Falling Flatby Jeff
As I'm sure everyone even slightly involved in the tech world is aware, Apple dropped some serious new releases yesterday at WWDC'13, including a new Mac Pro, a new Macbook Air, a new version of OSX, and a new version of iOS. While the upgrades made to Macbooks, the bold new Mac Pro, and the subtle upgrades to OSX were impressive, the new version of iOS blew them all out of the water as far as magnitude of change.
Designers have been praising flat design and speculating about Apple's reaction to the 'movement' for months now. Most predictions saw a less skeuomorphic trend coming forward, but not a deep dive into making everything flat. But most of them were wrong. Apple went straight off the deep end, killing every tiny piece of the iOS UI that gave it affordance and made it seem in any way to resemble real world object. They flattened everything out. As I watched the presentation and saw tweets come in by the hundreds, the overwhelming majority of my feed was anguish from professional designers.
A Brief History of Flat Design
But before I get more specific about where Apple fell flat with the redesign, let's talk about flat design in the first place. It made sense to us to have mobile start with more 3D and skeuomorphicism - these were unfamiliar devices, natively had no affordance (just a flat piece of glass), and in order to guide users in the right direction, the only way to create an interface that felt like it should be touched and manipulated was to use design to create lighting effects that made the curves and countors of the interface clear. Apple became famous for championing this clean 3D design style, and pushed it across all their mobile devices, with this trend soon being copied by competitors.
Microsoft was the originator of what people are calling 'flat design' (possibly the first time Microsoft has led any trends in the past 10 years), and went all in with the introduction of their Metro UI) that they had in the works for windows 8. The flatness of it was a backlash against what had previously been a 3d-dominated mobile design environment. Now that people are familiar with mobile interfaces and solid UI patterns have been established, the logic went, we can start to simplify the interface design, make it cleaner and remove the resemblance to lighted real-world objects. Designers enjoyed the refreshing style, and the flat design trend began to quickly spread and took the design world by storm.
Apple's Botched Reaction
This whole strong movement towards flat design happened just in between the release of iOS6 and iOS7, so it makes sense that designers would be interested to see Apple's reaction. But in my humble opinion, Apple's reaction was a massive misstep. Not only did they completely revamp their design style, meaning that all current and future apps now have to update to adapt to the native UI, they also changed their color palette and icon details. Let's compare a typical homescreen between iOS6 and 7:
Maybe it's just for me that no words need to be spoken after seeing the difference, so let's break this down. First, the color palette. Saturation has been cranked up a huge amount, as has the lightness. Rather than a mature and highly detailed design, this looks a lot more like an elementary children's design. Bright colors, simple shapes, very rounded edges everywhere. The colors are blown out and saturated so much that it makes it notably more difficult to look at and distinguish shapes than it was previously. The level of detail in an iOS app icon previously could be very high, especially with the introduction of retina screens, but with the new interface that is gone. The most visually detailed icon is the settings icon, which breaks the well-established convention of representing settings with a gear, and rather appears as the guts of an engine or some strange torture device.
Next, the text. Everything went from bold to light weight, meaning that it's harder to read. We've also lost the shadows that makes the text stand out against any background. Just look to the left and the right and tell me which one is easier to read. This doesn't need any further measurement, it's common sense.
Now let's take a look at some of these icons. My first issue is the padding. There is very little space between the edge of the icons and the edge of their containers in the new iOS, which is just uncomfortable. An important part of design is leaving enough whitespace for things to be comfortable, and there are a number of icons here that violate this, for no apparent reason. If you compare to the same icons from iOS6, you can see that there is a lot more padding around the edges which makes them feel much more comfortable.
Then there are a few icons which just look like they had no effort put into the design, or were made by an amateur. Let's take a closer look at the camera and reminders icons, two particularly horrendous designs from the new iOS7.
Finally, the lack of shadows, borders, and edges in these icons can (and will) easily make them difficult to distinguish from the background. The icons which will show poorly will vary randomly based on the color of the background you set in the new iOS, where in the previous version, shadows, borders, and lighting effects served to make the app icons pop out from the background, no matter the color. Take a closer look at the newsstand icon as an example - can you tell where it ends?
I could go on like this for a while (don't get me started on the game center), but the takeaway is that design quality has degraded quite a bit in the new iOS release, unfortunately. For such a design-centric company as Apple, this is shocking, and it's especially difficult to imagine that this design style might be ported over to OSX eventually, the environment where I spend most of my day shiver.
Flat design can often have negative implications on usability as well. One of the biggest issues with flat design is that by flattening out design elements, they lose their affordance, the quality of an object that makes it looks like it can be touched and manipulated. This means that, especially for buttons and parts of the interface in which it's important that they appear touchable, usability can take a blow.
Google reacted to this by using a style that has been dubbed "almost flat design", where elements are simplified, but light shadows and gradients are retained in order to make touchable elements still have affordance. For the most part, this has been well-recieved by the design community, and for me it is an elegant solution to a difficult problem.
Apple however entirely ignored this issue, and straight up cut any aspect of affordance that the interface buttons ever had. Buttons are now just text, sometimes with a small arrow next to them, and perhaps if you guess right, if you tap on them they will do something. It's hard to be sure how precise you have to be as well, since they have eliminated the borders around a button as well. Geoff Teehan tweeted a particularly ridiculous example of usability suffering a s a result of entirely eliminating affordance, shown below. Can you tell what's a button and what's not?
What This Means
In my eyes, the release of the new iOS is bad news all around for everybody. Users will have to adjust to lower quality design and more difficult usability. Developers will need to redo every aspect of their app in order to fit in with the native aesthetic, from the app icon to the in-app UI. The upgrades to the actual system were small, and mostly internal to Apple apps. Let's review quickly:
- The photo center got revamped and is more thorough, although also more confusing (again partially because of affordance).
- A 'control center' was added, which is a great update but has no consequence other than immediately killing all flashlight apps.
- Android multitasking was cloned, which is also a good addition, but has no consequence for developers.
- They added filters to the native camera, copying instagram (groan)
- They added 'itunes radio', copying pandora (groan)
- They made changes to Siri, which nobody ever used, and still nobody will ever use
- And a few other small tweaks
Note that nothing here is super innovative or presents any extra opportunities for developers or brands. So all in all, I'd say the release os iOS7 is not a win for most people. But sometimes this is life — even the best don't always get it right.