Apple’s Design (d)Evolution?

Editor’s Note: This is reprinted with permission from Stagg’s blog “Don’t Panic” at HM Magazine.
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I was listening to NPR this weekend (for the life of me I can’t remember the name of the interviewer or the interviewee) but The Host was prodding The Guest about Apple’s transition from the look of their previous iPhone interface, to the new one:

Apple's iOS 6 (left) vs. iOS 7 (right)

Apple’s iOS 6 (left) vs. iOS 7 (right). You can see a lot more
comparative images of the two OS systems over at Fast Company.

In the interview, the guest summarily stated that when the iPhone was first released, humans needed help in their interaction with a touchscreen device. The icons had to look as close to their real-life counterparts as possible to assist us with our grasp of concepts. They had lots of gradients, lots of gloss, lots of aggrandized realism and the bookshelf had to look like a bookshelf but only bookshelfier.

Her follow-up point was that with the new icon aesthetic, Apple was merely taking that next step in the evolutionary process of mankind’s interaction with a touchscreen interface. In essence: Humans get it now. They don’t need a clock to LOOK LIKE A CLOCK. The “design” can get out of the way, and — I’m completing her thoughts here, but I imagine it was in her head — we can implement what the icons should have originally looked like, as this would have been better all along.

I think Bonnie missed the point on this one. I think the iOS 7 interface design was a reactionary decision, one made in order to combat a diversifying market, not a scientific decision rooted in the best way humans can interface with a flat object.

I’m a minimalist by belief, so while the direction is one where I might personally push my own designs, I’m not sure it works for Apple’s market. Don’t all babies play with iPads and iPhones because they’re “easy?” Isn’t that the joke?

The fringe reasons (and, consequently, the fringe markets) for buying a phone — my baby can figure it out, my mom and dad get it — actually make up a ton of sales. They don’t need an animated lock screen or weather widget.

It would stand to reason that following, the move to a super minimalist design could mean Apple’s business goal would be to capture a new market: The middle generation that grew up alongside technology. These are the same people that embraced the iPhone when it first came out because it was revolutionary, but that have since moved away to Galaxies and HTCs because those companies were all but forced to innovate or disappear from the market. And they actually innovated.

It would also follow that once that happened, Apple saw a share of their market — the ones once championing their brand — being siphoned off.

It could also be said that, probably for the first time ever, Apple is now imitating others instead of the reverse. Far be it from me to assume that Apple looked at Google and Windows’ Metro and their marketing team went, “Hm. I think we need to be doing that.”

From Christopher Millar

From Christopher Millar

Wait, marketing team, you say? That’s also the new new. Apple has a whole user experience group, but they had their marketing team design the interface.

Many of the new icons were primarily designed by members of Apple’s marketing and communications department, not the app design teams. From what we’ve heard, SVP of Design Jony Ive (also now Apple’s head of Human Interaction) brought the print and web marketing design team in to set the look and color palette of the stock app icons. They then handed those off to the app design teams who did their own work on the ‘interiors’, with those palettes as a guide. The Next Web

It could stand to reason Apple is betting the new design will capture back their dwindling market segments without alienating the left and the right (the young and the old). People will get used to iOS 7, and they will use it — current iPhone Believers won’t switch away because of this interface update — but I don’t think it’s going to unilaterally get back any of their old ones.

I’m not here to get into a dogmatic argument about user experience, user testing, the right or wrong way to make design decisions or a ton of other stuff that a lot of people get up in arms about because people like taking hard stances, but I do hate the idea that these icons are merely the next (d)evolutionary step in interface design. I think it’s just another company following another trend.

Apple is usually better than that. As The Verge put it:

I would have preferred something nearer to the company’s previous efforts than the new set, which seems closer to bathroom signage than even the Windows Phone’s plainness. The Verge

I loved that. Bathroom signage. That’s exactly what everything’s being reduced to.

Stagg is on Twitter and Facebook. Photo of Stagg by Julie Worsham.

By David Stagg
Published June 18, 2013
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