Apple iOS 7's Biggest Design Problem

Bloomberg Businessweek’s design director goes deep on Apple’s new operating system
An iPhone 5 operating iOS 6, left, and an iPhone 5C running iOS 7 Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

First off, let me say how much I love the design of iOS 7. I’m a Helvetica man myself. I love the look and feel of Dieter Rams products—part of me will be forever midcentury modern. All of that combined means I feel welcomed into the bosom of iOS 7 in a way I didn’t really feel with any of Apple’s other operating systems. So I’m a sucker before I even pick it up.

When Apple initially revealed iOS 7 there was a lot of talk in nerdier design circles about such things as type rendering, or pixels or something. And in fairness, the beta of iOS 7 was probably a bit clunky. But then, it was a damn beta. Design critics with itchy trigger fingers should control themselves. For some in the design community, the gift of someone using Helvetica in a big project encourages untethered opinions and frustrations with the font. Like how Helvetica’s “Euro-centric sophistication” is “near-anorexic,” “aspirational,” or “feminine.” There lies with Helvetica, unlike any other font, a bizarre desire to understand it, to find out what it “means.”

Alas, reader, I can throw no further light on this. What I can tell you is this: If you’re going to use a Helvetica, you don’t want to actually use Helvetica. If I have a single criticism of Apple’s font, it’s that the designers didn’t go back to the source. The desire for the purity of essence and obsessive detail on which Apple prides itself should have led the company to Christian Schwartz’s recut of Helvetica (which, cough, I played a small part in bringing to the world). Schwartz went back to the original forms of Max Miedinger’s Neue Haas Grotesk, before it evolved through various compromises and mutated into Helvetica. That’s even before you get to Neue Helvetica, a further mutation, which Apple is using here. More weights, more rational, more square, designed by committee, and even less like the original. So. You make a big play of spending every waking hour committed to perfection, Apple? Not in my book.

With those admittedly absurdist types of quibbles out of the way, as we all know now iOS 7 is largely about the stripping away. About growing up. It’s about saying we don’t need a 3D rendering of an address book to tell us Click here for your address book. This has an unexpected outcome. By uncoupling the desire for direct replications of reality, you can play much more with colors at the more saturated end of what’s been seen before on Apple products. Color has become an idea, a form to push and pull around. And it’s used to great effect: The colors feel undistilled, refreshing. Modern. A lot of the drama and surprise in this redesign start with the zingy, almost iridescent color.

(Disclaimer: To be honest, all of these things are probably happening in other operating systems, but I’m an Apple man through and through. Nothing else is in my sightline. I couldn’t even find the phone function on my dad’s Android device when I had to borrow his phone to make a call.)

But the thing about Apple’s purity of essence is that it’s OK in a bubble, when you can control everything. Apple can’t. And until every single one of its app developers (whose app icons are the de facto visual language of the operating system) buy into the same purity of vision that the Apple design team has—the aesthetics of austerity—your screen, superficially at least, is a mess. A jangle of competing ideologies, a dissonance made even more acute when the azure blue of the Safari app neighbors a rendering of Swampy, the crocodile from Where’s My Water? 2. (Don’t judge me. A 30-minute subway journey sometimes feels really long and requires augmentation.) Facebook, Twitter, and the like have adopted Apple’s new aesthetic, and it’s very lovely, but I’m guessing it’ll be a while before the Where’s My Water? design team goes reductive midcentury modern in their approach to iconography.

Or maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe the dissonance between the competing visions will help the user separate Apple’s apps from those made by third-party developers. Maybe it will aid navigation by separating church from state, if you will.

Does this mean iOS 7 is a flop? Not for me. It’s just currently a bit too future for its own good. Part of the design challenge in creating something new is making sure it’s also well-integrated with the world around it. Otherwise the designer’s intention, no matter how well-executed, ends up feeling compromised.

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