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Is This the Death of Flat Design?

Why is 3D design becoming more dominant in branding?

Jokes aside, the fact that some of the biggest global brands have experienced consumer backlash following minimal makeovers of their logos and icons is another sign that 3D design styles are challenging flat design’s dominance. For 3D-phobic graphic designers and illustrators, the 3D trend is nothing to be scared of, and can, in measured doses, improve the visual and commercial impact of your designs. 

Read on to discover why 3D design is becoming more dominant across graphic design and branding, and how creatives can bring their flat designs up to date with subtly 3D effects and techniques. 

Vector Fonts
3D design doesn’t mean you have to be a whiz with CAD—you can infuse flat-style designs with 3D elements to bring depth and interest. Vector font by contributor ANNA ZASIMOVA.

Has Flat Design Had Its Day?

Over the course of the 2010s, flat design enjoyed years of dominance across graphic and web design. This was, in part, pushed forward by the rise of smartphones and the need for quick-loading, simple graphics to act as icons and illustrations. 

Of course, this reduces flat design to a mere necessity, when (in fact) flat styles have a long history of use and appreciation in graphic design. The much-admired Swiss School, for example, were particularly fond of flat and ultra-minimal graphic styles for posters, which went hand-in-hand with the clean sans serifs and simple, bold color palettes favored by its proponents over the course of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Yet, even flat design’s graphic impact has been diminished through sheer saturation. The relationship we have with our phones has never been closer (unhealthier, even), and after a decade of tapping flat app icons, we’re all more open to a refresh. 

Microsoft Edge Logo
Tech businesses like Microsoft have recently moved towards more 3D design elements in the branding of app icons (such as the logo for Microsoft Edge, above). Image by contributor rafapress.

With technology now able to render gradients, shadows, and other 3D effects more efficiently than before, the direction of design and branding is shifting towards 3D design. We’re seeing this trend develop across graphic design and web design in particular, with illustration also following suit. 

In typography, the novelty and accessibility of color fonts has also sparked a revival of type styles that merge WordArt with responsive web design. 

Bungee Color Font
Bungee color font by David Jonathan Ross.

The Flat Design Backlash

How do we know when a design style becomes (albeit temporarily) derelict? One strong indicator is when consumers begin to react strongly against it. Designs are created by designers, but users of those designs ultimately judge whether they’re current and relevant. 

Recently, two of the biggest technology brands—Firefox and Google—launched new versions of their own logo (Firefox) and icons (Google), both of which replaced 3D-influenced designs with more stripped-back, minimal versions. 

In Firefox’s case, an attempt to streamline their once-kitsch logo into a new version that stripped away the cartoon style—and, more importantly, the fox—led to a mixture of anger and dismay from users (many of whom were spurred on by this now-viral tweet). Although the new logo featured a subtle gradient—a well-pitched nod to 3D styles—the overall effect of minimalism and reduction didn’t go down as expected. 

2019 Firefox Logo
The stripped-back logo design for the Firefox parent brand. Fire? Check. Fox? Hmmm.

And, even though Firefox pointed out on its own blog that, while the logo for its parent brand no longer featured the full fox, its browser logo had kept the fox intact, the fox-themed furor tells well-meaning designers that there’s a distinct sea-change afoot. In 2021, individuals would rather have a cartoon fox hugging a glossy 3D globe than a tastefully minimal flat design.  

Firefox Logos
The evolution (or devolution) of Firefox’s browser logo. Yep, folks, the fox is still there. Don’t panic!

In similar style, Google’s confusingly consistent new icons for Google Workspace have received a similar reaction. Once 3D and distinct, now minimalist and flat, consumers have commented on how difficult it is to tell apps like Gmail, Google Photos, and Google Maps apart. One savvy designer even created a free Chrome extension that allows users to restore the old icons on tabs and favorites.

Google Icons
On the top row are Google’s old 3D-inspired and easily-distinguishable logos, with their flat and indistinguishable new incarnations below.

Arguably, the backlash is more geared towards the icons’ indistinguishability than their flat style, but the same dynamic between brands and their customers repeats whenever a business tries to bring out a more minimal and flat interpretation of a once-3D design.  

3D-Phobic? How to (Gradually) Introduce a 3D Style into Your Illustrations and Graphics

Of course, for many graphic designers raised on a diet of Swiss Style, 3D design is not only a foreign concept, but represents exceptionally poor taste. Arguably less graphic and less refined, it’s the antithesis of the Modernist aesthetic championed by graphic design legends such as Paul Rand and Saul Bass.

It’s not easy to shake off the old advice that professes less is more, but graphic designers and illustrators shouldn’t dismiss 3D design as a mere flash in the pan. 3D design is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, and creatives should take note. 

