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How a flat-design approach and shadows go together

by on September 1, 2014

written by Nils Morich and Kris Lohmann


In the past weeks, the UX team at CoreMedia has been working on a new design approach towards the editorial interface for our CMS. This interface is a rich-web client called the CoreMedia Studio. The original design from 2009 was based on gradients and rounded corners – These elements feel a little outdated, 5 years later and in the time of Google’s Material design, Apple finally going flat, and Windows 8.

In this article, we discuss thoughts on flat design and how to apply it without falling into common traps (for such traps, see this post by NormanNielsen Group).

Reduce to the Max

Consequently, in our new design, gradients disappeared and transparency is history. Inspired by the references mentioned above, which became very popular with the release of Windows 8, we decided to pick up that trend and iterate our design approach. For example, the new approach manifests in the design of the icons used in the studio. No borders, no gradients, not more than just one color. The basic principles are driven by a flat-design approach. They are vector-based, which makes them future-proof for high-resolution displays that are more and more used. The following image exemplifies the old and the new look of the icons.


CoreMedia Icons

Old Icons (Sample)


New CoreMedia Icons

New Icons (Sample)


Visual Cues

So what is this shadow-thing all about? What are shadows used for and why is it important to us to know? There are two occasions when shadows become important:

  1. When the source and the direction of light is important
  2. When the position of elements on the z-axis is important

For a usual software project, the source of light is nothing that concern. However, the position of several objects in the z-axis is an important cue to the user. It makes the hierarchy or special highlighting of elements visible. Especially once there is a focus on elements such as windows, shadows can be very useful for that purpose. Have a look at the next pictures. The first window comes with a shadow and the second window without a shadow. The first window gives the user the feeling that the window is only loosely connected to the ground. Users have the impression that they can physically interact with the element – which is called an affordance in UX design.


CoreMedia Library with Shadow

With Shadow


CoreMedia Library Without Shadow

Without Shadow

A flat design in its most consequential application gets rid of shadows and other elements that are a first glance solely for decoration. However, looking carefully at it, there is a functionality assigned to some of these graphical elements. In the physical world, elements still interact in a three-dimensional space with each other. The understanding of these interaction is a basis for our understanding of the world. Nobody is surprised by the fact that things tend fall to earth (OK, some do): The laws of physics are deeply integrated in our cognition and are, as such, processed with cognitive ease.

An example makes this evident. The following pictures show a dropdown many used in the CoreMedia Studio. On the first picture there is a blurry shadow around the persona chooser. On the second picture, the same element is shown without any shadow applied. As you can see, it is much easier to distinguish the activated element from the rest of the studio. Without a shadow, things will get more complicated, and they will get worse when several elements happen to overlap each other.

UI Element with Shadow

UI Element with Shadow

UI Element without Shadow

UI Element without Shadow

Shadows Help Understanding a User Interface

But is this really necessary? Why is it so important to visualize the position of an element within three-dimensional space? In fact we still mostly run software on devices with flat screens (Monitors, cell phones, tablets, …). So do shadows not just add visual clutter to a user interface?
Futhermore, there are other popular examples, that do not make use of shadows. Consider Comic-Movies like Southpark. There are neither body-shadows (shadows that appear on the objects caused by light) nor object-shadows (shadows that are caused by objects on the environment). So why does this work? In this case it is a movie, so we have the additional dimension of movement and animation that helps the viewer process the visual content.
In a user interface for software, which is in contrast to the movie interactive, the user is much more reliant on the affordances of objects. Hence, using shadows to induce affordances into objects by imitating physical interactions is not necessary.

Seeking Inspiration

What do others do? Let’s have a look at the Google’s material design: The philosophy is to stay close to the physical world and convert the behavior of physics (light, mass, material,…) to a flat-design. Google manages the shadow-topic in a very strict way:


There is a range of five different states of depth (Depth 1 is very close to the ground – Depth 5 is far away from the ground). As you can see, the shadow gets bigger and more blurry the greater the distance is between object and ground. Depending on their depth-level an object overlaps or is overlapped by other elements (i.e. an object with a depth-level of 3 covers all objects of depth-level 1 and 2, but is covered by all objects of depth-level 4 and 5). Elements which are supposed to match the same high as the ground are considered “Depth 0”.

Our Solution

We created several variants of adapting the behavior of shadows. We came to the result that three levels of depth dealing with shadows would be enough for our software products.
The shadows are constructed as follows:

CoreMedia Shadow Construction

CoreMedia Shadow Construction

The pictures below show two examples of how the new shadows look, applied to the CoreMedia Studio. You see a component called dashboard with widgets on it in the first picture. In the second picture, an opened free-floating window is shown. The widgets have depth level 1; the window has depth level 3.

Example for Shadows with Depth Level 1

Example for Shadows with Depth Level 1

Example for a Shadow with Depth Level 3

Example for a Shadow with Depth Level 3


Minimalistic design such as flat design eliminates unnecessary visual clutter from a user interface. Carefully applied, it results in a clean look and feel. Still, the elimination of some visual elements is risky. As exemplified by shadows, some visual elements provide cues that allow the user to better and easier understand what is going on. In particular, it allows the designer to inform the user on relations between objects and on potential interactions with these objects.
Visual elements such as shadows carry information that is processed by the user of the interface. Carefully applied, such elements can and should augment a minimalistic design approach.

From → UX & Design

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