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Why the iOS7 visual re-design left me disappointed

In spite of the  tone of the headline of this article I will openly admit that I am a huge Apple fanboy who has never done any digital design work on any platform but Apple. Apple is one of the few brands that I root for and want to see them do amazing things since I work with their creations and benefit from that innovation. That being said I firmly believe that no brand, including the ones I help to lead, are so perfect or reverent that their decisions can not or should not be questioned. Questioning of the most reverent parts of the Apple brand – their design.

Rumors had been flying for weeks that John Ive was leading a radical re-design of the iOS interface design for the upcoming release of iOS7. Knowing how innovative Jony has been with the product design at Apple for such a long period of time it was naturally exciting to think about the what he could do with the UI. Also the thought of seeing the use of felt textures and wild west stitching in their skeuomorphic interface die a well deserved death made me as happy as a kid on Christmas morning. But there I always had question of if Ive’s product design genius could translate into UI design since people are more willing to retrain behaviors to use a physical product compared to the ritualized behaviors they develop and cling to with a UI design.

I have watched the keynote, studied the screenshots and spent a few hours actually using iOS7 which is now installed on one of my iPhones to be sure I really got a sense of this new design direction. Based on all of that here are the things that I found disappointing about the iOS design.

Inconsistent level of design across the iOS7 ecosystem

App2The biggest problem I have with iOS7 is that there is a lot of inconsistency in the level of design between the native apps and visual inconsistencies across the entire iOS7 ecosystem. To illustrate this point lets compare two native apps – Weather and Messages.

The weather app is beautiful but the start of my design and strategy problems. The app has great information design and really nice animations for the current weather but this design came from Yahoo!’s weather app that launched a few weeks ago. Why is Apple sending a mixed message by not only having a native app that doesn’t adhere to the stark design standard of the other native apps and why did they use of strategy of including another companies work in their redesign?

So you start with the high fidelity of the Weather app and then go into an app like Messages to be able to see the stark new visual direction of the UI. Apps like Messages, Reminders, Notes, Email and the Calendar lack any meaningful design and end up feeling like colored in wireframes or the comps you get from your client who is trying to illustrate an idea with Powerpoint.  They feel too flat with too many details removed and nothing that feels ownable for this new design direction.

The more I looked through the UI the more inconsistencies I found like why do some app use transparency behind headers or keyboards and other don’t, why does GameCenter have 3D bubbles when the rest of the UI is flat, why are some background black and other white, why are some icons outlines and other solid and why does the Settings icon now look like the burner on a gas stove top? Why, why why…?!?

I think Apple was really handicapped by the fact that they were the last big brand to the flat mobile UI party which meant that a lot of design possibilities weren’t possible because if they made certain decision then everyone would kill them for how they copied Microsoft or Google. But the resting UI is so minimal and generic that if I put their UI next to Google or Microsoft I think I would be able to identity those brands flat UI systems long before I could pick out Apple’s work. When have you been able to say anything like for that type of comparison about anything Apple has designed in the past 15 or 20 years?

Inconsistent visual vocabulary across the brand

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Working as a creative director who is trying to guide work class brands I am constantly trying to ensure that they is a consistent visual language and tone across every consumer touch point. So after watching WWDC it really bothered me to see how badly Apple is fragmenting their design ecosystem. They have always been the masters of weaving together a unified brand, visual and experience designs across different form factors but they are really tearing that standard down and I don’t understand why.

They started the WWDC keynote by showing the new version of OS X named Maverick (hate the name) but in that demo the only sign of the new minimal UI design direction was seen in the new OS X logo but the UI of OS X, its icons and apps looked to be unchanged. They then showed the new iOS UI which completely embraced this new, flat UI design direction. The problem is that the two platforms now share virtually no visual DNA and starts to really fracture that seamless experience across form factors.  The visual UI fragmentation problem also gets even worse if you add in the truly horrible Aqua style interface they rolled out for Apple TV last year. Plus the repercussion will go beyond the digital interface design since Apples has been basing their advertising and packaging design on the design direction of their interface.  This fragmentation begs the question of if they really believe in this new design direction then why didn’t they roll this new UI out across every platform and touch point?

So far, Jony Ive’s pixels aren’t as innovative as his products

Just moments before the reveal of iOS7, Jony Ive’s product team showed that given the opportunity to re-image a product like Mac Pro they could REALLY re-imagine it. They didn’t just evolve the design of  their tower computer but instead questioned everything to create a completely new design that was unlike anything they had done before.

In this case it was the way the two different designs team embraced the challenges and opportunities to re-imagine their respective products that stand in stark contrast and create my disappointment. At the end of the day I didn’t see anything in the design of iOS7 that changed anything because they didn’t evolve the gesture library or even advance the state of quality of mobile design with the new UI. It is also disappointing because for the first time in a really long time I thought that some of the fan created design concepts that I have written about were better than the actual product from Apple.

I know there will still be a lot of tweaks between now the consumer release of iOS7 and we will all see how big or small those tweaks will be in the coming weeks based on the reaction to this new design direction.

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Creative Director, Designer, Brand Builder, Speaker, Podcaster, Crazy One. As a designer, I have 20+ years experience creating the strategy, concepts, and designs for award-winning integrated global advertising campaigns, building multiple global Fortune 500 brands and creating innovative digital experiences. As a leader, I have 15+ years transforming agency and client-side teams using a mix of creativity, business strategy, process and political skill to create innovative, world-class work and cultures that change industries and companies. My clients have included American Airlines, W Hotels, Disney, Citi, ExxonMobil, Acura, Old Navy, Nationwide Insurance, Verizon, Subaru and many others. My work has received over 150 international awards, my app designs have been named as one of the World’s 100 Greatest Apps, Apple has featured my work in 9 keynotes, 4 TV commercials and more.

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Copyright © 2015 Stephen Gates