/ 11 June 2013

A Couple Quick Thoughts on iOS 7 Design Language

I’m an Apple guy; I use their products to do the work that I love the most, and I evangelize about them to others. I am firmly, probably irretrievably rooted in the Apple ecosystem. I also care about design a great deal, and see the company as an inspiration.

But I’m not entirely sold on some of the iOS 7 stuff Apple announced yesterday. Instead of a long essay, here are a few bullet points that stuck out to me.

  • I like the unified design language, and the approach (streamlined, brighter, flatter, less representational, more universal). I like the idea of z-axis “layers” and grids that inform the design across the system. And I like the simplicity in many of the stock apps – Mail and Weather especially.  Layouts and UI within apps has been improved by some measure.

  • I don’t like the way some of the details were applied. First, the icons. The approach is right, but the polish and uniformity is not there yet. Gradients are inconsistent; some icons’ visual content has been reduced elegantly (see: Calendar) while many others struggle with new interpretations (see: Settings, Safari). Game Center still sports 3-D style bubbles; the camera icon reverts, bizarrely, to a traditional “camera” pictograph instead of the more sophisticated lens idea. Check out this gentleman’s take on merging the new iOS7 approach with better, more polished icons: this is how it should be.

  • Next, Helvetica Neue Ultra Light. I really, really like Helvetica Neue (standard weight) as it’s currently applied across iOS. It’s neutral, it’s beautiful, it’s efficient and it does the job it’s put in place to do. That said, I really, really do not like the use of Helvetica Neue Ultra Light as a system font. Yes, it’s elegant; yes, it’s sophisticated. Yes, it works in some applications. But it’s not to my taste (I prefer sturdy, geometric shapes, where Ultra Light is wispy and frail) and, even if it was to my liking, that encapsulates the real problem: Ultra Light has too much personality to be used as a system font. It’s too opinionated; it sets too much of a tone wherever it’s applied.  Ultra Light imparts a “feel” on things I don’t want styled at all. I want my operating systems to be beautiful, but impartial.  Or better yet: I want my operating systems like I want my Swiss bank account tellers: professional, presentable, efficient, dependable and with minimal flickers of personality. (Assuming they hand me stacks of money, I’ll have no trouble finding ways to blow it on personality-defining stuff – you know, gold-plated jetpacks, monkey butlers, a New Yorker cartoonist who I pay to follow me around, that kind of thing. But I want that to be my job.)

  • Maybe I’m crazy but it looked like the icon for the Clock app was live – as in, the clock’s hands were moving in real time. The only previous app to get this ability was a special case – the Calendar app icon has always shown the current date and day, and Apple needed to hack that together to make it work. If I’m not crazy, and the Clock.app icon was live, I wonder if the icon framework has been re-architected to allow for animation and/or live updating – potentially cool news for developers.

  • Finally, the colors. I’m all for the crisp white background that many apps show off; the bright rainbow palette sits nicely on individual icons, but when you’re seeing a grid of 16, each shouting “me, me! tap me!” in bright, saturated tones, it gets to be a bit much.  Add in a reasonably vivid background photo and your visual cortex just starts to give up.  If and when I upgrade to the new iOS, I’ll be looking into solid-color black or deep grey background just to stay sane.  

What Apple showed was a beta, of course. I guess the question now is: what’s still in play before the software is deemed golden-master final? Is there room to polish the design language, or is the fact that Apple showed it to the world yesterday imply that it’s already locked down?  I’m hoping for the former; if Mr. Ive and company aren’t too proud to make a few tweaks, they really could realize something timeless.  In any event, the future of iOS looks bright.  (And saturated.)