Monkey Do

I want to like iOS 7. I get the theory—the desire to make the pixel-based visual design as elemental as the industrial design of the phone itself.

From a distance, the black iPhone 5 in particular seems almost from the future. In older iPhones and others from Samsung, Motorola, Nokia, and the like, you can see how the design evolved in the rounded corners, bezels, and plastic backs. They have a smooth glossy aerodynamic design language that makes them contemporary, a design that has evolved through cars, laptops, phones, and all sorts of other consumer goods.

The black1 iPhone 5, at a glance, is different in that it is an almost featureless black block, with no distinguishable details. Information appears in the surface almost magically, and is controlled by the light sweep of one’s fingertips. I think it could only be more elemental if it was completely matte black—a slab of obsidian, with no buttons, bezel, or markings. Instead of evolutionary, it’s a device of the future that the futurists might have envisioned.

The attempt at a similar strategy for the OS is admirable in theory but flawed in execution.

In some ways it is too minimalistic. The palette of light gray shades is a design school aesthetic. The outlined icons, presumably meant to echo way-finding systems, are insubstantial and pair awkwardly with each other in toolbars. Labelled buttons have been replaced by plain text, which is odd—isn’t the most elemental form of a button a flat square shape? These are beyond elemental, and the result is less distinction between button controls, text controls and links, and the lack of a clear area to tap. Gestures also suffer from minimalism, in that the space in which to perform the gesture is often unclear—for example, changing modes in the redesigned Camera. Color palettes in app controls are extremely limited, further limiting the flexibility to call out controls in different contexts.

Elsewhere, it is inconsistent. There seems to be a limitless number of type sizes in play, following no apparent system across apps. Margins seem to be chosen at random. The density of information in various features can also vary widely. The minimalist approach does not mean more space for the message body in, for example, and the notification pull-down is almost laughable in how little it displays in one screen. Why do tabs get button shapes but buttons don’t? Oh wait, I found some buttons with button shapes, in iTunes.

It can also be ugly2. The new icons feature weak glyphs and garish gradient backgrounds. The layout of Control Center is arbitrary and hard to read, and appears over a background of what looks to be soup. The soupy effect appears across many apps and features where transparency, blurry backgrounds are used under controls. Text spills out of buttons and controls and text can sometimes overlap in mysteriously buggy ways.

But it’s not all bad. The new gestures for Notifications, Control Center, and Spotlight require a subtler touch, but feel more useful and accessible. The way that folders and apps open in place also seems more appropriate. Both the new Safari tabs and the new Multitasking controls feel snappier and more intuitive. The Camera app also looks and feels fresh, with even a touch of skeuomorphism in the yellow photo style controls that echo the edge markings in color film.

The new design language really seems to shine in Compass, Voice Memos, and Stocks, where the graphic elements complement the use of Helvetica Neue Ultra Light against a strong black background. Calculator is a great example of how color can really complete a flat design aesthetic. Calendar follows a similar open-in-place philosophy as folders for navigation, and it feels logical and effortless.

A positive view would be to look at it as a clean slate to improve upon. Prior to iOS 7, it seemed like the obvious path for a designer was to use more gloss, more texture, and more 3-dimensional, skeuomorphic forms. The slate is now clean for future app designs to build upon. It’s up to third-party designers to take that language and show up Apple—to create a design language that is as true to its pixel-based DNA as the phone is to itself.

  1. The white and now gold models aren’t quite as striking, as they have more visible detail and contrasts.
  2. See: