Forget Flat And Skeuomorphic Design, Say Hello to Asia’s Crowded Design

Anh-Minh Do
1:30 pm on Jun 26, 2013


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.

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, Tencent’s internet service portal:

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.31.17 AM

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, 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.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.30.18 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.31.24 AM

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.

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  • Joel

    Sad to see you are writing about design trends as if you are writing about technology, with words like “cutting-edge” and “leapfrog”. Design trends go in circles, after a while people might even feel that skeuomorphism is cool again. Flat design is nothing new or “cutting-edge”. Am a avid reader of techinasia, and thus am sad to see this kind of article here.

    To make your article about design trend more worthy, I think it’s better to compare apple to apple and orange to orange. You are simply mixing up all the design trends. Those asian sites that you listed are news website, so perhaps compare them with new york times.

    Now after you’ve done that, i dont think the “crowded design” is asian, and the arguement about “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?” are that valid anymore.

  • Tom Limongello

    Is it that Chinese people ‘like to read and chinese characters facilitate this’ or is it that Chinese people hate typing on western keyboards and therefore want everything on the site map on the homepage?

  • Dave

    I’ve been following this “Asians like crowded websites” discussion for a long time, it’s a super interesting concept – should user interface really vary by region based on cultural differences?

    I’d like to see a follow up a follow up post with
    -examples of ecommerce design (Taobao, Rakutan, etc)
    -examples of app design (WhatsApp, Line, Bubbly)

    Also, take a close look at “valley” designs that are well adopted in Asia, ie Instagram, Facebook, and of course the best example – Google search. Do Asians really want clean designs with white space or do they like noise? The opinion I’ve always heard out of China is that Asians like crowded shopping sites because they like crowded shopping malls.

    Personally I disagree with that notion. I think great design can be universally appealing. Facebook would agree as they have hit over 1 billion users and most of their users are outside of north america. LINE is probably your best case in point. Is Line busy or clean?

  • Chris Harvey

    There are two main categories of websites/apps — utility and browse. Utility websites/apps where you go to DO something — Gmail, Ebay, Uber etc. Browse websites/apps are where you go to consume media. I’m simplifying a great deal, but basically this how I see it breaking down.

    I’m a huge believer that utility sites should have spare, clean and simple design that makes it super clear how I can achieve what I want to do. My favorite examples of this are Google and (must less well known) They are so clear and simple.

    Browse sites can tolerate a more cluttered design, because after all users go there to browse different media. But it still should be clear how to navigate the site and access stories of interest to me.

  • Chris Harvey

    @Dave: People don’t “want” any kind of design. Users have no idea what they want. Ask them and they will say something, but most of the time it’s not what they “want” at all.

    Design should be measured on the yardstick of “Are people using it? Are they getting what they want to get done, done? easy to use? Are they using it more?”

    Btw – is this impossible-to-read captcha really necessary? There are comment spam screeners for this sort of thing.

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