Does Flat Design Forsake Response?

When I first became aware of the Internet, I was running the Toronto office of direct marketing agency Cohn & Wells (later purchased by EURO RSCG). I had met a young guy (with purple hair) who worked down the hall and when I asked what he did, he introduced me to the World Wide Web. It was 1995.

Our largest client, Bell Canada, was launching a campaign to defend itself against telecommunications deregulation and I wanted to include a website as a response mechanism in order to support their position as an innovative industry leader.

The URL? — not exactly easy, intuitive or consumer friendly but the page itself took advantage of known visual cues that would stimulate response: Skeuomorphism.

Skeuomorphism is the idea that early computer interfaces would be more intuitive to users if an object in software mimicked its real world counterpart. For example, a “trash can” and “file folder” are two of the most recognizable skeuomorphic objects.

As the web matured, designers spent hours on designing and testing skeuomorphic buttons, adding curves and drop shadows as non-verbal cues to indicate that, yes, this is where you should click to take the next action. In fact, if you Google “best color of button for conversions” you’ll get over 1.3 million results. Article after article about not only colors, but shapes, sizes and shadows, and how they’ve been tested and refined for maximum response. For our Bell Canada landing page, the buttons were indeed large, colorful and action-oriented.

But now, the world has gone to flat design. For the most part, buttons are now no more than a simple rectangle. Some research suggests that rounded corners enhance information processing and draw our eyes to the center of the element, but that insight seems to have been tossed out the window.

Color seems to be optional as well — or color appears after you hover over the button. That seems counterintuitive to me, as the sole purpose of the button is to draw your eye to the action area and to click — if the button is lacking any color, it’s not grabbing my attention in the first place!

Other advice from experts is to clearly label the button with a message of what happens after the click/tap or indicate what it does using action verbs. As a dyed-in-the-wool direct marketer, I know buttons should be labeled with “Learn more” or “Add to cart” or “Download now,” but apparently others don’t find this the least bit important as I’ve spent many a confused minute or two unsure how to proceed on a website when the button was labeled “Awesome!” or “Got it.”

I’m also a strong advocate of the action arrow. That little “>” icon that is one more visual action cue. In my mind “Learn more >” is far stronger than just “Learn more” — especially when the button is flat.

For those of us who have grown up in the direct response world, we have studied, tweaked and tested our way to maximum direct mail response rates. Neuromarketers helped us study how the brain responded to various stimuli and we began to apply it to every aspect of marketing design from pricing to color choice. So why throw all that insight away and use a flat button?

I’m sure readers will tell me that it’s because everybody already knows it’s a button. But I beg to differ. “Everybody” doesn’t always include that older adult who may not be as web savvy as you are. And I, for one, don’t want to lose a single response. So with all of our energy spent on studying and testing conversion techniques, I would encourage someone to test a skeuomorphic button against a flat button and share the results with me. I truly believe there may be an “a-ha!” moment on the horizon.


Kirkwood Direct is largest service provider that offers comprehensive and effective end-to-end direct marketing communications solutions to their clients. It offers various services like Data Management/ Data Acquisition, Commercial Printing, Mailing Services, E-marketing and many more. Call (978) 642-0300 or visit site.



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