Flat design? Not for the warm-hearted…

Design, Opinion

Back in the early 90’s, while I was at design college, my class took a field trip to Berlin. It was one of those ‘let’s go study Berlin design and culture’ things – with the convenient added bonus of a great popup scene, where bars and clubs would spring up amongst the ruins of a city still coming to terms with the reunification of east and west.

I was the archetypal diligent young design student, notebook and camera at the ready, sketching and taking notes of my thoughts, and photographically documenting practically every piece of signage and graphic design in view. Of course, when I say diligent, lets not forget that I was in my early 20’s and very aware of my own self-image in front of my peers — many of whom were female designers I hoped would notice my diligence… y’know…

We had several gallery visits planned out by our lecturers — The Bauhaus-Archiv, the Guggenheim, but the one, which stood out, was a trip to Mies Van Der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie. Instantly it was a hit with me — super clean modernist design — the ceiling itself a series of squares, sub-divided by squares — beautiful highly polished materials — right down to the ultra refined bench seating where the pattern in the leather seemed to mimic the ceiling. I couldn’t tell you what the exhibition showing was but walking into the building for the first time was an experience I will never forget…

The aspirant youth I was, I left vowing one day to have my own space just like it.

Fast forward a few years and that aspiration came somewhat to fruition when I moved into a huge open plan loft-style apartment in the centre of the city. Standing at the front door on the day I moved in, I looked into a living space sparingly enhanced with leather, wood, glass and steel accoutrements… it was perfect. Within days though, that illusion was shattered.

Don’t get me wrong, it looked wonderful — it just didn’t work wonderfully.

When I got home from a long day at work I would take my shoes off, and rather than just dumping them in a corner with other shoes, like I’d grown up doing, they all had to sit neatly on a rack. If they were dirty, then they really needed to be cleaned or they’d be spoiling everything. As for my favourite old pair of stinky trainers… forget about it.

The same went for snacking on the couch in front of the TV. I couldn’t just dump a crumb filled plate on the table and kick back — the plate sat there, looking like a tramp in a hospital theatre, making me uncomfortable, demanding to be cleaned up.

My demand for the cleanest of lines, the lightest of touches and the purest of forms had totally missed what I was trying to create — a relaxing home that worked for me, the user.

All of which fuels my feelings about the ‘flat design’ trend that kicked in in earnest a few years back. There is no doubt that done properly it can be beautiful — some would even say breathtakingly beautiful. Despite the beauty though, for me, flat design is ‘over there’ design, it’s design that works best behind a rope and stanchion barrier. At it’s heart it’s clinical and unforgiving — and it doesn’t really allow for a simple truth — that we are not robots working with electronic equipment, we are multi-layered flesh and blood human beings that love to feel warm.