The look and feel of today’s digital applications is indicative of a cultural shift affecting Australian businesses, says Deniz Nalbantoglu from Webling.
Flat design is a minimalist style of interface design focused on simple elements, typography and flat colours. It removes the illusion of three-dimensions. The approach was popularised by Apple’s iOS7 and quickly spread to the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) of all interactive media, platforms and devices.
However, its skin-deep effect is just the beginning and the real story here is a bit deeper. In my opinion, flat design is actually not just a design trend, but most importantly a tell-tale sign of a major cultural shift that is already affecting and will continue to affect Australian businesses.
It actually represents that a critical mass of consumers are now comfortable with interacting with “on screen” content without the need of comfort-inducing interfaces that mimic real life, such as raised buttons designed to look like actual extruded objects or even the total skeuomorphism of Apple’s virtual book covers in virtual bookcases, faux-leather-textured contacts folders and so on. As a side note, I can’t help but extend a cheeky tip of my hat to the UX experts who have hailed these design trends for decades rather quickly distancing themselves from them now, but I digress…
Furthermore, flat design’s wildfire spread means that major tech industry players are now feeling comfortable enough to let go of this 30 year old safety blanket, and finally call a spade a spade – allowing software applications to look, feel and act as they are, and be proud of it. It is akin to the revolution Facebook helped tip over the edge, where Jack and Jill – with their kids, dogs and white picket fences in tow – finally “went online” using their own identities, and the internet was no longer a counter-culture underground meeting place, but a buzzing suburban shopping centre.
This new comfort level is no coincidence of course – it ascends in parallel to a much deeper behavioural and cultural change setting in with each generation, in which centuries-old business models are being completely reshaped in the blink of an eye. As consumers feel more at ease in dealing with machines, new people behind those machines reinvent business again and again in rapid cycles. The exponential speed at which this moves is such that often a business model will be completely replaced with a new one, even before it had a chance to be reap the benefits.
This of course offers enormous opportunities and challenges for any industry. Examples of this are quite sobering. The music industry, once ruled by labels and distributed via physical media sales for over 300 years was defeated by the likes of iTunes in less than a decade. Then, it took less than two years for subscription based models like Spotify to take the crown from digital retail. There’s no time to pop the celebratory champagne though; as even as you read this article self-publishing platforms like SoundCloud are pushing their foot into the door and segmenting the market even further.
Not even the most mundane utilities and services are immune. Banks who have existed as long as man had opposable thumbs have started offering self-service online banking since the late ‘80s, with mixed early success and uptake. In the time it took to achieve critical mass utilisation of online banking, a new generation of financial business models such as peer-to -peer micro lending and community funding have emerged, and started finding audiences in new generations. Sure, they are a long way from toppling the big banks yet, but their impact on the industry as a catalyst for change towards more service-focused and nimbler finance is clear (well, it is a work in progress of course).
This trend forces entire industries to rethink and reinvent themselves. Retail needs to go beyond shopping and become an experience, kitchen appliances need to become connected gastronomy Sherpas, car manufacturers need to sell in-car entertainment content, grocery giants need to become data merchants and so on, all just to retain an edge.
As far as the global economy and business trends are concerned, if China’s biggest export is deflation, the internet’s largest by-product will be deregulation. International operations tend to circumnavigate local laws, and lawmakers who were too slow even in the photocopier era are now just spectators to what the “kids are up to” on the internet. For example, how long before local governments who cannot control Uber’s controversial model give up and do away with limited taxi licensing? What will happen to extremely complicated and costly insurance underwriting regulations when peer-to-peer insurance models start to gain more traction?
One might say that at the end of the day I am reading too much into a mobile phone screen looking a bit different. Maybe that’s true, but in my experience, you sometimes need to squint your eyes to read the writing on the wall.
Deniz Nalbantoglu is the MD at digital agency Webling.