Why iOS 7 Is A Masterpiece of Design

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My first impression on seeing iOS 7 on my iPhone was: What is this, a My Little Pony theme?

But after scrutinizing, analyzing, deconstructing and living with the new version, I’m ready to declare iOS 7 an unambiguous masterpiece, a stroke of genius, really.

That may sound like a weird thing to say about a fruity, copycat platform that crashes constantly. But it’s true, and I’ll tell you why.

iOS 7 is compatible with iPhone hardware — finally!

About a year ago, I slammed Apple’s embrace of skeuomorphic design as inconsistent, cheesy, ugly and, worst of all, out of sync with Apple’s very strong hardware design sensibility.

But it wasn’t just skeuomorphic weirdness. The overall design of the iOS interface was littered with low-grade tawdriness that contrasted discordantly with the iPhone’s stunningly beautiful, minimalist, functional and clean hardware design.

Specifically, the interface design tended toward the arbitrary. Why corral dialog box information in rounded-corner boxes? Why put decorative starbursts and gloss and other stuff on the icons. The old interface had a lot of arbitrariness, and the new one has very little.

iOS 7 contrasts with iPhone hardware in a good way

In addition to being aesthetically compatible, the new OS contrasts colorwise. The hardware is: mimimum color (black or white and metal all over). The software is: maximum color. The overall effect of this contrast is striking and appealing.

iOS 7 design takes interface reaction to a whole new level

This is what Apple is really good at — making mobile hardware respond appealingly to the touch. Almost every user interaction with iOS 7 triggers an instant and smooth reaction by the interface, and a high-performance one that makes sense rather than being a cheap gimmick.

Tap an icon, and there’s a perfect zoom transition in which the icon becomes the full-screen window. Close the window and it zooms back into an icon. When you tap on a folder icon, then tap on an app icon, it feels really good becuase you’re zooming in first to the microscopic, then to the atomic.

When you tap on the now-circular empty phone buttons, they’re instantly filled solid with gray, which then quickly fades back to their original empty or white state. It’s psychologically satisfying to press them because of the visual feedback.

The calculator buttons respond with the same change-then-fade-back timing as the phone buttons, but with a different animation. A thick black line instantly surrounds each number key when you press it, then quickly becomes thin before returning to its original super-thin state. The Psycological effect is that the button is being physically pressed.

Double-pressing the physical home button brings up a newly designed multitasking bar where you can swipe through running applications. This is the feature critics say Apple stole from the Palm Pre, and this charge is essentially true. However, Apple has made some cool improvements to Palm’s interface.

When you’re in a full-screen application and double-press the home button to get to the multitasking view, the Palm used to zoom out with the “card” you were running in the center. iOS7, on the other hand, zooms out but guesses at and zooms to the “card” you want next. It’s usually really good at guessing.

The other cool thing is that the icon of each running app appears below its screen. Although the cards show the full card of one app in the middle and half the screen of each card to the left and right, the icons are shown in full. That means when you swipe to the next card, the icon moves at a normal pace, but the cards move much faster. This actually has a functional benefit: Swiping across the cards moves the lineup of apps slowly. Swiping across the icons moves is rapidly. In other words, it has two-speed swiping, and you choose the speed by where you swipe.

The Game Center categories are represented by weird floating bubbles. Tapping on one causes the selected bubble to recoil instantly in response, then all the bubbles shrink and fly off the edges of the screen, leaving you in the selected category.

When you’re in the photo view, you see what the camera sees, of course. When you tap the home button, the camera view goes super blury very fast before the app shrinks down into its icon.

These are just a few small examples. What’s important is that Apple has taken the best aspect of the iOS interface — the reactive physics — and has taken it to a whole new thrilling level.

iOS 7 returns Apple to its design roots

After Steve Wozniak invented the personal computer with the Apple II, Apple’s next giant contribution to the field of user interface design was placing a strong graphics design imprint on the platform. Steve Jobs used to say that a college caligraphy class inspired him to add beautiful typefaces to the original Mac, for example.

iOS 7 is shockingly well-rooted in a print-graphical design sensibility. It uses a typeface called Helvetica Neue UltraLight. It’s the kind of face you’d see in a glossy style magazine, not beneath icons. It’s also a typeface that would have been impossible to use on a sub-Retina display.

