What would Clement Greenberg think of Flat Design?

April 2nd, 2014

 Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Last year it seemed as if every second tweet or blog post on web design world was about flat design. But now the tweets have passed into the Internet ether and the Web is chock full of top 25 flat designs, flat UI kits, flat how-tos, etc. 

I previously wrote about my thoughts regarding flat design in a previous blog post: Beating a skeuomorphic horse flat.

What struck me while I was reading the comments and debates about flat design and skeuomorphism over the last year was that it reminded me of the ideas and debates surrounding painting and Modern art during the Avant-garde and Post-War period. 

After the Abstract Expressionist period in painting, in the sixties, there emerged a period that is often described as Post-painterly abstraction, Colour-field painting, or Minimalist painting. This type of painting, championed by Clement Greenberg, left behind the gestural, illusionary, painterly method of painting and moved towards something more flat and “pure”. 

“It was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained, however, more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. For flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art… Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.”- Modernist Painting, 1961.

In fact in this eight page essay, Modernist Painting, Greenberg mentions “flat” or “flatness” 19 times.

Greenberg and others felts that flatness in painting was the purist type of painting – it described it’s ultimate essence – what it was meant to be.

These were still the days of art manifestos – when artists and/or art critics would claim that new art they were making was, finally, the ultimate true art.


Sound familiar?

There were many blog posts about flat design being honest, pure design. In this way of thinking, after web design had tried the skeuomorphic route, it finally had come home to roost on a flat nest of pixels. 

The Flat Design Era blog post championed itself as the “Honest Design Age”. It was a manifesto of sorts and got lots of attention. And in that blog post and in many others that were written, the language reminded me of the art criticism of 1960′s painting, specifically Greenberg.

Regarding Greenberg’s ideas on flatness, Jeanne S. M. Willette writes “Modernist painting abandoned the principle of representation of Renaissance illusionistic space inhabited by three-dimensional objects, giving the effect of looking through the canvas into a world beyond. Modernist painting resists the sculptural, which is suppressed or expelled.”

If we replace “illusionistic space” with skeuomorphism we can see the analogies to the recent tendencies of web design that rejects the skeuomorphic or illusionary and moves toward the new, flat realness of the screen.

We know what happened with painting after Greenberg, but what will happen with web design?


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