It’s no secret: at Juicebox, we’re in love with WordPress.

A couple of weeks ago, WordPress 3.8 was released. We were too busy working on our 3D open house to keep up on the industry news, so I hadn’t read anything about it and didn’t know what was coming. But the yellow notice tells me I can update in one click, so I click.

I was pretty surprised by the big change in this release, something you notice immediately: a completely new design direction for the administrative interface. Subtle grays with slight texture are so May–June 2013. Bold and flat is in.

WordPress 3.7 vs. 3.8 (admin sidebar)

WordPress admin interface v3.7 (left) and v3.8 (right)

With their new design, WordPress is following a trend that’s picked up a lot of steam during the past six months—the flat user interface. Microsoft pioneered this interface style over a year ago with Windows 8, and for the first time in awhile, they inspired the rest of the industry. In January, Google updated their entire web interface and their Gmail mobile app. In August, Twitter‘s Bootstrap 3 was released; in September, Apple pushed out the update to iOS 7, and now in December WordPress has overhauled their admin interface. And the latest releases from four of the most influential web companies all shared something in common: they embraced the flat UI style.

Apple iOS6 vs iOS7 settings panel

Visual comparison of the email inbox in iOS6 and 7

Twitter Bootstrap button styles in version 2 (top) and version 3 (bottom)

Twitter Bootstrap button styles in version 2 (top) and version 3 (bottom)—
subtle, but different

What’s the big deal? Really, there isn’t one, but it’s interesting to us and so we’re going to talk about it! Even if you don’t follow design trends, you may find this interesting too because chances are high that you’ll understand what I’m talking about even if you’ve never thought about user interfaces before.

User interface trends

The trend toward flat user interface design is an intentional revolt against the previously dominant interface style called skeuomorphism, which is a word we’ll never use again because it’s more accurately (and less pretentiously) called “realism“. It’s just the idea that user interface elements should look and act like things in the real world.

Apple pioneered this design style when they released the first iPhone in 2007. Under this philosophy, buttons should look three-dimensional so the user knows to press them and icons should be shaded and textured to look like physical objects. Or in a notepad app, for instance, use background textures to make it look like real paper—that sort of thing. And their strong user interface was one of the main factors of the iPhone’s runaway success. Its users felt a sense of familiarity. The interface made sense to people who would otherwise have been intimidated by new technology. By having an incredible user interface, Apple made smartphones mainstream and accessible.

After Apple

But now that mobile technology has invaded every demographic, we know how user interfaces work. We expect interactivity. So we’ll know to click a button even if it’s not rounded and beveled. We’ll take notes on our phone even if our phone doesn’t look like a notebook. The leading voices in usability no longer feel that it is necessary for UI elements to look realistic.

From a designer’s point of view, this means freedom. Millions upon millions of people have been adequately trained to use new technology, so we can now move beyond some of the old constraints and do something new without alienating users.

(And even though Apple was a follower in the new flat interface trend, we think they did it best. Their new iOS7 is hands-down the most beautiful interface we’ve ever seen.)

What next?

Like every graphic design style, this is just a trend. It has a shelf life of three to five years before it becomes stale. More and more designers and technology companies will be influenced by this style in the coming year, and each of them will add their own twist or flavor to the mix, causing the style to gradually evolve and grow over time.

But then another product will be released that’s seen as visionary, original, a game-changer. Its design style will incorporate some elements from previous styles so as not to be completely foreign to its users, but it will feel fresh and new. People will talk about it. Designers will start imitating it. The big companies will incorporate it into their products. The cycle will continue.

The bottom line is that nothing’s ever “here to stay” in this industry… but that’s one of the reasons we love our jobs!