27 February 2020

9 Mins Read

David Ofiare

David Ofiare

To be, or not to be: Illustrating Humans of Flat.

All great illustrators/designers have one thing in common — society. Society is a subset of habitat, where habitat is a subset of their existence. If you are confused about where I have chosen to go with this, read on.

Illustrating Humans of Flat
This thumbnail was illustrated with a mouse in less than 5 minutes

The flat design era is one that a few designers would wish left them them as quickly as their salaries did when they needed to get a new house. On the other side of the ocean, other designers would wish flat design were tattooed on their palms so they could easily pass a fraction of it to everyone they gave a sincere handshake. Folks have different strokes. Perhaps you’re slightly uninformed, “but what is flat design,” you might ask?

Flat Design

Flat design by definition is flat design, or rather generously, any design that is considered flat.

More critically, flat design tries to shed every form of ‘unnecessary’ depth from within itself, channeling that energy to showing hierarchy with colours — and their beautiful shades in response to minimalism. It makes an attempt to bastardise every form of skeuomorphism (If you don’t know what that is, you’re probably too young, but keep reading) from its execution.Paying no attention to all the technicalities of this method, it is expedient to note that flat design had it’s highest point in 2019.

Flat design posters immersed in minimalism by Jorge Espinoza
Flat design posters immersed in minimalism by Jorge Espinoza

Humans and Society

An illustrator or a graphic artist has one job, which is to be creative and possess excellent artistic skills, which they would use to create drawings (finished or aborted halfway) to be consumed in their raw form (in publications, packaging, exhibitions) or shipped to another designer to work with.

All illustrators are either Human or — most recently — Artificial Intelligence, but mostly human, hence live amongst us walking the face of the earth consuming anime. So they are a part of society, but what is Society?


To know what this means, we could use the 4th definition from the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, that defines the word very controversially as:

The group of people in a country who are fashionable, rich, and powerful.

As laughable as this is, it is clear enough. If there were a group of people in a country who are fashionable, rich and powerful, then there must be another set who are none of these juicy words. There must also be others who are black, white, green and purple; others who are yet to define their gender; others who have chosen to be single till an asteroid comes to earth for a visit; others that are obese and others who are world champions; redheads, blondes, locked-haired; others who would rather Make America Great Again; and others who prefer to be governed by a traveling president. Society is hence a very complex issue. So complex, there are millions of failures and wars caused by clashing elements, ideologies and opinions in society.

On the brighter side, there are many great achievements because society chooses to be what it is — society.

Illustrating Humans of Flat
New task: The designer should make an attempt to please them all

This jungle is what illustrators/designers have to navigate every day while crafting less harmful ways to communicate [with] visually. Herein lies one of the greatest puzzles humans will ever face.

To be, or not to be

These words were uttered by Hamlet when he contemplated death and suicide in one of Shakespeare’s plays of the same name — Hamlet. 

To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Unfortunately, this is the same fate the illustrator/designer faces when he has to create works for society. He has to choose to be, or not to behumans of flat, equivalent to choosing between the known Jollof rice or classic Amala for dinner — such a tough decision to make.

Some design leaders came to the conclusion (through series of talks, researches and multiple doses of empathy) to make illustrations as accommodating as possible in a bid introducing as much inclusiveness into the industry.

Their argument was that illustrations (and designs) of old were too stereotypical, with recurring aspects that didn’t capture the generality of society. For example, illustrators are thought to be obsessed with over exaggerated breasts for female characters, properly toned models as characters — fully built with toned muscles for males and the “perfect” build for females, complete with slender arms — for their illustrations. This transcended into the race stereotype, beauty, etc., totally ignoring the disabled, fat, genderless, and a thousand more diversities in society.

 Comic Republic Hero poster, How many wimpy people can you spot?
Comic Republic Hero poster, How many wimpy people can you spot? 

The problem was known and they had a solution.

To draw without focus.

To draw without any specific focus on any of these complexities that was found on the humans of society. So with every illustration, they proposed that the illustrator/designer had to push the bounds of these complexities, ultimately birthing a new genre of illustration, Humans of Flat Design.

Humans of Flat Design

A wise man once said:

If you want to kill a horse slowly, tell it not to gallop

Illustrators/Designers saw this trend one morning after their coffee and while some fell in love with it, others saw it as the ugliest thing that had happened since society first witnessed mass murder. 

Influential brands like Google, Apple, Uber, etc., have all been observed to commission illustrators with this style. There are also useful libraries to create these illustrations on the fly by clicking simple buttons on your web browser.

To some, it was their chance to create without paying any attention to human/animal anatomy which is hard enough (still in doubt? try reading this simple book), while to others it was a total slight on their skills to see other illustrators earn money — sometimes even higher than they did — doing works like these:

Illustrating Humans of Flat
Illustrating Humans of Flat
Illustrations for Uber by popular illustrator Leo natsume

And this:

 Google best of 2019
Google best of 2019

These look strange enough, but this? Totally striking.

“new gender” by anonymous
“new gender” by anonymous

Alas! the movement Humans of Flat Design was created to capture this phenomenon of torture and bliss.
Humans of Flat Design is a critique movement created by hardened design critic, Eli Shiff and friends. Explorations of this style could be found in the sewers of dank mockery on twitter under the @HumansofFlat handle.


Illustrators/Designers now have an option to either create peak socially conscious drawings, while numbing their eye for inexplicable concepts like taste or correctness, or to create just as they want to — beautiful works filled with all the bias of their personalities.

Where do you stand dear designer?

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