2013 was an interesting year for Apple. Jony Ive's move to the head of software design bore its first fruit with the launch of iOS 7, shaking up some established Apple design conventions and breaking a long-held pattern of focused iteration in a company not known for its wild mood swings. So what do Apple design developments from 2013 tell us about what to expect for iOS and the Mac this year?
From the first iPhone OS, Apple's mobile design style has been to make things look like things: Clear lines, friendly gradients, and shadows you could lose your keys in. This overt physicality had its roots in Mac app design, but really found its home on the iPhone and iPad — devices on which pressing a button meant literally pressing your finger onto something. Designers learned to make everything feel real. As iOS became more successful, many of those embellishments of literalism found their way back to the Mac.
Then, with a single organizational restructuring, everything changed. Jony Ive took over software design, and iOS 7 is his big splash. Software begins to feel less like a coat of paint and more like a logical extension of the hardware. When Apple unveiled iOS 7 at WWDC in June 2013, you could almost hear the pendulum swinging. Hyper-literal interfaces and textures — with the bizarre exception of paper in Notes — are history.
One example of the swing towards UI as an extension of the hardware: Early in the iOS 7 beta process we saw Apple focus on, then dial back on, the lightness of typography. Helvetica Neue Light may have taken center stage at WWDC, but by the third beta release, Apple had heard the cries of users. The attempt made sense. Ive, a hardware guy, would naturally want to show off the readability of text in lighter weights on a Retina screen. But users are less interested in smaller or wispier fonts than in clarity; just because you have a Retina doesn't mean you should cram more user interface onto it.
As it stands now, iOS 7 is a series of solvable problems. The things you could label as deficiencies are mostly a result of that swinging pendulum — an overcorrection of skeuomorphism. So what comes next is most likely balance and refinement. Buttons might not need to look like they're being physically pressed if you tap them, but some feedback is useful. Text-label buttons (such as Send in Messages) don't need to be visually heavy, but it's generally better to give users a sense of tap target size.
Ive has now had more than a year of mobile UI design experience under his belt, and nearly nine months of critical user feedback on a major release. These aren't small things, especially for a man known for his thoughtful, considered approach. Despite formidable resources, Apple is still a small company in many ways. Historically, when iOS has been behind on deadline, developers have been pulled from the Mac OS X team to lend a hand. Designers are commonly shared between teams. Given his position at the top of the design food chain, that certainly includes Ive.
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