Ten years ago Malcolm Garrett attempted to suggest to Jonathan Ive that it might be time to ditch skeuomorphic design. With the release of iOS7 he appears to have had that wish granted. We asked the digital pioneer for his creative assessment of the recent OS upgrade…
It is already ten years since Jonathan Ive was named Designer of the Year by the Design Museum. It is therefore ten years since Creative Review first asked me to talk to him to coincide with that award.
The brief was to speak ‘designer to designer’, with some discussion of his growing portfolio of groundbreaking products, and to hopefully elicit some informed insight into his personal approach to design.
He had just presented the sleek new range of G4 Titanium PowerBooks but, of course, the iPhone, whose touch screen interface would change computing forever, was not yet so much as a twinkle in his eye.
I brought up the subject of the then relatively new OSX interface. This was an important issue for me. I felt there was a major disconnect between the efficient simplicity and beauty of his hardware design and what users encountered on their screens.
I had only recently upgraded to OSX and I was not yet a fan, despite its functional superiority over OS9. I had been put off from the outset just by the way it looked, a sad confession that aesthetics were blinding me to improved usability.
My thinking was that the visual tone was far too ‘Walt Disney’, with a cartoon-like pursuit of visual realism in the drawing of icons with shadows, bevels and fake three-dimensionality. The term ‘skeuomorphic’ had been around since the 19th century, but it had never seemed more appropriately applied than in the world of software, which has few physical parallels with ‘real’ tools and machinery.
I voiced a concern about the loss of what had always been a clear, easy-to-use interface – one that graphic designers loved – to be replaced with a brighter, more colourful, dumbed-down array of big buttons and ‘friendly’ picture-driven screen tools.
This was such an irony given that graphic designers had been a core market for Apple products since the launch of the Mac 20 years previously.
Jonathan Ive’s response was not what I expected. He refused to comment at all, simply stating that he was not the person to talk to about it.
Ten years later, now that he has publicly criticised the older interface and replaced it with this fresh review, I now get some hint that he may well have been thinking along the same lines as me back then. He was far too smart, and professionally constrained of course, to engage in any ‘loose talk’ at the wrong moment.
Naturally then, I see this new iPhone operating system as a welcome progression, as it dramatically reverses the trend towards excessive skeumorphism.
It’s been a long time coming, but the difference is evident right from the first screen. The typography is lighter and has a refreshing clarity, and all unnecessary frames, bevels and shadows around buttons, panels or onscreen instructions (such as ‘slide to unlock’) have been omitted to pleasing effect.
At first glance some aspects do seem a bit rushed, but for the most part I really like it. Some screens really are very pleasing – the compass (above) is a technical delight for instance. Some of the top level things, funnily enough the ones you would notice first, work less well.
Thankfully iOS7 hasn’t pursued the wholly squared-off look of the latest Windows OS, and has retained the rounded corners of the iOS6 desktop icons.
I do think, though, that these would have benefited from a reduction of corner radius to complement the sharpness of the illustrations that adorn them. My first impression is that they tend to feel a bit too flat, the colours a little garish, and the detail and typography too thin.
The more I use it, however, the more I come to appreciate and enjoy it.
I had never noticed before that the letters on the keyboard keys are all in caps, even when typing in lower case. It has always been that way, but it jumped out at me as ‘mistake’ when I first saw it here. I’m not sure that is a good thing.
Going back to check its predecessor again, I now see though that those keys are just too blobby and already feel old fashioned. The new keys are much clearer, they even seem bigger.
Whether Helvetica is the right font to be really forward looking and an ‘honest’ choice for a really contemporary interface is debatable. Given its modernist origins, and the way that for many designers it has come to suggest the best in ‘information design’, it too is arguably skeumorphic in its own subtle way.
After I’ve had more time to explore, I will hopefully come back with a more considered critique. In the same way that I found effortless joy, and unanticipated pleasure in small details when using the first generation iPhone screen, I am hoping to find much more below the surface of this one.
I hope it is more than a cosmetic upgrade, but for now at least it is a welcome cosmetic upgrade.