When we talk about Jony Ive's massive overhaul of Apple's mobile operating system in iOS 7, we tend to think about it in terms of a mere facelift. First unveiled in June and inspired by the work of legendary German designer Otl Aicher, Ive embraced a flat look in iOS, 7 largely marked by the use of bold colors, lots of white space, elegant typography and simple geometric shapes. Ever the sophisticate, it seems natural that iOS's previous skeuomorphic look would strike Ive as a design crime that must be eliminated.
All of this is doubtlessly true. The flat design of iOS 7 is about Jony Ive waging a holy war against the tacky skeuomorphism of previous versions of iOS. But that's only part of the story. With iOS 7, Jony Ive has designed a visual look that isn't just suited for the iPhones and iPads of today, but the iWatch, iTV, and even iCar of the future. This is about iOS taking over the world.
Let's start with a simple observation: although iOS started on smartphones and tablets, Apple's long-term vision for the operating system is much bolder. It already runs on smartphones, tablets, portable media players, and set-top boxes. But Apple isn't going to stop there.
It is noteworthy, then, that alongside announcing iOS 7's new look at the Worldwide Developer Conference in June, Apple also unveiled a new type of device iOS would soon be running on: automobiles. Called iOS In The Car, the new feature would allow drivers to make calls, listen to music, access maps, or even send messages, all from their automobile's in-dash screen. No one really noticed at the time, but iOS In The Car was a hint why iOS 7 had been redesigned to begin with. As it turns out, an operating system designed to be flat is much better suited to running on multiple devices than a skeuomorphic operating system is.
From a design perspective, there are two things that are interesting about iOS In The Car. Its visual design is entirely consistent with iOS 7 on the iPhone or iPad, but its UI is different, with big rectangular buttons instead of iOS's more traditional small square icons. The reason the icons are different is simple: safety. When you're driving, you need to be able to quickly and safely push a button without having to take your eyes off the road for long to find it. Yet despite the fact that iOS In The Car uses differently sized and shaped on-screen elements, the icons themselves can be the same because they're flat.
Think of it this way. Let's take two square images. One is a simple red box with a silhouette of a phone in the middle: typical flat design, as seen in iOS 7. The other is a photograph of the Vatican. Now let's say that you want to turn each image into a rectangle, not by cropping it and losing parts of the image, but by expanding it. With the flat icon, you can simply add more red around the edges, and it'll look great. But the picture of the Vatican? You'd need to take the photo all over again to capture the detail on the edges you missed the first time around.
Look at the icons of iOS 6 side-by-side with iOS 7. Almost across the board, every iOS 7 icon can be expanded both vertically and horizontally, just by filling the blank space with the colors on the edges. For example, the Photos or Safari icons can be expanded to a length rectangle just by placing the existing icon in the middle and filling the rest of the rectangle with white space. Likewise, the new Messages, Facetime, Music, Mail or Phone icons can all be extended into any shape, just by taking the colors at their edges and repeating them to fill the remaining space.
Think about how easy this makes Apple's job, adapting their visual language to new devices. If Apple ever releases their long-rumored HDTV, it will likely feature large icons that can be seen across the room. But Apple won't have to create new entirely new icons or art for this new user interface: instead, flat design allows them to easily (and even automatically) expand their existing icons to fit any shape they want. If Apple hadn't redesigned iOS 7 to be flat, this would be impossible. Icons would have complicated patterns, shadows, light sources, and gradients that would need to be reinterpreted and recreated for each new device. But because iOS 7 was designed to be flat, none of this is a problem.
There's another benefit here, too. Right now, all displays are flat, but in the future, displays will come in all shapes, sizes, and contours. Samsung has already unveiled the Samsung Galaxy Round, the world's first smartphone with a curved OLED display, and the iWatch is similarly widely rumored to curved. Skeuomorphism tends to look strange on curved displays, like seeing something in a funhouse mirror, but flat designs don't distort in the same way. Ironically, by going flat with their UI, Apple has prepared itself to eventually go 3-D with its displays.
Even if you love the way iOS 7 looks, it's easy to dismiss it as just a new coat of paint, but the reality is that flat design is far more than a panacea to skeuomorphism for Apple. It's the way Apple is future-proofing iOS's design language for the curvy, crazy, groundbreaking gadgets of the future that we can't even imagine yet.