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iOS7′s design: European minimalism triumphing over American quirkiness and fun?

11/7/2013

iOS 7 screen shot

Yesterday I had my first chance to use iOS7. I played with it for an hour on an iPad (actually my mother's iPad which my younger brother has used to check out the iOS 7 beta releases).

Before showing it to me, he showed it to my 10 year old son, who certainly can be considered a user of Apple's various devices. His first reaction: "why does it look like a Samsung". Ouch.

And my 15 year old son commented that iOS 7's app resembled Windows Phone apps. Another ouch!

Now before you read on, a few disclaimers. I am certainly an Apple fan. I am a designer. I am pretty much a staunch modernist. I am an admirer of Apple's design chief Jony Ive. And I can be a sucker for Apple's marketing videos. I was initially impressed with the look of iOS7 as it was shown in the promotional video during Apple's WWDC.

Over the last month I have read countless articles about iOS 7 and its new design that has stirred up a lot of controversy. No one seems to have any big issues with the interaction design improvements in iOS 7. For example, swiping up to access frequently needed controls seems like a good idea to most people. What is stirring up most debate is the visual design of iOS 7: the icons, colors and fonts.

People who follow such geeky topics all knew that Apple will be changing the visual look of iOS in it's 7th release, because Jony Ive is now responsible for both hardware and software design now, after the departure of Scott Forstall, the "father" of the current iOS look. Ive is known for his love of simplicity and reductive design approach and it was expected that this will affect the look of the new iOS.

I, like many other designers, was starting to get sick of the "realistic looking" textures of cloth, leather and wood in iOS. And when the new look of iOS 7 was revealed, there was a moment of awe as a much cleaner, crisper and modern OS design graced the screens of the iPhones shown in the video.

But after playing with iOS 7 yesterday, I came out feeling weird.

I am not talking about interaction design (although I had a few notes on that too). I am talking about the iOS and Apple BRAND. In other words it's character or personality.

It seems to me that part of the Apple brand DNA has come from an interesting tension between slick European inspired industrial design of the hardware and quirky, friendly and fun "American" design for the software. And this did not just happen with the introduction of the iPhone. Take a step back and remember how Mac OS X used to look in its bubbly and glossy "Aqua" incarnation. "You want to almost lick it," Steve Jobs said in one of his Keynotes. Granted the iMacs and the iBooks of the time where also bubbly and almost candy-like (thus pretty much in harmony with the way the OS looked), but Ive's designs soon turned to the very restrained look of the iPod, Cube, the flat iMac and the rectangular iBooks and MacBooks.

Ive's European influences are clear. Not only is the guy a Brit, his work for Apple is clearly influenced by the work of legendary German design master Dieter Rams, who designed iconic products for Braun decades ago.

Step even further back into history and consider that Apple's design language in the 1980s was influenced by German industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger who founded Frog Design, a company that extensively worked for Apple. Yet around the same time, the icons of MacOS were designed by the American Susan Kare, a pioneer of computer icon design who's work is indeed functional but in a rather fun and friendly manner.

The icon design of iOS 7 has been dissected by many writers. All sorts of issues were pointed out, from the choice of bright neon-y colors, to problematic proportions and apparent inconsistencies (like the glossy bubbles of the new Game Center icon).

But I feel that something more profound was lost/deliberately obliterated: a big part of Apple's visual brand soul.

European coldness has taken over.

Sure, Apple needed to get rid of the worst "Skeumorphic", faux-textured offenses in iOS, such as the torn page of the Notes app, the "old world" Compass app and the stitched leather look of the Calendar.

But what on earth was wrong with the Photo app (designed by the young digital design star Mike Matas, now working at Facebook)?

Was it really necessary to give us this impossibly thin lined control center icons?

And hasn't the Apple design team noticed that its new work might give too much of an Android look in certain places and Windows Phone look in other places. What about clear differentiation?

And can it be true that Ive is dealing with iOS 7 with a formalistic language rooted in the geometries of slick industrial design? I have certainly seen architects deal with graphic and web design in a way that emphasized geometry, abstraction, formal relationships and reductionism, at the expense of legibility and content centricity. Is that happening at Apple? (hard to believe actually!)

I cannot say that my hour with iOS 7 has given me a horrible feeling or anything. But it has left me somewhat cold. I like the layering and transparency. I like the parallax "3D" effect on the home screen. Across applications I liked the clean, airy look achieved by more white space and modernist design. But was it really necessary for Apple's progress to throw out the friendly quirkiness and warmth with the the skeumorphic textures?

Some may say that what I am advocating here is a conservative evolution, and that what Apple did was a brave revolution. OK. Granted. But while Apple's revolution might have delivered on toppling the old faux-texture regime and on instating a new interaction design regime, it failed on delivering a brilliant new visual design horizon. Had Apple done that it would have maybe made forget about the "fun, warmth and quirkiness" of the old iOS and made me believe in something boldly new. Instead, iOS has, visually, delivered only "abstraction" as an answer, flawed by some inconsistencies and seemingly hurried decisions.

Interestingly, Susan Kare said she "liked" the new iOS icons.

It will be interesting to watch how the design of iOS unfolds until it's official release later this year and in versions beyond.

One Comment

  1. Haitham says:

    Interesting! It was obvious that the Braun-loving-Brit was dying to put his hands on software after seeing his fetished-over minimalist products covered in felt and having wooden shelves for e-books (what an irony here!) The American-European analogy is exactly where the problem lies; iOS was designed for the American consumer but was also ‘refined’ and it was internationally accepted. iOS 7 was designed by a designer for designers, neglecting the fact that grandmothers and grandfathers use iPhones and iPads; It is a little cold.

    I don’t see it that way because I’m a designer myself, I love how iOS’s apps and functions have been polished, it feels like morning. It’s happy and bright. But iOS 7′s real issue is with the home screen, the home screen looks dated and weak, it doesn’t do much. It’s just a place where apps live, rather than a buffer zone between what you need from your mobile device to do or tell you, and going in the real app for the full experience. Disappointing.

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