I now live in Osaka, Japan, but I’m back at my parent’s place in Paris for the holidays. Since I was last here 8 months ago they made some changes, including redoing the bathroom.
That bathroom now sports a brand new sink, and it looks great. Unlike most sinks, this one’s bottom is flat, not curved.
A flat sink looks great: it has a kind of zen minimalism, as if the design of a sink had been boiled down to its most simple essence.
When I saw that sink, I couldn’t help but wish more sink designers had the guts to break free from the tired old curved-sink paradigm. After all, who knows what sink design horizons lay unexplored because of timidity and conformism?
Why Sinks Are Curved
I quickly changed my mind, though.
As soon as I turned on the faucet, water started splashing all over me, bouncing off the sink’s flat bottom at high velocity.
It turns out that a traditional sink’s curve lessens splashing by reflecting water droplets inward instead of upward. Suddenly, a flat sink was starting to look less like a daring design and more like a questionable decision.
But the flat sink’s disadvantages didn’t end there. A sloped curve makes draining the sink easy. With a flat bottom, water was just sitting there in little puddles.
Finally, the usually trivial task of forming a little pool of water at the bottom of a sink to splash on your face or clean your razor blade is made much harder with a flat sink: since the bottom is flat, you need a lot more water to reach a sufficient depth.
The reason why I spent so much time thinking about that sink is that its designer fell into the all-to-familiar trap of difference for difference’s sake, and as a designer myself I can certainly relate to that.
Making a Difference
We all want to be innovators and make a difference in this world. We want to create things that will get noticed and be remembered. But at what cost?
Speaking of turning curved things into flat ones, my sink story reminds me of the currently popular flat design trend.
Thanks to Apple, realism (often mis-labelled as skeuomorphism) has been the dominant design paradigm of the last couple years.
But as designers get tired of fake leather and torn paper, more and more are gravitating towards a flatter, almost minimalist aesthetic.
Just like the flat sink, this new flat aesthetic looks great and feels refreshing after the unnecessary flourishes of recent years. But it can also be taken too far.
Remove all affordances, and you make it harder for the user to know where to click.
Put everything on the same plane, and you make it harder to focus on a specific section of the page.
Get rid of all texture, and you might end up with cold, sterile designs that scare users away.
The Right Reason
Now don’t get me wrong. Flat design certainly has its place, and my own personal style is probably evolving towards it as well.
But I think that whenever we use it, it’s important to ask ourselves if we’re embracing flat design because it’s a better solution to whatever problem we happen to be solving, or if we’re just trying to be different (and ending up being just the same as all the other people who are trying to be different too).
As my sink shows, putting your own needs as a designer before the needs of the user is a surefire recipe to a dirty bathroom and a wet shirt.
(As always, you can discuss/upvote this on Hacker News)
People in the Hacker News thread point out that kitchen sinks on the other hand have flat bottoms to let you stack dishes in them (but are also deeper to prevent splashes). Which again just goes to show that flatness in itself is not good or bad, you just have to use it appropriately!