Where Apple Went Wrong

Designers in my community have spent a lot of energy in the past week panning Apple’s new design for iOS 7. I should know. I’ve been one of them.

When I showed my friend, who hadn’t seen the keynote, he said, “Those stupid Windows phones. Wait, FaceTime?”

When I showed my sister, she immediately said, “what a big step back.”

When I showed my wife the new home screen her first reaction was, “Can I not upgrade?”

These are not the tech elite or snarky hipsters. These are everyday, casual users of the iPhone.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but a design can be objectively bad. Despite some important functional design improvements, much of what Apple displayed at WWDC was simply not show-quality.

Sure, it’s easy to nitpick at pixels, gradients, or subtle inconsistencies that may be fine-tuned come September. But there is something bigger here. Something went very wrong in Cupertino.

A Decade of Design Inspiration

When I ask my clients to show me inspiration pieces, they inevitably reference Indeed Apple’s design in print and online has provided web designers a decade’s worth of inspiration. They are the gold standard. Apple’s “lickable” designs for OS X and, later, iOS, still influence web design today. Bright gradients, subtle drop shadows, aspirational marketing copy — this all stems from Apple.

When I heard that Apple was betting big on a redesign led by Jony Ive, I was ready for that next wave of design leadership from the most talented team in the world.

So tell me with a straight face the new iOS 7 home screen has inspired you once again to do the best work of your life. The truth is, most of us could do better — and that simply should not be the case. You may be happy to see some thinner fonts or a more lightweight design, but you aren’t lusting after this design.

Human Interface Guidelines

When I was a kid, I had Apple’s original HIG reference book. It seemed like it weighed as much as my Apple Lisa. It was filled with things I did not always understand, but I knew it was beautiful, impactful, and important. It set guidelines for user interface design, which is separate and apart from design aesthetic.

iOS 7 misses the mark when it comes to user interface design. Take the new Control Center, for example. Does a black icon mean a button in its active state, or is the white icon active? You’ll learn once you start using it, I guess.

The controls also lack negative space. Buttons and widgets are crowded together. Apple has always stated clearly that control groups should allow comfortable target zones, particularly with touch.

Maybe this will change. Maybe Apple knows it’s wrong or unfinished. But then what the hell are they doing showing it? The Mac Pro may be unreleased, but damned if it didn’t look finished — worthy of immediate desire. Heck, I’ll buy that thing if all it does is play music from Rdio.

The Real Problem

Apple is following in this area, where once they led. They had purpose in their user interface designs. They set the standard and showed finished products. They inspired designers and copycats. Who will copy that home screen, with its mess of over-saturated, child-like icons? Who can tell me the beautiful, subtle detail of the previous camera lens icon should be replaced with a black blob? Would you sit and stare, marveling, at the craft and elegance of the new, flat “Slide to Unlock” button?

Some have claimed that us designers are being too picky. That it is in our nature to be critical and pan the work of others. But Apple itself has welcomed being held to a higher standard. Literally hundreds of millions of people will use these designs, and so they should be clearly the best designs out there.

I can’t help but feel that Steve Jobs would have seen this design and immediately said, “Yuck. This is shit. Get these bozos out of here.” Whether or not he believed it, he always pressed for something better.

I am unable imagine Tim Cook doing this. And given that his work is the work being reviewed, it may be that Jony Ive can’t do it either. Or maybe they simply ran out of time.

Everyone seems to agree this was a big moment for Apple. It is a time to reclaim the mantle of innovation and quiet the naysayers who have become skeptical of Tim Cook’s Apple. But if this is the future — following and not leading on software design — we are in for a rough ride. They have until September to finish this draft. I sure hope they do.