iOS7: flat design and durable interfaces

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I’m intrigued by the large number of negative reactions that we’ve had to the iOS 7 visual style. Considering the current implementation of the design, I should be disappointed but, instead, I am actually quite excited.

I have read several blogs that highlight iOS 7 usability issues where app developers have produced interface designs that are simple to the point of being obscure. In my mind, this is a separate issue that is largely dependent on the developer’s interpretation of the visual language.

With this software update, there is a lot to get excited about: Firstly, I’m pleased to see that some of Microsoft’s long-standing visual design principles (think Encarta, Zune, Windows 8) are deservedly being recognised by Apple. Secondly, and more importantly, I’m excited because I feel confident that we, the critics, are yet to see the full relevance of the iOS7 visual style in Apple’s master plan.

So what is Apple’s plan for the iOS 7 visual language?

As with many past Apple products, we can only speculate, but I personally think that the iOS 7 interface will truly live up to its claims of supporting the content shown on the device, and could aspire to be the best visual language to complement the form of future iDevices.

Rightly or wrongly, Apple have been seen to prioritise form over function in the past (e.g. USB ports on the back of the iMac, the Magic Mouse) so it stands to reason that they could well be brewing an interface that is flexible enough to adapt to different shapes, sizes and contexts to create delightful products with a tight cohesion of their physical and digital parts.

Let me explain: In a recent article, Fastcodesign.com commented on how transferable the iOS 7 iconography is to different objects. The reliance on more simple shape recognition for apps and features without the need for background textures, borders and such, means that calls to action allow easy understanding whilst deferring to the form of the hardware for the real aesthetic value.

What does this mean for the future?

What this communicates to me is that we may be starting the very gradual decline of computing that occurs against a background with a visible border. We may be nearing the time of more passive interfaces that escape the world of desktops, tablets and smartphones and pop up throughout the home, office and street in common everyday objects. We are already seeing amusing predictions for the iCoffee machine. iLightswitch, iWindow, iMicrowave and iFridge. All running a delightful variant of iOS 7.

iOS 7 app icons have been reported as being too large for their rounded rectangle backgrounds so we will wait with bated breath to see if these are the next borders to disappear from the interface. We only need to compare the Apple Safari bookmark bar to the Google Chrome one to see that the absence of colourful icons is not something that troubles Apple.

What are the risks of this?

Compared with iOS 6, iOS 7 looks on the surface to offer app designers an inferior level of visual individuality and expression if they choose to adhere to the visual language. We are at risk of losing some of the charm that makes textured skeumorphic designs such as Apple’s calculator a delight to use, so there is work to be done to educate app designers that may otherwise interpret an ‘iOS 7 update’ to their app as a ‘make it flat’ update.

At a more practical level, legibility is at risk because of the introduction of a lighter weight font. The early beta releases of iOS 7 sported extensive use of this thinner font and this appeared to cause a lot of trouble around legibility and readability, with some users commenting that they had to wear glasses to operate their iPhone when they did not need to before. Thankfully, the font has been made heavier in the final release but, if we are to take this notion of ‘interfaces everywhere’ seriously, font legibility becomes an important factor when considering the varied lighting conditions and viewing angles that the interfaces may need to support. Future use of the lighter font would need to be implemented with care.

Final thoughts

At the moment, we are still riding the wave of the flat design trend that iOS 7 is part of. Looking longer-term though, what Apple is actually doing is enforcing a framework that convinces designers to think in terms of pure symbol-based iconography, which will help align iOS apps and create a robust, transferable language for a new and exciting world of ubiquitous computing. Good design is durable.

Matt Radbourne

Matt Radbourne

London-based web developer, tech enthusiast and digital exorcist.

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