Material Design vs Flat Design - Which one to use?

October 21, 2020

Pss! The difference is in the Z-Axis!

Material and Flat. Both Design Styles. Both popular. One framed by Google. The other framed by time and trends. One with a set of guidelines. The other without any. How are they different from one another?

The Differences:

I’ll straight away get to the point and point out the differences between Flat & Material Design.

• Material Design has slight skeuomorphic or three-dimensional properties while Flat Design does not have any.

• Material Design is more interaction helpful by giving higher reactive/feedback response than Flat Design.

• Flat Design does not have any gradient/shadows added to it whereas Material Design makes use of these to create a sense of depth.

• Material Design makes use of the Z-Axis but Flat Design do not use it.

• Material Design uses Animation to show users what is exactly happening on the screen. It also gives visual cues.

• Material Design is slightly heavier on the page load speeds whereas Flat Design is comparatively faster.

One another major difference between the two is that Material Design is well documented by Google and has clear guidelines. It clearly states how it can be used and it’s principles. Google is keeping this document updated after every change made to it. But there is no single governing organisation for Flat Design. It is just a name given to the minimalist approach of design by a number of designers and companies.


Let me take a history class first.

When things started turning digital from analog, there was this strong need to bring familiarity between the real world and the digital interfaces. This was necessary to make the users feel at ease when transitioning from the real world to the digital world.

So for example, the button on any app UI was made to exactly look the real world button. This is called Skeumorphism.

Skeumorphic UI

It is the technique through which better/alternate versions of a product try to emulate it to bring in that sense of familiarity to the user. This was necessary for Digital Interfaces too when the digital gadgets were first introduced. It was too complex to be intuitive at first glance so Skeumorphism slightly eased it a bit.

But then things started looking clunky after a few years and it did not look as good as before. In short, realistic interfaces did not look modern. This gave way to the birth of Flat Design.

iOS transition to Flat Design

Flat Design:

With Flat Design, designers had the liberty to focus more on the usability of the interfaces rather than on making the interface components look realistic. It had a huge response because it made things look good and it increased the usability of the interfaces.

People had gotten used to the digital patterns before and the transition was smooth from Realistic Design to Flat Design.

No shadows and detailing were used in Flat Design. It could be called the Minimalist Design because it only used two-dimensional properties in all its components.

Example of Flat Design. No Shadows, no Gradients & no 3D properties. Dribbble Shot by kihoo

Material Design:

Material Design is a branded but open-source design system from Google. Material Design wanted to bring some of that Skeumorphism back into the design interfaces and it did so. Shadows and Gradients were used in all the components of Material Design.

One of the main reasons for the introduction of Material Design was to increase the usability and familiarity of people who were completely new to digital/web interfaces. Flat Design was not a problem for people who were transitioning from completely Skeumorphic Designs because people knew where to click, navigate and so on.

But for people who were completely new to digital interfaces, Flat Design did not work out as well it did because it had no indication on which items were clickable and also had other problems.

Material Design also tries to mimic the real world but in a more simpler and dignified manner rather than outright copying it. The realism was there only to a point where it signifies to the user about how each component works. It did not make things look overly realistic.

Material does seem to be in vogue for the year 2019 as one of the top 7 design trends.

You can probably see the difference in this image

Material Design Buttons

Realistic styled Buttons

Flat Design Pros and Cons


• It is very simple & minimalistic. It gets rid of unnecessary screen elements and streamlines it.

• It hogs fewer resources which means the webpages employing flat design loads faster.

• Flat Design can be made responsive, to suit mobile devices, faster.


• It relies only on colours, typography and shapes. Therefore it gives you fewer options to design.

• Creating a unique app or website adhering to your brand guidelines is generally tougher using flat design because of its constraints.

• It doesn’t make the product look interactive. Guiding the user through app flow through the app is not possible because of the lack of visual cues and interactive elements.

• Finding which elements are clickable and which are not is a tough job in flat design.

• Another popular opinion [but not a hard fact] is that it makes your site look outdated now that we are almost near 2020.

Material Design Pros and Cons


• Reintroduces that splash of realism into the design using z-axis. Creates a sense of depth and arrangement using drop shadows.

• Very intuitive. You know where to click, what happened you click and so on. Basically, you are in the loop every time.

• Motion Design is something which can be accomplished using Material. Quick animations for visual feedback is something very common in Material Design.

• If you have any questions, you just know where to look. The set of guidelines & principles by Google is always available for you.


• A lot more options than Flat Design. Which means longer development time.

• Slightly resource heavy than Flat Design because of the animations support.

• There is another opinion that Material Design principles of realism do not match with the real world and sometimes the feedback animations are a little too much.


There is no definite answer for which is better over the other. It clearly depends on your project and your users.

Try Material if you want to start off with guidelines and resources to fall back on if any problems. Or if you want to provide users with rich interactions or you’re making anything for the Android platform, you could try it as well.

If you want your product to be fast without too much detailing, then you can try out flat.

So which one are you going to use?