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I've heard it said that a designer should almost always use subtle, simplistic style in the design of a typical user interface. Is that really the case?


For example, Windows 8 is very bright / loud, and it seems to be popular, but that doesn't necessarily go beyond the current trends.

I'm looking for an example of subtlety being a valuable aspect in all GUI design, rather than just a feature of preference.

As it is, it seems that the balance between GUI subtlety and vibrancy can be ignore or upheld without any consequence beyond the world's current user preference.


  • What are some of the pros & cons of using subtle style for user-interface design vs those of using bright, loud styling?

  • Is there an inherent value in GUI color subtlety, or is it's value based purely on user preference?

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In my opinion, a designer should never always design anything in any way!

I've been designing professionally for a few years now, and every time I have designed a product it has been, first and foremost, to meet the requirements of the client - be it a website, app, email template or other interface.

If the client wants a subtle, flat interface (in line with iOS7, for example), then I will try to create something that meets that expectation without copying it from somewhere else; the same applies for a bright, flat interface like Windows 8.

Don't pay too much attention to 'fashion' - trends are so arbitrary that something considered 'fashionable' one day could be obsolete the next. It's unlikely, but for all we know the 'flat' style might be gone in a couple of years, and skeumorphics & gloss may end up coming back around...such is the roundabout nature of trends. They're fun to observe, but don't always join in!

I hope this helps.

  • Certainly, so you're defining the importance of trending style to be far less important than the taste of the client? – CuriousWebDeveloper May 8 '14 at 10:15
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    Yes, I would agree with that. For example, I love the 'flat' design style that we're seeing a lot of these days because it resonates with my own taste for minimalism, but that doesn't mean that the flat approach is the right approach for every project or client. Getting each design right for the client is more important to me than the design being 'cool' or 'contemporary', as those definitions come and go. – rpauldesign May 8 '14 at 13:06
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I think you mean muted (“subdued, softened”) rather than subtle (“so slight as to be difficult to detect or analyze”). A lot of Apple's designs are subtle without necessarily being muted.

What are some of the pros & cons of using subtle style for user-interface design vs those of using bright, loud styling?

Off the top of my head . . .

  • You can look at a muted UI longer before visual fatigue sets in.
  • Muted and bold stylings have a different psychological impact; they send different messages. (Especially when you're talking about color.)
  • A muted UI gives you more ways to demand the users attention.

Also, I have to work harder to keep bright, loud styling from looking like a clown’s pants.

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An important point to consider is the context of the design, is it for a one proposition app or website, or a complex online tool. Vibrant strong colours can look great, however by using bright colours you need to be careful you are still able to create a visual hierarchy to distinguish between primary secondary and tertiary goals/ functions.

An example would be a green button indicating the main action, a blue link showing a neutral action, a red for deletion, etc. A neutral design allows these important features to stand out. Plus need to consider accessibility and screen quality across multiple devices. Reading large bodies of text on anything other than a white background can be tiresome.

  • Welcome to GraphicDesign.SE! – Mensch Mar 29 at 11:16

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