Ellen Finkelstein wrote a post on her PowerPoint Blog this month entitled "10 Tips For Modern Design in 2017." She then contacted other bloggers (including yours truly) to get complementary takes on modern design tips and insights.
I welcomed the opportunity to point out a modern design trend that I see as detrimental to productivity and comprehension. The best way to illustrate my point is with a tangible example that many business users are familiar with.
Here is a snapshot of the Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2016 command ribbon, including my own personal custom quick access toolbar, located below the main ribbon. You can put whatever commands you want in your quick access list, so my collection of icons is an arbitrary set of commands I happen to use a lot.
Here is the same command bar view taken from Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2010.
Let's focus on the two quick access toolbars, stacked on top of each other for easy reference. On top is the 2010 version, on the bottom is the 2016 version. (You can click on any of these pictures to see an expanded view.)
I was shocked to see how little the icon designs had changed in those six years. For the most part, the icon you were used to seeing as an old-timer using PowerPoint 2010 retains the same conceptual design in PowerPoint 2016. I say I was shocked because even though the designs are fundamentally the same, I find that I am consistently slower and less certain about icon picks in PowerPoint 2016. This is true even though I have the same icons in the same positions performing the same functions. What could account for the degradation in utility?
Microsoft has followed two pervasive trends in modernizing design. They have attempted to fit all visual elements into a standardized "look and feel" to make size, shape, line width, and colors consistent. And they have "flattened" visual elements to remove shadows and perceptions of depth in the image.
The change in any one icon in these examples is likely to be small and subtle. The change to the full set of icons and their practical use is significant. As my eye scans the full width of the ribbon to find the command icon I want, I have a harder time spotting variations to act as visual waypoints that help guide me to a spot.
Say I want to group or ungroup some elements on my slide. In the top (2010) version of the toolbar, I can scan along and very quickly identify the appropriate icons (third and fourth positions in the isolated view below):
But in the bottom (2016) version of the toolbar, those icons have the same line widths, weights, and "feel" as the icons appearing before and after them. There is no quick visual cue to differentiate icons.
Using the same isolated comparison picture above, notice the first and second icons. Those happen to stand for "bring element to the front" and "send element to the back." In the older 2010 version on top, shading and color fills make it immediately obvious that elements are on top of or behind other elements in the image. In the newer 2016 version on bottom, perspective is lost because there is no more shading and no secondary color gradients. I can see that the icon represents different shapes slammed together, but I don't immediately see the front/back concept. Flattening the imagery has eliminated the contextual cues.
What can we learn from this examination of Microsoft icons? Beware of arbitrary guidelines that impose too much consistency among visual elements in your presentation materials. Audiences need a way to differentiate between items so they can quickly find and concentrate on each component you reference. Also beware of blindly applying the present "flattening" fad. Judicious use of perspective and shadowing can help provide visual cues that add context and utility to your work. Don't be a slave to fashion… think of how your intended audience will interact with your materials and design to facilitate that interaction.