Co.Design

Why Jony Ive Is Flattening iOS 7

On the eve of iOS 7's much-ballyhooed facelift, let’s reconsider what we talk about when we talk about skeuomorphism.

Over the past year or two, skeuomorphism has become the new Comic Sans. Just name-drop this esoteric technical term into polite conversation (always dismissively, of course--and don’t worry, you don’t have to really understand what it means), and you will conveniently establish your bona fides as someone in possession of refined taste and proper opinions. Because everyone who knows anything about design knows that skeuomorphism is, like, the worst. What everyone also knows is that thanks to Jony Ive, Apple’s design chief (or maybe “design pope” is more appropriate at this point?), Apple will be unveiling a de-textured, de-specular-highlighted, de-drop-shadowed iOS 7 at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference this week. You can practically hear the triumphant chants already: Death to leather and felt! Long live flat! Two legs bad, four legs good!

In case we’ve all forgotten, let’s recall that famous quote from Steve Jobs himself: that design is "not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." Sure, Ive’s distaste for skeuomorphic flourishes has been well documented. But he’s not a fashion designer, and if skeuomorphism is "out," it’s not because Ive haughtily decreed it à la Heidi Klum on Project Runway. The real reason--one befitting a product designer of Ive’s stature--is almost surely, and simply, this: that skeuomorphism is a solution to a problem that iOS no longer has.

iOS’s original, shiny, "lickable" UI taught the entire world how to use touch-screen mobile devices. As I’ve argued elsewhere, skeuomorphism was a canny and monstrously effective solution to a daunting problem: how to make an input method once only seen in science fiction movies seem as normal and friendly as. . .well, as dialing a phone. Skeuomorphism was a teaching method to make the ambiguous seem obvious and the futuristic feel familiar. And six years later, school is pretty much out.

But the s-word isn’t a synonym for "tacky" or "dishonest" or any other kind of gossipy/moralizing nonsense. The reason why iOS’s much-mocked Podcasts UI sucked wasn’t because it was skeuomorphic. It was because the mental model of a reel-to-reel tape machine simply made no sense. You barely knew what you were looking at, so the skeuomorphism couldn’t instantly orient you regarding the app’s functionality. In other words, it was illegible.

This illegibility might have been what Jony Ive was getting at when he allegedly said that skeuomorphic interfaces often do not "stand the test of time." But not all skeuomorphs are illegible. In fact, most of them are exactly the opposite--like the Notes app, which depicts lined yellow "pages." You could argue that these most basic skeuomorphs--paper, bookshelves--are the ones that are least likely to become illegible over time as digital devices evolve. Meanwhile, have you used iTunes lately? Flat as hell--and a total, inscrutable mess.

Digital interfaces are, to paraphrase designer Bret Victor, an often-awkward mash-up of pages and machines: "virtual mechanical affordances printed on virtual paper." We have to read them as texts but also manipulate them as objects. Swinging too far in one direction gives you the stitched-leather skeuomorphic excesses of iCal and Game Center, but (as ex-Apple UI designer Louie Mantia has remarked) it also gives you an abundance of familiar sensory detail with which to orient yourself. Swing too far in the other direction, and you get the abstracted sharpness of Microsoft’s Metro, which prioritizes "pure information" to such a degree that the UI is almost pure typography--but it can also feel antiseptic and arid.

Ive’s iOS 7 will be (unsurprisingly) somewhere in the middle. It’ll preserve the pseudo-physical "visual indicators that people need to trigger the idea of a tappable element"--which are also core elements of iOS’s brand--but they’ll just be sanded down to an appropriate level for 2013. And this isn’t even new. As designer Tim Green lucidly argues, this "mellowing out" of skeuomorphic affordances in iOS has been going on for years already. Gizmodo’s screenshot comparing earlier iterations of Apple’s own WWDC app confirms that this evolution has been well under way for a while--even before Ive took over, while The Great Satan--I mean, Scott Forstall--was in charge.

What Sir Jonathan Ive is interested in, surely, is evolving iOS’s design to make it more of an ease and pleasure to use, not picking sides in some faddish war between "flat" and "not." Will iOS 7 be flatter than what we have now? Yes. Does that mean Ive has the same facile, knee-jerk hatred of skeuomorphism that most of the Internet seems to? I highly doubt it. Skeuomorphism isn’t Comic Sans--it’s more like Transitional type, an entire typographic style which bridged the gap between calligraphic Old Style faces (based on pen strokes) and mechanized Modern ones. And as for whether any skeuomorphic design can "stand the test of time," that--like any design choice--depends on context. Just like Transitional type (like Baskerville, for instance) is still in use today, so, too, does skeuomorphism have its time and place. Good design is about knowing when and where that is.

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38 Comments

  • Rick Kreuk

    I believe people are forgetting that the realism in iOS doesn't only make it easier to use for new smartphone users, it gives otherwise dull apps personality. Like the reminders app. You instantly knew it was reminders. Or the notes app, calendar, music, etcetera. All apps were instantly recognisable, and beautiful. Apple was one of the few companies capable of such brilliant design, now they've thrown it away and put in a fisher-price unusable mess. I may even consider switching to android because of it: at least I'd be able to change the theme.

  • Russell Rutter

    While you are spot on for UX... UI i do not agree with. Tons of people have been railing apple with the new design. Quite frankly.... it sucks. I did flat from 1999 - 2004 when i realized bevels, shadows etc immersed the user which you are taking away.
    Almost like calling it a commie design, devoid of all emotion.
    Just because a hospital is clean and efficient, doesnt mean I want to have a vacation there.

