There has been plenty said about iOS 7, both leading up to and after it’s official public release last Wednesday. I even gave my two cents on Apple’s current design trends awhile back. Others have dissected the OS far better and more thoughtfully than I can. There is something else to talk about in regards to iOS 7 though, and that is it’s seemingly polarizing effect, both in the design community and the general population.
Let’s start out with some basic terminology, at least within the context of this post. Design is not just how something looks, but how it functions as well. To me, design accomplishes a goal, while doing it in a novel and or engaging way. Design is also about refinement, pushing the boundaries, learning from it, and perfecting upon it.
Aesthetics are how something looks; what is perceived as beautiful. Aesthetics are often tightly coupled with design, but do not necessarily have to be. Aesthetics are a tool of design. In the discussion of iOS 7 these two terms seem to be interchangeable and are freely slung around. That should not be the case.
These are my definitions, and other designers may disagree. I encourage a lively debate in the comments below.
With the definitions I have just provided, no one would disagree that, as a whole, iOS 7 is not a solid design. There are improvements in areas that were needed for some time, such as: better folders, easy access to utilities such as a calculator or wi-fi controls, better multitasking, better spotlight search, better notification center, and so on. These features have been refined, and improved upon—better designed.
The aesthetics of the OS have changed drastically, and this is where users are getting hung up. Gone are the fake (skeuomorphic) textures, replaced with flatter, calmer, and more colorful ones. This may not be to some people’s taste, and of course, it isn’t. However, once again, I will argue that as a whole, the new look of the OS has been better designed (tricky territory here–the aesthetics have been better designed). At the very least it is more uniform. Icons now have a standard grid they are to adhere to.1 Shadows and depth are now cohesive and standardized. Depth and the Z-axis has been utilized to now give the user a sense of place within the OS2. This is achieved aesthetically with frosted glass panels, parllaxing backgrounds, and zooming animations. The aesthetics allow this design to work I would argue. At least until technology and new ways of handling these problems have been thought up and introduced.
Many have compared iOS 7 to both Windows Phone and Android. This is only a skin deep comparison I would have to say. The aesthetics have gotten flatter, yes, but I believe that is a fashion decision as much as a design decision. That is, right now, if you look at the world around you, most print and digital design seems to be flatter in nature (Apple used to implement flat designs before as well). Plus, I believe it is a drastic, reactionary move to cleanly separate itself from older versions of iOS. Aesthetically, things will be scaled back, as the need for drastic separation and newness fades. This was the same approach Apple took with OS X over the years. Look at 10.0 and look at 10.8. Much of the user interface has been refined.
As for feature functionality, yes, there are strong comparisons to Android and even WebOS. Notification center functions much the same on iOS as it does on Android. Why? Android got it right first. It’s as simple as that. The same goes for multitasking on iOS. Apple realized that the way they were doing it, at least from a user interface perspective, wasn’t the best. Palm had solved it better in their WebOS and a decision to change it to a similar design was made. This is competition at it’s finest.
This does not mean it is moving in the direction of Windows Phone, Android or any other mobile OS however. It simply means that it has been revamped to go along with the times we live in. Couple this with the fact that Apple had to do something to drastically distinguish it from older version of iOS, and you’ve got two good reasons as to why it looks and functions the way it does.
Aesthetically, it may not be to some people’s taste. Some of my friends and design colleagues hate it. Others, like me, love it. I think it’s a breath of fresh air and a new infrastructure for designers to build upon. Besides, aesthetically it is very much to my taste. I am very excited to see what the UI greats such as Loren Brichter3 are able to do with iOS 7.
It would seem that iOS 7 has divided iOS users into the three camps: people who love it, people who hate it (aesthetically), and people who think it is now mimicking other mobile operating systems. I love it as a designer and naturally believe the other two camps are incorrect. In the next few months, earlier versions of iOS will look like the odd ones out. There is this much reaction and, dare I say, resistance to iOS 7 because change this drastic is a hard thing to swallow.
As for the comparisons to the competition–that will invariably happen–I would argue that aesthetically it looks nothing like either Windows Phone4 or Android. Windows Phone is very, very flat, and on the whole, dark. Design-wise, it functions on the x and y-axis and nearly completely ignores the z-axis. Clever, works well, and looks good. Well designed I would argue.
Android on the other hand, has always been an uneven mess. Ignoring the skins that carriers and handset makers lay on top of the system, Google’s own idealistic version is an aesthetic mess- unorganized textures, inconsistent shadows, the works. Some of the UI chrome looks rather nice on a Nexus device; elsewhere it’s a mess. I’m sorry, Android did have moving backgrounds first. How’d that help with the battery life on the junky handsets from Samsung?
From the very beginning, iOS has played with the z-axis. The original iPhone all the way to iOS 6, used textures to give a sense of place. Usually this was handled tastefully, with occasional misses–I’m looking at you address book. The purpose of this skeuamorphism was to create a sense of depth. A fake, heavy-handed, simulated sense of depth. For six years it worked, but it was time to move on and make something more digitally orientated, and not so fixed on mimicking the real world merely through textures.
That’s not to say that iOS 7 is not mimicking real world experiences. It’s just doing them in a new, more subtle way. Textures are gone, and now we are given animations and translucency to give us a sense of place. The subtle parallaxing used in the background, is similar to the parallaxing you experience driving down the road. Subtle, tasteful, effective, an improvement over iOS 6, and a far better implementation than Android’s.
In short, those of us that love and use iOS everyday will soon get used to this jarring change. Those that use other platforms can claim that their system has been copied, but I don’t see it that way at all. I see Apple laying groundwork for the next few years with more drastic changes to come. I believe we would have seen a very similar iOS 7 design even if it had been created in a vacuum and no other mobile operating systems existed. Apple is looking ahead at the next five years–readying their OS, and splitting their iPhone line into two different product families5. Something big is around the corner in Cupertino.
As a designer, this is how I see design, and this the direction I see Apple taking in the future. I do hope to see a lively debate in the comments below. I’ll see you there.
1 Apple’s own apps adhere to them, and I suspect any AAA app that comes along from a third-party developer will also utilize this grid. And if they do break the rules, they’ll know how to do that correctly.
2 I would also argue that these animations have more character than animations on other platforms. Also, these animations are possible through technologies such as OpenGL and Apple’s custom silicon. Don’t expect the hodgepodge of hardware and software from other makers to be able to produce that kind of performance. Apple has deliberately made their look and feel hard to copy.
3 The designer who invented the pull to refresh gesture. Apple even adopted the gesture and it is now commonplace.
4 I think Microsoft is doing an uncharacteristically good job in the area of UI deign in regards to Windows Phone. It is tastefully handled and genuinely unique. I wish it could gain traction in the marketplace.
5 Introducing 64-bit to the top end iPhone was the biggest clue that Apple is looking ahead at the next evolution of mobile devices.