In fact, the whole design is a pure creature of Retina-quality pixel densities. Apple uses some incredibly thin lines, tiny icons and refined strutures and shapes.

iOS 7 has global appeal

Early accounts of iOS 7 fixated on the bright colors, made more conspicuous by Apple’s use of semi-transparent screens. When you swipe up from the bottom to reveal a new control panel for commonly used controls, for example, the colors of the icons behind the screen appear in a blurry pastel haze. The purple-pink of the iTunes Store icon, the blue-cyan of the App Store icon and other overly bright icons become a blury screen filled with Easter-egg colors.

Here’s the thing: The appeal of one type of color treatment over another is culturally determined. Apple’s super bright iOS 7 colors tend to shock Europeans and Americans, who favor increasingly dark, bleak, post-apocolyptic color schemes. (Just look at Superman’s new suit!) But super-bright colors like the ones in iOS 7 are perennial favorites through Asia, including China and India, and also throughout much of Latin America.

In short, Apple’s color scheme may astonish and disappoint jaded Northern and Western urban geeks. But these colors will be an international crowd-pleaser.

iOS 7 de-commoditizes the mobile user interface

Since Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, the general look and feel of smartphone interfaces has become somewhat commoditized. The new iOS 7 separates Apple from the pack a bit more with a super different-looking interface. Once this has been on the market for awhile, you’ll be able to tell from a distance or in an instant whether a phone is an iPhone or not. (This is true despite the fact that Apple decided to copy the Android animated wallpaper look.)

Regardless of whether you like or dislike, love or hate the user interface of iOS 7, the overall design is a masterpiece of style, function and market differentiation. It’s a great thing for Apple, and a great thing for users. The future for Apple’s mobile interface looks very bright indeed.

  • TheMartinDobson

    I must admit that at first it felt that the interface was designed by Fisher Price instead of the top tech company in the world. So many bright colours and gradients straight out of the 90s. After a bit of usage I have come to like it very much. I would like to see them do something more with the Dock itself as iOS7 running on my ancient iPhone4 doesn’t quite have the proper aspect ratio that the newer iPhone5 has and the dock bar uses up what sometime feels like 1/4 of the entire screen. It’s also not part transparent like what the iPhone5 has so the Grey Bar does stand out quite predominantly. (Interesting Fact: On the iPhone4 – It takes up exactly 192 of 960 pixels which works out to 20% of the height and 20% of the screen. The iPhone5 has it better at only using 16.8% of the home screen and also utilizes the transparency feature.)

    Unlike most of the tech writers (not saying that I am one) I didn’t seem to think that Mr. Forstall’s skumorphic designs should be banished to the fiery depths of hell. I rather liked the Camera app icon, the old ‘Settings’ icon and there was absolutely nothing wrong with the old icon for Game Centre, at least IT has something to do with games as this new one’s bubble icon has me guessing at first glance as to what it is exactly about.

    Although it has grown on me, the one issue that I have with the design is that now all other icons that use Apple’s earlier sense of design now stick out like a sore thumb. Even some of Apple’s own apps look quite out of place. Such as: Remote, Find iPhone, Keynote, Pages, Apple Store, Keynote Remote, iPhoto and Find My Friends.

    I feel that some of these design aspects will grow on me, but to those of you who have not had the privilege of being able to upgrade to iOS7 yet, please be warned that on first glance you WILL hate it. Give it a day or so… it WILL grow on you. I promise.

  • maxprivalov

    Mike, are you retarded?

  • Uhweqhe Jheqhe

    At first it seems a little overwhelming, but in comparison, iOS 6 now looks very dated and stale. I actually love iOS 7 now. Mike is not retarded, just overstating things. But it is a beautiful interface.
    The icons do need work. The icons need to look more “iconic”. That’s the what the word literally means, but some look generic and worse, …half ass.

  • crediblecurtis

    Typical apple website… How much did apple pay you this time? Apples marketing team at work

  • Uhweqhe Jheqhe

    One thing that stands out to me the most, and the image above clearly illustrates, is that the new UI is far more flattering to a white iPhone now. Before, the UI looked horrible on the white iPhone. It looked positively horrible. And I am sure that’s why the design team chose white as it’s main feature. And to be fair, the white iPhone did not exist at the time of the old UI’s inception. So for that, and many many more reasons, the new UI is a vast improvement by a huge magnitude.

