Your App Should Not Look Like iOS7

In reading the frenzy of reactions from bloggers across the web to the design changes in iOS7, I have come across a sentiment that I believe is misguided.

Basically the message goes:

“iOS7’s UI is flat (etc.) to focus on content (etc.), and if you don’t make your app flat (etc.) to focus on content (etc.) too, it won’t look ‘at home’ in iOS7, it will look old and nobody will want it”.

I’m paraphrasing but that’s basically it.  And I refer only to the belief that the aesthetics need to conform, that it needs to look more like the OS.  I am not referring to functional adaptation.

Some of you might take issue with my use of the word “flat” (Vs deep or whatever).  I know, that’s incomplete because iOS7 is layered with its illusion of depth, light and materials.  That’s an important point – and I’ll get to that. But for now I’m talking about the general practice of removing everything from the UI that doesn’t communicate functionality, and of the focus on graphic minimalism.

Before I explain why that message is misguided, let me say – I love most of the aesthetic changes in iOS7.  I think it’s a handsome, on-trend and functional design update, with some niggling exceptions that others have done a fine job addressing (font issues, icons – some of which are already improved), and I expect it will just keep get better in coming releases.  I am generally a fan.

Although this flat, minimalist movement is based on a rational devotion to better, more communicative UI, and I suppose seems truer in some pure UX sense because we have essentially moved closer to the very wireframe, “flat”, as it is being advocated, is still just a design trend.

And as with all design trends, “flat” will have a popular lifespan, following which, it will fade.

One of the main points I want to make is that this “flat” UI minimalism will go stale quite a lot faster than previous interface design trends, I believe, for two primary, synergistic reasons:

  1. Because we have such an uncommonly concentrated community of app designers in the iOS ecosystem that trends get identified, and adopted en masse at increasingly rapid rates, but more critically.
  2. Because the very nature of flat design, or rather, of minimalism, is the provisioning of a vastly reduced design palette. A palette that, by design, offers far fewer areas of adjustment which are rather defined by attention to detail and subtlety; the restrained, disciplined modification of the most basic UI building blocks.

So as more designers than ever are working with fewer design elements than ever, together, these factors will result in a sudden commonality in design across apps. Frankly, if you watch for these things, you know it’s already happening on the web (the Squarespace Syndrome).  And with it comes a lack of clear differentiation. Indeed, I argue, minimalist app and web design will run to a type of commodity.

So as more designers than ever are working with fewer design elements than ever, together, these factors will result in a sudden commonality in design across apps.

As soon as this realization hits, that their apps are homogenizing (and it will hit) designers are going to start looking for unique ways to move past this commonality. They will start to add, and embellish. They will expand their design vocabulary and re-embrace varying degrees of gratuity.

That said, and perhaps thankfully, the best of them will not revert back to the pre iOS7 trends.

Like most shakeouts, the focus on minimalism in app design has been healthy; it’s bringing the developer community closer to understanding the rigor required for working with type and layout, of prioritizing elements, of limiting the palette to better communicate.  And hopefully that awareness will remain.

So what form will the “new embellishment” take?

Virtually all of my designer friends are talking about a new “Maximalism” (half-jokingly perhaps, but that’s how these things start) as a way to break through this inevitable homogenization. I’ve heard half a dozen rather cool ideas that push past the current focus on “flat”, moving forward in a new direction – adding back elements that are, once again, completely gratuitous (and sometimes functional) in a new way. If joyfully so.  These will be new, surprising elements that are, under the current flat dogma, “unnecessary” and “distracting”, allowing for random surprise and spontaneity – where rigid minimalism is clearly challenged.

But, I think many of the minimalist designers looking at iOS7’s UI aesthetics are mistaking the larger challenge as a graphic design problem. Dribbble is teaming with designers who are offering up alternative “flat designs”.  A point that in some way reveals a basic weakness in the Dribbbles of the world – that these groups focus inordinately on the graphic layer. On how a UI looks.

 a basic weakness in the Dribbbles of the world – that these groups focus inordinately on the graphic layer. On how a UI looks.

Whereas the vast majority of designers I interview barely focus on how an interface behaves. And how a UI behaves – how it responds – the alchemy of interaction, that is “interactive design”.  A mere portion of which is graphic.

Now, if you look again at iOS7 you can see that Apple is acknowledging this. In those parts of iOS7 that the staunch minimalists are having such an allergic reaction to, things like parallax on the home screen, and wiggle of the text bubbles in iMessage. The so-called “flat” graphic design is there, yes. But it sits within an interactive design that, while restrained, is not minimalist at all, it’s embellishment. But it’s also delightful, and surprising.

This is one of the ways design complexity will necessarily reassert itself through the minimalist homogenization.

For me the main take away here is recognizing that one can honor the rigor that design minimalism has forced to the table – even while one expands the vocabulary. Where “Flat” maybe reduces to a kind of baseline, a jumping off point.

But I think we all need to find our own unique approaches.

And I guess that’s my parting thought. That I don’t believe the answer is to just jump into the specific iOS7 design approach as though it is some sort of ideal design guideline. In fact, depending on your app’s function or audience, it may even make perfect sense for your app to be utterly, cartoonishly skeuomorphic.

Namely because, from where I sit, the world of communication and UX is just way, infinitely bigger than iOS7. That’s just what Apple did – with the platform. Ok. I’m glad they did it, it is an improvement over the previous. But surely you have something to say that is different. Surely your content – your idea – your app – is a unique invention of its own. Surely it wants to be itself. Sure it does not need to look just like it belongs inside the OS.

But surely you have something to say that is different.

I mean, if a platform with one aesthetic approach always dictated the form of its content, what would that mean for, say, movies?  Is it better if movies all self-reflectively share the aesthetic approach of the theater interior, or maybe of your home?  I know that’s ridiculous, but I guess I feel like reflecting design choices of iOS7 is just some percentage less ridiculous. The trees you notice in the forest are the ones that are bent over funny. The ones that are unique. This is where I completely lose the rationale for following Apple’s design solution in the development of apps. I get that there are best practices, and a basic growing language that we share in the interactive space. But the point should not be to copy or align with Apple’s design approach. It should be to honor your unique vision. Learn from the masters, of course, embrace best practices, but where aesthetic choices are open to you, strive to find your own voice.

 

UPDATE:

From Tapadoo:

“I predict the iOS 7 effect will be worse (than the update to iPhone 5 where legacy apps were letterboxed). Within a week of running full time, those apps which haven’t been modernised to look like an iOS 7 app will look very old. They too will become insta-deletes.”

I know that some strong thinkers out there agree with Tapadoo, like John Gruber, who linked to the post above, and with whom I almost never disagree.  So I must say – it’s left me scratching my head.  Because on this, I do fundamentally disagree that updating your app to “look like an iOS7 app” is even remotely as urgent as updating an app to accommodate the larger screen of the iPhone 5.  Not even close.   With the iPhone 5 the screen was bigger and your legacy app looked broken.  Of course any app needs to work, and by “work” I mean the app needs to adapt to the new system’s basic technical and functional conditions.  So I guess, yes an update is necessary, but where we are talking about aesthetics – of “looking like iOS7” – no, following such a design trend is not necessary.

 

UPDATE 2:

John Gruber graciously answered my question:

“I use iOS 7 as my main OS on both iPhone and iPad. The non-Apple apps stuck out like sore thumbs. They don’t even have the new keyboard.

“I’m not saying all apps should look just like Apple’s. I’m saying only that they need to look and work like they were designed with iOS 7 in mind, and they need to be updated with the new SDK. That’s all.”

Agreed.