Apple’s redesign of their operating system was the farthest thing from my mind two months ago when I began penning a series on current design trends. In fact, I’d been so focused on my own business that I hadn’t even heard any scuttlebutt that a new mobile OS was likely at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference earlier this month.
So it came as a total surprise when the drastic, Jonathon Ive-led overhaul of the iOS—the biggest single change since the iPhone’s introduction—completely underscored our recent predictions; the seven significant design trajectories I identified that were likely to continue to influence branding and logo design in the near future.
These trajectories or arcs were my way to help business owners understand the underlying patterns or trends—the uniting DNA—that I saw linking the majority of shorter-term design trend clusters (or even short-lived fads) that can be seen in droves on great online resources like LogoLounge. And to know what to pay attention to longterm.
Here are those seven Gist Brands trajectories broken out and correlated across Apple’s announced iOS 7, which has drawn its share of ire and been called “a collection of pointless changes” by some. While controversial, most critics seem majorly distracted by the “flattening” of icons rather than looking at the redesign from a systems view. Regardless of what you think of the new iOS, it is reflective of larger change. It will be interesting to see what gets tweaked before this fall’s availability, as well as what sticks (or what customers adjust to) longterm.
For more on the original blog post where we identified these arcs and how they’re influencing logos and brand design, as well as morphing over time, see “Current Trends in Logo Design, Part 3 (7 Significant Trajectories.)”
iOS 7 and Gist Brands’ Trajectories
Simplicity is the guiding beacon of iOS 7. Apple has taken a reductive approach far beyond the white interface, stripping out extraneous embellishment and a lot of tricky detail and backgrounding that in many people’s minds never really served a purpose other than being “cute” or reminding users of the attributes of mobile devices’ physical precursors. These are things that feel antiquated now. But even when introduced, many didn’t really provide essential and helpful contextual clues for any but the most novice user. Apple thinks it’s high time to eliminate the “training wheels.”
Apple’s simplification vector has spread in a global spectrum to typography, icons, controls, and the UI itself. It’s not just “white” design minimalism, although that’s a huge part of the new esthetic, but also simplicity and logic of interface and offering up the right things to users at the right time. “Simplicity is actually quite complicated,” Apple professes on their website. And we agree. The easy thing is adding in all the extra embellishment and detail; it’s much harder to subtract out to that perfect balance of what is not just necessary and beautiful, but most meaningful and helpful. Whether they’ve achieved that harmony or not, it’s obvious their goal now is to make the interface even more transparent to the user and usage.
Apple has always used design as a physical representation of its larger ideology and goals, and the redesign and simplification of the iOS is no exception. In addition to making things look easier and more consistent, their goal is to bring a unifying order to current complexity and create stability, predictability, and ease of understanding for something that will only continue to grow more complex in its range of usage and capability over time.
For more on why simplification and minimalism is such a hot trend right now and why we think it will continue to build, see our post, “Why are Logos Getting Simpler and More Minimalistic?”
A huge aspect of the redesign is a new use of transparency, or translucency, as a significant cornerstone of the overall UI.
Apple takes this to an extreme with iOS 7, using its screen and software technologies to create a new approach to the functional layering of data intended not just to create visual depth to the interface, but also to establish better order and visual hierarchy. You see this immediately on the home screen where a parallax treatment makes icons “float” dimensionally above your background photo so that the app icon matrix doesn’t really obscure your image, and adapts dynamically based on the physical position of the phone and your viewing angle.
Interestingly, at the same time as the app icons have gone more “flat” in appearance, the interface “interaction” has gone more 3D. This foreshortening of icons seems counterintuitive to some, but may be a necessary move in delineating hierarchy and having depth have meaning, rather than just reflecting our fascination with projecting “real world” dimensionality into 2D icons and screens through skeuomorphism (think “physical” metaphors of bookshelves, notepads, etc. illustrated as the symbolic digital interface.)
The new translucency is most obvious in new “panel” options like the fly-up Control Center, the updated Notification Center, and Siri, but extends across the interface including less window-paned treatments of Mail, iTunes, and Messages, where content and visuals “flow” continuously behind semi-translucent interface elements. Translucency and transparency also allow for more dramatic and cinematic animations and transitions. Has Apple truly chosen the most important, helpful, or even delightful places to use this new visual depth and hierarchy? Time (and long term use) will tell.
Vibrancy & Cleaner Color
There’s a new color palette in iOS 7 and Apple’s actually taking a lot of flak for it. People are feeling stretched by the fact that Apple’s pushed the fascination with vibrant chroma into (almost) the neon range. They’ve not just chosen a vibrant and limited palette of clean colors, they’ve sync’d them across their icons and interface for consistency. A very selective use of vibrant colors (cyan, red, goldenrod) in the UI is keeping their new white minimalism from feeling cold and stark, and frequently serves as a hierarchical and organizing element.
I’m more one for a slightly more subdued palette, but I can see the effectiveness in the proposed interface (though the icons do shout a bit.) As we know in branding, you can never please all of the people all of the time when it comes to color and certain colors are polarizing into the “absolutely love it or hate it” category. And that’s happening. It would be interesting to see what might happen to overall acceptance if Apple simply provided user-controlled “customization” by providing a couple alternate, adaptive, pre-selected system palettes to choose from that would populate globally across Apple’s native apps. (Future feature, maybe, Jony?)
That said, from a functional perspective, the use of layering and transparency as a cornerstone of the UI does require some strong application of color, vibrancy, and brightness to make the overlays and dimensionality work and have the additive, layered “frosted glass” effect look more random and visually interesting, rather than a regular texture of gray blobs.
The role of connectivity is obvious for a mobile device. But the more mobile and constantly connected we become, the more we want the technology, or at least its limitations, to disappear.
Apple has always pushed to humanize technology and our interaction with it. Their reductive approach with iOS 7 is driven by this idea. In their thinking, by subtracting design elements that don’t add to value or that distract, and by standardizing the interface and behaviors, you ultimately make the device more unobtrusive and elevate and focus on what matters to you most: your content and your communication. The design recedes, the interactions become more dynamic, and the technology is no longer getting in the way of your activity. Human connectivity is increased or enhanced by technology, but through a kind of techno-transparency.
Everything from the parallax home screen to full-screen browsing and edge-to-edge imagery in texts and emails seems to be engineered to support that concept. In addition to this big-picture connectivity, new enhancements support specific connectivity, like Air Drop file sharing and extending the physical reach of the mobile platform through native iOS in the Car. Practical connectivity enhancements like syncing of notifications across multiple devices and the ability to send desktop Maps data directly to your phone also reduce the frustration (and duplication) of the mobile-committed.
In regard to the iOS this might initially seem mundane. However, where before “appification” meant glossy lozenge icons, extreme gradients, extrusions, shadows, and reflections, now the pendulum swing is headed back to “flat” icon designs in Apple’s brave new world. It’s doubly interesting and surprising that this is happening after Apple’s introduction of the Retina display when more detail, not less, is capable of being displayed. Some of the new “flat” icons retain a slight gradient and a simpler, lesser use of transparent overlays. Some like Calculator and Calendar are completely flat color.
We’d already reported on the fact that logos (and other brand identity design elements) were beginning to lose some of their 3D and textural fascination and heading back to more minimal and flatter treatments in support of a return to simplicity. Interestingly, this has been at least partly driven by mobile, including screen sizes, the new importance of adaptive design and responsive websites, user-controlled interfaces, and the fact that content (not interface) is now king.
Apple seems to agree with me that dimensionality can be a powerful tool in both meaning and interface, but that there can be too much (actually way too much) of a good thing. It will be interesting to see if others follow suit, reserving dimensionality for meaning, hierarchy, and emphasis rather than mere window dressing and skeumorphic tricks. Whether you like the new flatter interface and icons or not, it’s hard to argue against the fact that with the glut of visual information, simpler is starting to be seen as “easier” across the board and ease-of-use has always been a mainstay at Apple.
Families & Variants
The obvious call-out here is that all of the Apple-authored app icons have been redrawn around a very precise and adaptable new grid system to create more consistency and harmony between individual design elements; ditto on that precise but controversial color palette. In addition to the base app family, there’s a whole new and more consistent selection of key-lined operational icons. So these subfamilies create a segregation (can you say visual hierarchy?) of key-lined logos (operations), solid or “filled key-line” icons (selection states) and more complex flat icons (apps.) While I applaud the effort, as well as the actual implementation of the operational icons, the app icons seem a bit schizophrenic in style, even given their underlying grid, and some like Settings and Game Center are ambiguous in comparison to their predecessors.
Another “family” line is a more consistent treatment of “multi data/multi location” apps (think World Clock) leveraging the data “tile” approach to other long-standing apps like Weather and Passbook. I would expect many app developers to get on board with this not just for its elegant simplicity and graphic impact, but also its usability and macro/micro flexibility.
Beyond those obvious examples, I think this trajectory is seen even more in the unification of the iOS design structure across the whole system with the goal of “bringing clarity to the entire experience” according to Apple’s website. Despite some growing pains and some visual misses, this is now much more clearly an integrated family of iOS apps…rather than a bunch of apps authored by Apple.
And it goes beyond coordinated design elements and graphic structure, to the behaviors of the apps and interfaces themselves. New swiping behaviors that allow you to back out or drill down are more consistently applied across apps not just to add additional functionality, but to meet your expectations for “natural” and consistent behavior across the device. Users will ultimately decide if they actually are that.
Sum of Parts
There are literal aspects of this trend of “multiples having meaning en masse” on the micro level in the redesign. The Photos app “flower” icon looks more like a color chart than anything representing a flower or even a physical photo. (While high-impact, this is one icon that feels like a bit of a miss to me.) There’s also the Game Center’s bubbles. Given that I’m not a gamer, maybe my puzzlement there is understandable. Is this a multi-user bubblegum blowing contest, overlapping communities of users, or what?
But to me the bigger “sum of parts” story is more the macro idea of design being more than the individual sum of design elements, and less just designing the way something looks, as much as defining and designing the overall experience. Consistency across built-in apps creates a sum of parts to Apple’s native structure. And the fact that the additive result of this (essentially subtractive) exercise is something that we all still see as “familiar” and very much Apple, though it’s a relatively radical departure, is a testament to the sum of parts concept all by itself.
So what does it all mean?
Even if the new design does not match your personal esthetic, you can be assured that elements of Apple’s new direction will have a strong and lingering influence and that this is very likely part of a larger plan and trajectory for the company. These have not been arbitrary design decisions.
No matter what you think of the esthetic and implementation of the new iOS design (and there is some evidence that Apple may already be fine-tuning the design somewhat based on public feedback) there’s no doubt that Apple, being the design and brand powerhouse they are, has been very focused on these underlying design trajectories for no small amount of time. Just think of how long this iOS has been in development.
If Apple’s concentrating on them, maybe it’s time you paid attention to these trajectories, too!
Note: This overview analysis was made pre-release from WWDC keynotes, demo footage, and Apple website animations and stills, not from the actual product itself. Images: Apple website.