  • Technibility

    In depth likes and dislikes of iOS 7 showcased on an iPhone 5 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6E8UiFwGWE

  • euphospug

    Hmm, am I the only one who reads that article as dripping with sarcasm – Mike being the resident Apple hater, and all?

  • MrsCleaver

    “Why iOS 7 Is A Masterpiece of Design”

    I’m an unabashed Steve Jobs admirer, Jony Ive fan and all ’round Apple supporter for decades. And yes, iOS 7 looks to be a major step ahead of any iOS so far. But let’s not laud too much praise on Apple or Ive. Even a cursory glance at iOS 7 shows that it “borrows” heavily from the jailbreak community. Thus far, I haven’t’ seen anything that isn’t available as a jailbreak tweak, add-on or application. As far as the ‘look’ of iOS 7 (colors, backgrounds, icon appearance, etc.) the jailbreak community is way ahead, with literally thousands of themes that can be easily applied. I hope the final version of iOS 7 includes some of these user-assignable changes.

    That said, not everyone jailbreaks their phone (certainly not as of 6.1.3), and I get that these improvements will be new and wonderful to the masses. That’s great. Let’s just not forget where most of the ideas are coming from.

  • Bulldogger123

    Hmm, am I the only one who reads that article as dripping with sarcasm – Mike being the resident Apple hater, and all?

    Nope, not one bit. As a matter of fact, I was surprised by the uncharacteristic pleasantries when describing iOS7. A welcome change of tone, to me!

  • Bulldogger123

    Typical apple website… How much did apple pay you this time? Apples marketing team at work

    So by your statement because he didn’t bash Apple, you think he was paid? Does that mean you are a shill for Google?

  • Steven Quan

    Actually Mike, iP6 is supposed to come in myriad number of color choices. This would counter your assertion that iOS7 contrasts with the hardware in iP5. iP6 will be as colorful as iOS7.

  • Paul Burt

    Actually Mike, iP6 is supposed to come in myriad number of color choices. This would counter your assertion that iOS7 contrasts with the hardware in iP5. iP6 will be as colorful as iOS7.

    This rumor was around last year too. I see it having the same result again.

  • Paul Burt

    Typical apple website… How much did apple pay you this time? Apples marketing team at work

    Typical Apple hater. How much is Samsung paying you?

  • Twitboydk

    Calm down. It´s not a masterpiece, it´s just an improvement.

  • dariuszmatt

    Masterpiece can be found on random Dribble page… iOS7 look is so wrong I can only think it is wrong on purpose. Like new cars tested on the streets are covered with some trash and stickers so you can’t tell how they look like. i hope apple will surprise us on the last or almost last beta, because now – the font is readable only if you are a hawk or falcon, there are sceumorphic apps together with flat looking apps, icons… well, we’ve all seen icons… it is so bad on so many levels… I understand being an Apple fan but calling it masterpiece is just cognitive dissonance, nothing else…

  • DeFacto

    “Why iOS 7 Is A Masterpiece of Design”
    “The Game Center categories are represented by weird floating bubbles” – Yeah, iOS 7 is a masterpiece of design.

    “super bright iOS 7 colors tend to shock Europeans and Americans” … “but are perennial favorites through Asia, including China and India, and also throughout much of Latin America… these colors will be an international crowd-pleaser” – What? International crowd-pleaser? How is that international if America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand (over 50 countries) are excluded?

    And I am a long-time Apple user. This new design is hideous. User experience, new features are not bad, but design is hideous. Someone who did it has a lack of quality, skills & taste. Apple fired the wrong man and another wrong one took the total power.

  • CharilaosMulder

    “Why iOS 7 Is A Masterpiece of Design”

    I’m an unabashed Steve Jobs admirer, Jony Ive fan and all ’round Apple supporter for decades. And yes, iOS 7 looks to be a major step ahead of any iOS so far. But let’s not laud too much praise on Apple or Ive. Even a cursory glance at iOS 7 shows that it “borrows” heavily from the jailbreak community. Thus far, I haven’t’ seen anything that isn’t available as a jailbreak tweak, add-on or application. As far as the ‘look’ of iOS 7 (colors, backgrounds, icon appearance, etc.) the jailbreak community is way ahead, with literally thousands of themes that can be easily applied. I hope the final version of iOS 7 includes some of these user-assignable changes.

