The coronavirus pandemic has proved to be a global emergency disrupting all the regular life aspects. The American Psychological Association (APA) has recently taken its “Stress in America” poll. And it’s not surprising that this year there was the most significant increase in stress level since 2007 when the poll was first carried out. This is the result of our usual daily routines being abruptly halted and people worrying about their health and safety. That’s why there are hundreds of articles on how to deal with anxiety, meditation apps are all the rage, people are succumbing to gluttony or over-exercising instead, the list goes on.
Fast Company made an article on how a design agency &Walsh has created a pack of emojis that reflect the current mood, and some of them are pure gold:
‘Stressed AF’: These new emoji perfectly sum up our new reality https://t.co/QEBDWbAC3c
— Esther Schindler (@estherschindler) May 3, 2020
There are plenty of different ways to cope with stress, one of them being a conscious or unconscious tendency to surround oneself with safe and harmless things. It’s evident in how the user interface design is becoming progressively safer and more harmless-looking. It’s not like the pandemic is the reason for that, but it seems to drive it further. There are lots of soft and rounded shapes and 3D illustrations, everything is light and cute, and the most popular colors are soft pink and blue.
Just look at what’s trending on Dribbble:
Yes, there are a number of articles on how Dribbble is not a real thing, but just a place for designers to show off before each other for likes. But Dribbble is important to the designer community, many of those designs are made for real products and designers one way or another borrow ideas from there and incorporate them into “real” things, so I guess it can be used as reference material.
Last year we made a blog post about how all websites seem to look the same and what might have caused it. Today it’s clear that the prevalent trend is making the UIs look sweet, friendly, and inoffensive. What was gaining momentum some time ago is now in full swing.
It comes down to various reasons like carrying out the marketing department requirements to make designs as approachable as possible. But is it all that there is? Great web and app design is more than delivering content in a convenient form. More than just being the product of the evolution of recent years, is it now playing a more important role in society serving as a calming and relaxing agent?
And more importantly, is it making the digital space look too bland and similar? Is it a cause for concern?
Where it all started
For decades, interior and urban designers have been struggling to reduce the level of stress we have to cope with during our everyday lives. With all the tech and screen time, the environmental and political issues, people are looking for calm, quiet, and soothing spaces.
To give this longed-for feeling of relaxation, interior designers focus on adding a lot of free space, mood lighting, soft lines, natural materials, and other techniques.
In urban design, which is more challenging, architects address this problem by adding green and active spaces, making urban environments look more clean-looking, and playful. For example, here’s the Parc de la Distance — a maze-like park designed by the Austria-based studio Precht as an answer to the necessity of social distancing during the pandemic:
This is the Shenzhen Terraces development project by the Dutch architecture studio MVRDV:
Notice the use of greenery and soft organic shapes aimed at serving as a contrast to the surrounding skyscrapers.
This tendency is also very prominent in digital design. Last December there was an article on our blog about what could the unveiling of the new Tesla Cybertruck mean for design and whether it was possible for brutalism to return. But in the face of the pandemic, it seems like this trend did not take off, and isn’t likely to. This year is still not the one for the streamlined rad aesthetics of the 80s.
It’s important to keep in mind that nothing becomes popular without a reason, whether it’s in fashion, movies, or UX/UI design. Everything caters to society’s needs. Not precisely like “I want more pink color”, but in a more deep and inherent sense. Steve Jobs was right when he said “Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.” People really didn’t want an iPhone before it was created because it didn’t exist back then:) But they wanted something else that an iPhone could give them.
Speaking of web and app design, calmness is the by-product of a pleasant experience or predictable outcome of a certain task. When people are feeling tense, all they want is just that.
So it’s natural that what now is popular is things like simple layouts, pastel colors, rounded corners, soft drop shadows, use of charming illustrations, especially the 3D ones, like the works of Peter Tarka:
The origins of this movement lie in two big trends of the recent decades that go hand in hand: minimalism and flat design.
Minimalism started being popular in the early 2000s. Before, most websites looked like classifieds pages from newspapers, which is not at all surprising, as many web design best practices can be traced directly back to newspaper design. So the minimalist trend made its way into the field of web design after it had already taken a strong position in the visual arts, architecture, and interior design. Starting with the Google homepage, which had a strict and ascetic appearance. The successful idea was implemented by Microsoft and Apple.
The flat design trend has been influencing website and application design for years now. Its peak popularity was in 2012, but still, it is widely used. Not a single large company can do without it now: Apple, Amazon, Microsoft. The flat design creates the feeling of an expensive and modern product, and in some cases, it is used to attract the attention of younger users. Flat design features a simple user interface. It easily adapts to any device.
