We came across a couple of blog posts recently highlighting the move away from using textural, shadow and other effects to add depth to a more functional ‘flat’ design. In essence, flat design removes the more complex elements such as textures, shadows, gradients, embossing and other effects to concentrate on the simplicity of design. As recent ELT industry thinkers have highlighted (Agile ELT over on ELT Jam) the nature of ELT publishing often means technology and even content are sometimes lagging behind current trends. However, we think the Flat design trend is one that has been applied within ELT design for a while now. So we thought we would explore this in more detail.

Flat design is a simplistic style of design, where it avoids skeuomorphism (the concept of making something look like its real life counterpart, like the dreaded ‘make this look like a newspaper with a torn edge and a drop shadow’). Apple has been guilty of this with their iOS releases, and is something they are eradicating with the release of iOS7 in September. The style is not new, but has been more recently popularised by Microsoft in their mobile platform and Windows 8. It is more common with web and mobile interfaces particularly when trying to engender some brand consistency and likeness between the different platforms where it is a useful tool.

While it is simplistic to generalise, the look and feel of educational design has incorporated some elements such as textures and drop shadows to lift objects off the page or screen for some time. However, emc design has been involved in some projects over the last 3 years that are prime examples of ‘flat’ design, before the term was really coined.

Macmillan’s ‘Global’ is a good example where our design brief was specifically to avoid any effects such as gradients or textures. We rolled this out in the production of, so far, over 50 different components for the international and specific markets. Some examples are on our web-site here. And Cengage’s Life also avoids non-flat design in all of the page navigational elements and introduces just a few soft edges or gradients consistently to the realia.

We have also been subtly bringing this approach to other titles and individual aspects of the content such as omitting web browsers when the brief calls for something to look like a web-site. Or creating a stylized, pixelated mouse pointer to enforce the idea of the source of a piece of English being from a web browser rather than seeing the actual generic browser. But publishers do still sometimes expect ‘newspaper articles’ to look like bits torn out of a newspaper, so we smile nicely and comply.

A lot of blogs (examples here, here, here and here) talk of ‘flat’ design often going hand in hand with needing to pay attention to the structure of the material to make flat design work in a functional way. But this is a basic requirement irrespective of the visual style. It is something we have always been mindful of when laying out educational material – that the reader can easily navigate the sometimes complex layouts by using skilful typography, consistent hierarchical headings and getting the balance of text and images right to reflect the teaching requirements. We instil this approach in all of our designers whatever the style of design.

So is educational publishing 3 years ahead of the ‘flat design’ trend?
Well some of the designs we are incorporating into current projects still use glassy buttons and drop shadows, but this is because they are designed for a market that still looks for this style. Trends come and go, but underlying it all is a design intelligence that respects and understands the structure of the content/material and presents this in the most optimal way to the benefit of the reader. And then to reflect the visual appearance of whatever the market demands, flat or otherwise.