Fluent Design System: First Impressions

Microsoft has just announced its Fluent Design System — a design guideline to bring a more consistent look and feel to the apps on Microsoft. It’s similar to Google’s Material Design or Apple’s Human Interface Design which was released during the launch of iOS 7 a few years back. With this announcement, Microsoft becomes the last of these three OS giants to introduce a comprehensive design guideline for UX designers and developers.

Now what does Fluent bring to the table that Google and Apple already haven’t? Is it as comprehensive as Material Design or as fluid and uniform as Human Design Guideline? Here are the things I have learned by digging into the Fluent Design System.

The Return of Skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphism is back. And it’s a lot slicker than ever.

The first thing you notice in the Fluent System is how snappy and realistic the new designs look. It’s sharp and delicious. This is because of the skeuomorphic look Microsoft has adopted. Now for those of you who don’t know, Skeuomorphism means mimicking digital designs in physical world objects and materials. We all remember the shiny glass icons, the steel buttons and wooden backgrounds of the iPhones in pre-iOS7 era or in the Windows Vista/7 era. That was all the craze back then. Then eventually came the era of flat colors (spearheaded by Windows 8, ironically). Material Design almost took it to a level of perfection. Microsoft seems to have brought back the shiny glass and metal surfaces. The question is, why? Why would Microsoft bring back design cues which are almost abandoned by other design systems?

Well, that brings us to the second point.

Built for AR, VR and MR

Floating UI in the middle of the living room? Got that too.

Fluent Design System will include some neat guidelines for designing for AR, VR and MR (Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality & Mixed Reality respectively). With the Hololens hitting the market soon, there is going to be a big increase in apps and interfaces that work beyond the screen and extend into the physical world. Skeuomorphic design is absolutely mandatory in this genre because you need interfaces and design elements that mimic the feel of real world objects, surfaces, materials and lights. If you’ve seen Hololens in action, you may have noticed how the real world illumination affects the interfaces in the device.

Beyond Software

The new Surface line of products will surely get a lot of design cues from Fluent

The last thing I noticed in Fluent is the presence of hardware. This might not be as prominent as the other features of the guideline but there is a definite vision to keep the new hardwares made by Microsoft under a consistent guideline. I’d say that’s a good move. Microsoft’s hardware developing prowess has started to rival that of Jobs era Apple in recent years and without a design guideline it’ll be very easy to lose consistency. The new line of Surface laptops and last year’s Surface Studio all seem to be under this guideline, meaning Microsoft might have been working on this for longer than we can imagine. But I doubt these hardware guidelines are going to be open for everyone. Rather it has more probability of being an internal guideline for Microsoft to stay ahead of the ever competitive high end hardware manufacturing game.

Fluent Design System is a bold new direction for Microsoft’s design efforts. There is a good chance these guidelines will soon dictate the language of their promotions, communications and other vital Brand elements. Now we just need to wait and see.

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