    /UI Engineer of 15 years

  • gulliverian

    Rule 1: Don't fix things that ain't broke.

    Rule 1b: If it's only a bit broke, just fix that bit.

    Rule 2: If you think everything needs to be changed solely because it's been around a while, you're the wrong person for the job.

    None of Ive's reasoning or the above commentary suggests why skeuomorphism needed to be discarded. It worked. The replacement is an untextured, jumbled mess which has lost most of the intuitiveness of the skeuomorphic interface.

    I remain to be convinced. Skeuomorphism simply works.

  • Adouska

     Very well said! I found an article that Ives wanted to launch the same flat icons from 2005 and Steve Jobs stopped him. http://www.cultofmac.com/23114...
    I read Job's biography. Steve was the one who insisted on a design and had rejected so many proposals made by Ives, in order to deliver the best user experience. Many times he enhanced an existing idea and even suggested a new one.
    Although Jobs had a difficult character he was proven right most of the times.
    So if he embraced scevomorphism he had a reason! And a good one. Ives could have improved the design of the existing images instead of delivering this dull user experience. Why should an iphone look like a windows phone, when Jobs was stating that Gates is tasteless?

  • Dodonian

    TAOKEO put it all where it should. The design of the IOS 7 is close to an insult to the IPhone loyal buyer and user, who made Apple the world's most valuable company.

    The buttons do not make sense and even the battery icon was dropped on the main screen. The user needs to learn semantics! Why? Are there not enough semantics to learn in the real world? Why the IPhone should be added to them?

    Last but not least, the IPhone overal user experience is incomplete. The "package" is simply faulty.

  • Guest

    Interesting that you say ios7 would be somewhere in the middle. As it turns out it's nowhere near the middle. It's all just Helvetia ultra light floating on white. No colour. No contrast. No visual hierarchy at all. Just a floating mass of razor thin text that could be a link, button, label, content... who knows what... floating on white. But hey, at, least we can see though toolbars and headers now. That's the hallmark of a great UI. Stupid animations and see through toolbars.

  • Appleseed

    Apple was showing us for years the future, a virtual reality where we don't need the physical objects because we have the virtual ones that give us the same look and feel. Now they're flushing this all down the toilet, giving us plain sterility instead. This is a clear indication that Apple has lost its vision of the future now — maybe they're also ready to give my money back after taking my faux-leather away.

  • Cris

    I totally get the idea of a "transition design stage" (previous iOS versions) to the new iOS 7. I also share the idea that a simple solution is a modern interpretation of good design. 

    I've been an iPhone user for 4 years, but if you show me the Photo Library and Game Center iOS 7 icons today without telling me what they are, and I would've had to guess? I'd probably said they are a Color Pallet Center and a Bubble Graph Plotter. 

  • jmco

    People seem to think that more complex design is more work. Actually, it is MUCH harder to make simple design. With more decorative and 3D solutions for any design problem, you can hide mistakes in the design (knowingly but more often, unknowingly - especially with interface design).
    With simpler solutions, there is little to no room for error. Indeed, this is why the best designs are often the most simple which Steve Jobs translated as “Elegant” when talking about design.
    A fantastic example of simple and functional interface design is the U.S. Interstate Highway signage system. It must look respectable anywhere (nearly impossible but the green color does work in most places but is not too neutral) and work in all weather conditions and is critical for safety and lives of millions.
    The typeface for the system is OK but was recently redesigned with states implementing the new signs as old signs wear out or are replaced as part of normal updating, etc. The new letters have more space around the various letterform parts making them easier to read in fog, at night, and other poor conditions.

  • jmco

    For graphic designers, interface designers, art directors, etc. this whole use/overuse of the term ‘flatten” is pretty strange. Design, even good design, can have dimension, or not, or a little of one and less of another. It all depends on its purpose, use, user, format, etc.
    Dear writers, press, and media: Please read Megg’s History of Graphic Design from about mid Victorian to Arts and Crafts and into Modernism and the 20th C. Then write about design. You will never use the word flat ever again. (Notice how I did not say design flat or not flat but the USE of the word in relation to discussing design work.)
    Exception: a brief moment in Polish design history. Flat was where it was at. 

  • Will Capellaro

    Great article that gives some context and balance.

    Using iOS 7 now, I would have been happy with a more modest facelift. It's quite extreme and seems quite a risk for usability, branding, and legibility. As the article touches on, Apple lead, and leads the way on showing people how to use a touchscreen. I think abandoning this legacy is retrograde maneuver. iPhones still need to be sold to grandmas and the like. Apple was a great gateway device, and many stay loyal to their first brand.

    For people that say that Apple never listens to its customers, this should be painful proof that they listen too hard sometimes. This is one bell that we may wish to unring.

    Apple could have headed this off at the pass by revising the worst offenders anytime in the last two years - game center, calendar, etc, or by allowing an optional interface for modernists snobs who can use the settings screen.

    Big thank you to effite, adderall-addled, iconoclast design students who haven't worked a day in your life or ever had to design or produce any UI! You've made my phone harder for my mom to read from, use and relate to.

    Much respect to Jony, but ID and UI are different disciplines. Better eat your wheaties.

  • Tasia Loekito

    I feel bad for all the effort used to create a skeuomorphic design. It looks like such a hard work yet now it's all flushed down just like that by this lazy new flat trend.