they’ll continue to be equally totes cool with using it without your permission.

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