Luckily for the 3D-phobic among us, if you search for “flat design” today, the results won’t be strictly flat. From eye-popping typography to gradient-infused icons, designers are evolving their flat creations by subtly integrating 3D elements. So, if you think you’ll need to become a CAD whiz in a matter of weeks, think again. An on-trend 3D look can be easily achieved in vector software through a color-block shadow, a glossy highlight, or a dose of texture. 

Flat Design
Even the most flat of flat designs can acquire some 3D oomph with the help of a few tricks and techniques. Image by contributor Iana Mikheeva.

Read on to discover instant tips and techniques for giving your graphic design and illustration work a 3D style, fitting in with the eye-popping mood of design in 2021.

3D Technique #1: Gradient Color

If you’re a flat design devotee, replacing monotone fills with gradient color is an instant way to give your logos, icons, and illustrations more dynamism, without compromising on graphic effect. 

Gradients have been popular across graphic design over the last couple of years, but 2021’s interpretation moves away from the 80s-inspired sunset neons favored in 2019/20. Try a subtly cheering pastel gradient for logos or websites. Alternatively, experiment with dark tones of deep red, purple, black, and inky blue to create moody contrast on illustrations.

Pastel Gradients
Image by contributor Diana Hlevnjak.
Bold Colors
Image by contributor astel design.
Moody Tones
Experiment with gradients to add depth and dimension to your designs. Image by contributor Maxger.

3D Technique #2: Shadowing and Highlighting

Alongside gradient color, adding contrasting shadows and highlights to your work is alarmingly simple to do, but can be transformative, particularly for small-scale designs like icons. 

While every designer knows their way around the trusty Effects panel, an artfully-applied block color can create more stylish and thoughtful shadow and light. Block color shadowing can inject flat-style illustration with a 3D quality, bringing in visual depth and additional color without compromising on the graphic appeal of an otherwise flat design. Take inspiration from contributor Moremar’s portfolio, an illustrator who cleverly combines a flat aesthetic with color block shadows for extra impact.

Illustration of Blonde Woman
Image by contributor Moremar.
Portrait Profile
Image by contributor Moremar.
Heart Illustration
Adding a few simple color blocked shadows can instantly enhance a flat design. Image by contributor Anastasia_B.

3D Technique #3: Twist Your Angles

We’re all so accustomed to the dominance of flat design and its overused companion, the flat lay, that an overhead angle almost seems inescapable when designing icons, illustrations, or type. But, we don’t look at everything in the world as if we’re standing over it. 

Mind blown? Ease yourself into a 3D-minded approach by rethinking your angles. From isometric to oblique, or a combination of various jaunty angles, twist and distort your designs to create a sense of perspective and depth. If your lettering or logo design looks like it could be playfully picked up and turned over, you’re on the right track. 

3D Font
Vector font by contributor Alhovik.
Block Color Design
3D design doesn’t mean you have to be a whiz with CAD—you can infuse flat-style designs with 3D elements to bring depth and interest. Image by contributor Iana Mikheeva.

3D Technique #4: Texture and Detail

It’s all in the detail. The final step towards fully-embracing a 3D attitude is to see detailing as a necessary and enhancing aspect of your design. From textured overlays to pattern, photorealistic quirks to surface imperfections, bringing in (or simply retaining) more detail in your designs can help you bring your flat designs to life. 

For the flat design advocate, dip a cautious toe by introducing a subtle wash of noisy texture for a lived-in effect the Modernists would still approve of. These grainy textures pair particularly well with gradient color. 

Grainy Details
Introduce some grainy details. Image by contributor molaruso.

Minimalism can strip away some of the features that give designs more character and interest, so try not to exercise a strictly-reductionist approach. Whether it’s wrinkle lines on illustrated portraits or extra detailing on fur, leaves, or materials, adding a few additional elements to your drawings can transform your illustrations from coldly minimalist to warm and engaging.

Illustration of Middle-Aged Woman
Simply incorporating lines on a face can add the necessary detail to your art. Image by contributor Moremar.

Converted Yet?

Although branding is leaning towards 3D design in 2021, that isn’t to say that you have to ditch flat design just yet. Whether you’d loathe to separate from minimal styles or are open to experimenting with 3D design, there’s a place for both approaches in graphics and illustration. 

As we’ve observed, the graphic impact of flat design can be further enhanced with subtle 3D touches, such as gradients, detailing, and different angles. So get creative!

If you’re interested in further exploring how you can achieve a 3D style in your poster layouts and text effects, make sure to check out these tutorials below:

Cover image by contributor nelelena

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