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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Claire Yixuan Zhang

Claire is a UX/UI designer and design historian. Prior to the MA in History of Design, she graduated from New York University with a BFA in Theatre. Having worked in a wide array of disciplines, including costume design, fashion history, historical reconstruction, graphic design and UX/UI design, she found her way into design history through a fascination with how historical, social and cultural factors can influence the design and technology of everyday life.

Image: Set of Metro Icons, 2018 <>.

Left: census record used in the first project
Right: icon design of the Metro Design Language

Claire's two pieces of writings for the programme reflect her interest in the intersection between design and technology.

Her first project presents an analysis of an 1870s domestic sewing machine held at the V&A Museum, with which she discussed how the newly-invented technology both challenged and solidified the Victorian ideology of domesticity and femininity. Her dissertation shifted focus from the Victorian era to the 2010s, where she delves into the development of the Metro Design Language, a UI design guideline created by the technology giant Microsoft.

Image, Left: Census Returns of England and Wales 1881 (The National Archives of the UK (TNA) Public Record Office (PRO) Class: RG11; Piece: 133; Folio: 84; Page: 21. GSUroll: 1341030.

Image, Right: ‘Metro Icons’ in Introducing Windows Phone Design System Codename: Metro (Microsoft, 2010)


In 2010, technology corporate Microsoft released a new design language named Metro to guide the interface design of all their digital products. Metro marks the beginning of a transition in user interface design from a previous style called skeuomorphism, which involves the use of many realistic visual metaphors, to a more minimalistic style called flat design.

While this style change is widely discussed in the technology industry, it has rarely been studied within an academic context. As the first to survey Metro’s flat design within the design history discipline, this dissertation aims to answer the central question: What led to the rise of flat design in the early 2010s?

Interweaving rich primary materials, such as images, recordings, and official guides, with secondary sources that situate Metro in a broader historical and sociocultural background, the three chapters of this dissertation aim to offer a comprehensive view into the forces behind the stylistic transition into flat design. Chapter One examines Metro’s design inspirations, and unpacks the current discourse around skeuomorphism and flat design. Chapter Two focuses on the technological, strategic, and ideological forces that drove this transition. Chapter Three offers a more critical perspective, investigating the technological elitism within the industry that assigned certain value to flat design. Using the Metro design language as a central case study, these chapters can help shed light on the rise and persistence of flat design since the early 2010s. 

Windows 8 Start Screen on Laptop
Windows 8 Start Screen on Laptop, designed with the Metro Design Language, 2012 < personal-experience-with-the-windows-8-release-preview/>.
Windows Phone 7
Windows Phone 7 on HTC HD7, designed with the Metro Design Language, 2010 < 11 Windows-Unlocked-Mobile-Phone/dp/B0049NQE0O>.
Collage of Metro Inspirations
‘Collage of Metro Inspirations’ in Introducing Windows Phone Design System Codename: Metro (Microsoft, 2010) pp.5-6.