iOS 7: Jony Ive Reboots Apple’s Design

Tech Features iOS

At Apple’s annual WWDC event last week, we got a glimpse of iOS 7, the annual update to their mobile operating system. But iOS 7 isn’t just your typical software update. As Daring Fireball’s John Gruber rightly calls it, iOS 7 is Apple’s first true post-Jobs product. Yes, the core mechanics of iOS are still in place—you still have rows of icons to swipe through, many of the same stock apps, and even the slide to unlock. But it’s more than just a graphical facelift or the introduction of some new features. iOS 7 is a manifesto—a new foundation for Apple to build its future in mobile on.

Ever since the death of Steve Jobs in 2011—just a day after the announcement of the iPhone 4S—the direction of the company has been less than certain. While Tim Cook was quickly and predictably named the new CEO of Apple, it was clear that he wouldn’t replace Jobs from a place of product vision. Gone were the sweeping statements about user interface and design language coming from the CEO of Apple. These days, those speeches are left to the actual designers at Apple—increasingly the primary voices of the company.

Apple’s philosophical understanding of design for mobile has always been twofold: minimalist and modern, but user-friendly and instantly accessible. Jobs’ well-documented love for skeuomorphism (digital apps looking like their real life counterparts) was based on the idea that the visual cues would help new users intuitively know how to use these apps. If a Notes app looks like a legal pad, people will already know what to do with it, even if they’ve never used a smartphone. There’s no doubt that these user-friendly and accessible design sensibilities played a big role in the explosion of not only iPhone sales, but of smartphones as a whole. After Jobs’ passing, software designer Scott Forstall became the primary advocate for this school of thought within Apple.

Representing the school of modernism is Jony Ive. Ive is the head of hardware design at Apple and has been since 1997. He’s the man responsible for the unique, trend-setting, forward-thinking industrial design of products such as the all-in-one iMac, the unibody MacBook Pro, and, of course, the rounded square slab that is the iPhone. He believes less is more (a phone only needs one button). But minimalism is not just one piece of who Apple is—it’s the consumer image that Apple has always sought to embody. One look at their all blank white commercials, simple packaging and trend-setting marketing campaigns and you’ll realize that this is how Apple sells its products. This is the Apple the company presents to the world.

Jobs always knew the right way to combine and appropriately use these two schools of thought—he had a way of dictatorially making Apple’s hardware and software agree. But since his passing, a rift has been growing within the company. Never was this rift in design more apparent than in the release of iOS 6 and the iPhone 5. While Jony Ive was waxing philosophy on the unique relationship between people and their iPhones and how the taller design had a unique contour designed for single-handed use, Forstall was talking about looking at sports scores with Siri and “Flyover” mode in Maps. There was absolutely no correlation between the hardware and software—no software justification for the change in hardware design.

For the first time in a long time, Apple was sending mixed signals to the both consumers and the industry as a whole. This was a company at a crossroads in terms of identity with no ambitious leader who could wrap these two design schools into one single thought. To see the surge of interest and sales of Android and Windows Phone devices was no surprise.

We all know how the Maps situation ended up. Along with it are the other Forstall flops from the past couple of years such as Newsstand and Passbook. After Forstall refused to sign the apology letter that Apple sent out to angry Maps users, his fate at the company was sealed as well. But Maps wasn’t the only thing that made iOS 6 feel like a step backwards. Even smaller aesthetic changes felt like an OS design that was moving toward a product from yesteryear. The more holes Apple left in the design of their stock iOS apps, the more third-party developers and the swelling Jailbreak community stepped in with real innovation in user experience.

“We have always thought of design as being so much more than just the way something looks. It’s the whole thing—the way something works on so many different levels,” said Ive in the video introducing iOS 7 for the first time.

That quotation is not just marketing speak. It’s one of the founding design principles of Apple—an idea that Jobs had always believed in. Since Forstall’s resignation, Jony Ive has taken on management of the software design of iOS along with the hardware, thus putting design as a whole under one roof. iOS 7 is the result of that restructuring, and though it’s light on new features, it’s an update of pretty much every stock app to fit that vision for the operating system.

But iOS 7 is not just a redesign of the core apps. What we saw at WWDC this year was a full reinterpretation of every element of the system—including everything from the lock screen to the phone dialer to the keyboard. In iOS 7, stitching and background textures have been replaced with translucent covers; obtuse gradients have been replaced with white backgrounds; flat pastel colors represent applications; even Helvetica got skinnier with the use of Helvetica Neue. For Ive, these are not merely aesthetic changes—they are fundamental to what it feels like to use the product and move around in the system.

In the same way that the iPhone 5 was a complete redesign of the iPhone hardware—even down to the raw materials the device was built with—iOS 7 goes back to the drawing board with mobile software. Much has been made of the fact that the design makes clear nods to influences ranging from webOS to Windows Phone 8 to the iPhone jailbreak community (and even some third-party apps such as Yahoo! Weather, Letterpress and Evernote). There’s no doubting that features such as the browser tab stacking view in Safari or the multitasking screen take their inspiration straight from some of these sources, but iOS 7 seems to wrap it all up in a package that still feels uniquely like Apple—or at least, the new Apple.

The result is a new look and feel that has critics and users split down the middle—which, strangely enough, is right where Apple is most at home. Although it’s not as extreme a visual shift as Windows 8 was, iOS 7 will still undoubtedly turn plenty of people away. It will be less accessible for those who are unfamiliar with smartphones and will certainly confuse a whole group of current iPhone users. There are even some clear missteps in consistency across apps and icons—as well as some features that are frustratingly absent (most importantly, a redesigned Notification Center). It’s incomplete. And though it’s just a start, but it’s the start from scratch that Apple really needed.

It’s not that the ultra-modern UI of iOS 7 is so much “better” or more “relevant” than the skeuomorphic design of previous iOS generations. It’s about Apple regaining that level of confidence in the design of their products—that vivacious, almost prideful confidence that has made Apple the industry pioneers that they are. iOS didn’t need another iterative step in the right direction. It needed a decisive, risky, and intentional new focus on design that could show the world that there was somebody at Apple calling the shots—somebody who had strong opinions on design and process and an ambitious vision for what these products could do.

And from what we’ve seen so far, that’s exactly what iOS 7 will be.

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