Functions, benefits, and disadvantages of “approachable” design
The websites nowadays look more calm and welcoming compared to the in-your-face designs we had before. Designers use various techniques to produce this effect.
How to achieve the effect of tranquility in design:
Colors are the easiest and the most obvious way to provoke particular emotions in users.
Each year, the Pantone Color Institute selects and names a shade that determines the course of design and fashion for the year to come. In 2020, the choice of Pantone is 19-4052 Classic Blue. According to Pantone, “Instilling calm, confidence, and connection, this enduring blue hue highlights our desire for a dependable and stable foundation on which to build as we cross the threshold into a new era.”
According to psychologists, the blue color is perceived by the human psyche as calming. It gives a unique feeling of peace and tranquility. Indeed, the color of 2020 is a kind of “connection” between trends and real life. It reflects what people from all corners of the globe need the most right now — stability and peace of mind.
Apart from the blue family, other muted, dusty shades can also be soothing, like lavender, ivory, soft green, pink, and grey.
There is a trend for simplified illustrations with flat colors and limited palettes. This combination of simplicity creates an active atmosphere and focuses on characters and abstract forms.
Line drawing is a lightweight, simplified illustration style. Minimalist design uses only the most necessary, thin lines and a very limited color palette.
As for the flow of 3D illustrations, then every trend has prerequisites. The use of 3D graphics has always been popular, but it was a bit impeded by expensive technology. Using various inexpensive software that became widely spread in the last couple of years, the creation of 3D graphic projects is now easier and more affordable for many designers and companies. As a result, we have already seen a sharp increase in the use of 3D illustrations and objects in 2019. This trend is likely to intensify.
Several years ago, there was a tendency for bright, bold images with saturated colors. As a result, the photos sometimes did not look real. But as color trends begin to change, the trends in photography followed suit. This means that there are now more muted, authentic, and neutral photos.
Muted color palettes make the designs look more natural. Soft organic shapes can convey the same feeling. Moreover, in nature, the majority of shapes are uneven. Both of these design trends complement one another well.
Websites that look cluttered may provoke additional feelings of stress and anxiety. It’s better when the content is organized in a way to give enough needed information without being overwhelming.
In our “5 Ways to Improve Website Readability” article we outlined how to make the website content clear and, thus, easily digestible. In short, it’s paying attention to typography, using white space, maintaining color contrast, keeping it short, and having a clear page structure.
What can go wrong
At the same time, it’s easy to make a website look too bland, not original, or simply inappropriate.
The problem of “nice” designs is closely connected with the recent trend to make everything childish, catering to the infantile side of human nature. It is believed that this approach lets you remove any hostility from the audience and develop a more intimate relationship with them. But this niceness and tameness may get tiring after a while. There’s a danger of making the designs too childlike, which evokes a feeling of dissonance in some people and sometimes doesn’t look appropriate.
For example, here’s the Downtown Brooklyn masterplan by the architecture firms BIG and WXY. It looks nice and sweet, but some people commented that they didn’t want to “live in a children’s playground”. And they have a point, these gentle aesthetics don’t really suit New York and they are likely to lose their sugary looks in a very short time.
Another possible example is the transformation of the Duolingo design identity steadily becoming more childish:
It’s not just about the logo. Here’s a Redditor complaining that the overall new design on the Duolingo app looks “ugly”:
Bland and homogeneous
Another issue is that when too many people start following a certain trend, there inevitably comes a moment when it can give little opportunity to create something distinguishable. For example, since there are just shadows, gradients, and transparency in some places in flat design, it doesn’t give lots of options to look unique. This leads to the fact that designs look more or less the same and designers have to come up with something particularly special, which is extremely difficult.
There have been talks that the “safe” design is the maximal safe choice, ultimate lack of imagination, and fear of experimentation, and it’s making the websites bland and boring. The Conversation made an article about the scientific analysis that proves that today’s websites really are more uniform than ever. It makes sense business-wise but it seems like unification is really one of the problems of modern web design.
So is it OK or not?
How long will the pandemic last? No one really knows. And if people need more tranquility, give it to them, right?
Taking the slower, more considerate approach, it is possible to design for calmness and peace of mind. Bring a sense of regularity and predictability. Let users complete their tasks in the easiest and most understandable manner.
Any business, and hence web and app design, should focus on customer needs. To provide the best service, you need to get a clear idea of what your users want. Ask yourself: “What do they want, and does our style match their preferences?” If you want people to be able to navigate your website easily, using a tried, and true UI is to your benefit.
Like in the example below, where the use of illustrations and soft colors is tied to the necessity of enforcing the website’s sense of reliability and security: