Software, Hardware, Silverware

Considered Opinions on iOS 7’s New Direction

I’ve been running iOS 7 on my only iPhone for about two weeks. It’s very different I’ve avoided writing about it because it is a big change, and in order for me to write reasonably about it, the initial shock needed to wear away.

What’s most important to realize about iOS 7 is what hasn’t changed. We still slide left-to-right to unlock. We still have a grid of icons. Applications still consume the entire screen. All the controls we’re used to are still in the same place. Despite the totally new look, iOS 7 is still familiar. While it looks totally different, we still know how to use it. So will your grandmother. Brace for the inevitable initial outcry from those who hate any change, but understand that it’ll fade away as it does whenever Facebook redesigns the timeline.

Gradient-heavy toolbars have given way to “flat” translucent bars that give a sense of depth by letting content flow beneath them (albeit heavily blurred). The new toolbars aren’t as beautiful in screenshots or ad material, but in practice they fade into the background and allow the content to shine through. Which is how it should be. While there’s always been a delight in opening a new app and finding a hand-crafted, beautifully-textured interface, the appeal wears thin after use. I don’t find myself remarking on the artitistic value of TweetBot after a couple days of use. iOS 7 apps will be forced to compete on how they display content, not on beautiful pixel art.

Buttons in iOS 7 have lost their borders. Whether you like the borderless aesthetic or not, it’s important to note the utility of these buttons has not changed. Borderless buttons aren’t new. We’ve been using them on the web for decades, and in Mobile Safari for six years. The appearance of a button has two goals: to differentiate itself as a tappable object and to convey what will happen when it is activated. The new buttons approach these goals differently. Glossy 3D pixel drawing of buttons with at times confusing glyphs have been replaced with text labels differentiated by color. Approached differently, but met just as well.

Apple has been big on animations since the first version of OS X. This fixation carried over into the first versions of iOS, and version 7 extends animations across the board by integrating physics and particle engines and transforming screen elements into objects that interact with each other. All of that sounds overwhelming, but trust me when I say that the animations in iOS 7 are delightful. The only complaint I have with them is speed. They aren’t laggy, but I get the impressions that the engineers and designers behind them were a bit too proud, and wanted to everyone to see every single frame. This is one area that I think will change before iOS 7 ships this fall.

The use of Helvetica Neue Ultralight, while handsome, is overdone in iOS 7. It looks great in advertisements, but in daily use as a body font, it can be difficult to read. Light variants, like bolds, should be uses sparingly for emphasis. I think this will be fixed, though probably before this fall. The light typeface speaks to one of iOS 7’s unspoken goals: to be lighter, freer. The light typeface furthers this message, and Apple’s designers got carried away (as they’ve done with pinstripes and brushed metal prior).

Apple went too far elsewhere. In particular, icons. Overall I like them. Yes, yes I know, there went all of my credibility as a designer1. I like each individual icon better than its iOS 6-and-before counterpart. Even Safari. The icon set is simplified and vibrant. Apple erred on the side of too much simplification and too much vibrance, and I love that. These are not conservative or restrained changes. Apple went all out. My least favorite icons are the ones with pure white backgrounds. Safari, Newsstand, and Game Center feel unfinished. It’s important to remember that all of these icons will be iterated upon going forward. Design is a process.

The entire OS will be iterated upon. If you imagine the design of iOS on a pendulum, iOS 6 and before were firmly to one side of center. With 7, the pendulum has swung all the way across equilibrium and up the other side. Overall, it is closer to the center, the ideal. It’ll take more iterations to get there, but Apple will.

It would have been easier if iOS 7 looked more or less like iOS 6. If iOS 7 looked just like iOS 6 Apple would still sell hundreds of millions of devices this year. There was no need or obligation for iOS 7 to look totally different. They did it anyway. Not because they had to, but because they knew it was the way forward.

Saying I’m “proud” of Apple is lazy but I struggle find a more appropriate word. Others have said that WWDC 2013 felt like the first post-Steve Jobs keynote. iOS 7 is the first departure from Jobs-era Apple, and it’s the first big leap for Tim Cook’s Apple2. iOS 7 is a statement by Tim Cook. Steve is gone, and it’s time to move on. This is moving on.

iOS 7 is unlike anything Apple has done before, yet entirely Apple-like.

  1. Or a guy with opinions of designers. ↩︎

  2. One could argue that Scott Forstall’s ouster and Jony Ive’s promotion was the first leap, but really these are two effects of the same decision. ↩︎