I believe every creative industry has it's golden age. Arguably advertising had a boom period through the early 60's and again in the UK during the 80s. Brand design really gained popularity in the early 70s (largely thanks to Unimark, Saul Bass and Wolff Olins). Although digital design has had a couple of false starts I believe this year it really has come of age and over time designers will look back at this period in awe. Perhaps it sounds like i'm getting nostalgic in my old age, but look at the work we've seen this year.
It's impossible to talk about design in 2011 without talking about Apple. Even though it's been a rough year with the loss of the titanic Steve Jobs. The team at Apple have released a new, refined desktop operating system in Lion. They have overhauled their mobile operating system with iOS5, adding in a bucket load of beautifully refined new feature. They have also introduced iCloud and quietly sneaked out a new version of iTunes for iPad. Not to mention the beautiful work that has been coming and going on their dotcom site. It hasn't all been wonderful though. The new Cards and Find Friends apps are clearly below Apple's standards. None the less they still continue to lead the world of digital design.
It's no secret in our industry that Facebook has been on a massive design shopping spree. Snapping up designers and creative directors from around the world. For the first time in it's history Facebook has started putting design in to the heart of its product developments. The first sign of their design progression comes in the eagerly anticapted Timelines update.
Even the mighty Google, once famous for it's non-design, has rolled out a new UI design standard. The first product to given the new Google design treatment was Google+, quickly followed by Gmail, Calendar, Blogger and most recently on to YouTube. Going from highly un-designed, tech driven products to adopting a subtle, highly reserved aesthetic was done in a matter months and shows no sign of slowing down.
Microsoft Windows Phone
Good design and Microsoft rarely go together, but after years in design hell Microsoft launched the Windows phone OS. A highly original, yet comfortable new experience for smartphones. Based on solid aesthetic principles the level of thinking that has gone in to the UI here is highly unexpected. Hopefully the team behind the design of Metro will act as a case dtudy within Microsoft and we will see elements of this work bleeding in to the next version of Windows.
For me Twitter comes Top of the Class in 2011. Although they are not operating on the scale of Google or Apple they have put out some leading UI design work. In the past six months Twitter has doubled in size, redesigned it's site to work across handheld devices, redesigned and relaunched it's flagship app, integrated in to Apple's OS, released an iPad app and if that wasn't enough they have just started rolling a stunning looking redesigned version of their web app.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the design team at Foursquare. I love the UI design work that each of their products is wrapped in. At the start of the year they redesigned their app, which only offered minor improvements. But the biggest "wow" this year has been the redesign of foursquare.com. If you haven't checked it out recently go have a look now.
The beeb continue to advance it's design guidelines. This year saw further developments within GEL. But also a redesigned homepage and a new weather site, which adopted a "tablet first" approach.
Other honourable mentions
It's not just the big names who have been pushing the design envelope. I've noted some interesting design coming out of newcomers Path, Flipboard and Stamped. Also Gowalla has been pushing it's product in new and unexpected ways. BankSimple is on the verge of releasing its user centric take on personal banking, which by the looks of it, is going to be huge in 2012.
All together it makes a pretty good argument for dubbing 2011 a vintage year for digital design.
Don't you think?