There’s been a lot of talk lately about the dichotomy between skeuomorphic and flat design. At the least, it’s a fun discussion for those of us who have no clue about design profession and pontificate about what looks better, icons with no shadow or icons with shadow or three dimensional interfaces versus plain flat Microsoft-inspired interfaces. It’s especially hip to talk about for nerds and geeks alike who are obsessing over Apple’s latest iOS7 or Mac OSX updates.
And as nerds, geeks, startups, and business people across the world time their watches to the beat of Silicon Valley’s drums, we’re all blind to the design trend right beneath our feet. In the Valley, Apple was influenced by Steve, who was in turn influenced by Japanese Zen design principles. Google built its success on top of being way simpler than any other search engine. Microsoft, hurrying to differentiate itself, gave birth to the entire Metro movement on its tablet and desktop interfaces. On top of all these latest trends, the Valley has had at least two decades of UX and UI design to build off of.
In Asia, different trends are afoot. And it’s all victim to culture, language, and the symptoms of being on the frontiers of a new internet.
First, let’s look at how we look at design trends
In a lot of ways, you can look at the trends and design principles of websites and online interfaces in the same way that we view film. If you watch a film from the 1950’s, you immediately know the time period. If it’s from the 80’s, you can feel it. Film buffs have an intuitive sense of when a film was made because of the fashion of the people in the film, the type of camera they’re using, the colors they use, the set design, and more. In the same way, people who have been around the web since Geocities, Netscape and Napster, all remember what the internet in the 80’s and 90’s was like. The advantage of this is knowing what to avoid and what to steal, it’s all about exposure. Most of the time, it looks like Asia’s been exposed to much of the 90′s and ’00s of the internet.
Asia doesn’t have the luxury of being exposed to the internet that long. Much of Southeast Asia is still sitting below 30 percent internet penetration and East Asia, lead by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, although all hitting up to 82 percent penetration, are still relatively new compared to the Valley. That means on the consumer side they haven’t been as exposed but it also means other unique aesthetics have evolved.
Three big examples
I call it “Crowded Design”. Simply because it looks crowded to me. It’s the signature distinct feature of much of Asia’s most popular sites. Here’s QQ.com, Tencent’s internet service portal:
As you can see, it’s loaded with text. And this isn’t by accident. Chinese internet consumers prefer to be overloaded with text. They like to read, and Chinese characters facilitate this.
Over in Thailand, at Sanook.com, basically the Yahoo of Thailand, the same is true. In fact, Krittee Manoleehagul, the managing director of content and services at Sanook, who was educated and worked in companies in the West and Asia, mentioned to me that when he first entered the company, and attempted to smooth out the design, was told by his own senior staff that “our users prefer lots of pictures bunched in together.” Thus, what you see is what you get.
In Vietnam, the same thing is happening, take a look at Zing News, one of Vietnam’s top news platforms, all the text is lumped together.
Asian consumers are pushing for crowded design?
So is it possible that Asian consumers are pushing this crowded design? It’s clearly one of the most common sighted trends across the region and underlines a key point for me: as much as flat and skeuomorphic design are at the “cutting edge” of design, do they really suit the needs of consumers? Sometimes flat and skeuomorphic just look like a lot of hot air. It’s just like talking about what’s the latest “black” or “pink.”
On the other hand, are Asian designers and website developers not being risky enough? Do Asian consumers need to be exposed (and thus educated by) new types of design that will suit their needs better?
In the coming years, we’re bound to see further innovation in this space, as some websites look to become more “Valley-like”. The perk that Asia has, and many other regions have, is the advantage of being exposed to most of the Valley’s new stuff. So, in a way, it’s possible that Asian design is bound to leapfrog flat and skeuomorphic and even crowded, especially with mobile hurriedly on the rise, once internet penetration reaches a stable plateau.