    That said, not everyone jailbreaks their phone (certainly not as of 6.1.3), and I get that these improvements will be new and wonderful to the masses. That’s great. Let’s just not forget where most of the ideas are coming from.

    I hope you realize that the jb community started with one guy and has now grown way beyond the number of people Apple has on campus working on iOS. The further we go, the harder it will be for Apple (and all other companies) to stun us with totally unseen stuff.

  • Cgs101

    All this colourfulness is a little too Android-y for my liking but I’m looking forward to using it before I form an opinion on whether I like it or not … However, I can now say that some of the app icons are plain ugly … Hopefully they’ll make changes by the time the 7 is released to the public.

  • boygarland

    All this colourfulness is a little too Android-y for my liking but I’m looking forward to using it before I form an opinion on whether I like it or not … However, I can now say that some of the app icons are plain ugly … Hopefully they’ll make changes by the time the 7 is released to the public.

    well said

  • ridwan47

    No It’s not.

    There are some good UI feature in the new iOS. But nothing terribly
    new. Most of the UI is sadly copied form Windows Phone OS, WebOS,
    Android and also Jailbreak Tweaks and then combined together. Which
    isn’t necessarily a bad thing but didn’t work out well in this
    instance.

    The icons are Bad, Ugly, Confusing and Inconsistent.

    I still I can’t wrap my head around the idea that the best industrial
    designer Sir Ive would even consider these fugly icons let alone
    approve it.

    The whole “Translucent UI” on Notificaton and Control Center gives
    me headache.It’s difficult to read text easily when the background
    app is too noisy. The ultra thin ‘Helvetica Neue Ultra Light’ font
    which is used system wide is anotherthing that doesn’t make it easier
    to read. There are too much white space in the OS which is not easy
    on the eye either. And the iMessage app is too ugly to even be on the
    Windows Phone.

    To quote The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky, “The design of iOS 7: simply
    confusing”. And It’s only gonna look worse on the iPad which is my
    real fear.

    My complain is only with some of the UI design. Not the functionality.
    I love how iOS 7 works and super excited about it.

    I’m just hoping Apple Improve some of these UI before the final public
    release. But I seriously doubt that would happen. As history teaches
    us once Apple takes a decision they generally stick with it no matter
    what…

    Also wanted to add on the news that Jony Ive reportedly had Apple’s
    marketing team design iOS 7 icons… I just don’t buy it.

    Jony Ive clearly said in the video they ‘Developed’ the ‘Grid System’
    to design harmonious icons. They also
    showed their design philosophy of the icons in the video and Web site.
    So it was well thought out.
    Plus there is a section in Apple’s new iOS7 marketing video where Ive
    specifically talks about how beautiful the new icons are, so he
    obviously endorses them on some level.

    It’s funny how they brag in the video about beautiful icons and they
    are so ugly in reality. It’s just not something I think worthy of being
    an Apple Product.

    The news sounds like a great excuse for a terrible reception to their
    horrible icons. I like a lot about the new UI and I’m super excited
    about the functionality, but the ‘Icons all symmetrically aligned to a
    grid’ crap was embarrassingly bad. They just look awful.

    Its not the end of the world though. They just need to get some
    consistency happening, and ditch the ugly icons like Game Center,
    Safari and the Camera altogether.

  • Alfiejr

    i always find comments bemusing that are essentially about personal prejudices, individual likes/dislikes, and pet peeves/fixations. rant on!

    but as to analysis …

    it is clearly true that most of the new/improved built-in features of iOS 7 are “catch up” implementations of popular/worthwhile features of other OS’ and/or third party apps. and after all, it would be very stupid of Apple not to do that, and there are maybe two dozen of these in iOS 7 – a lot. but the key question for all of them is whether their iOS implementation and UI is as good as or even better than the original, or at least more convenient to use.

    and then there are the several new features that are real “advancements” – important evolutionary steps forward (that other OS’ will likely match next time). iOS 7 has some – Find My iPhone security, iOS in the Car (when it is deployed), unified game controller API’s, and a few others.

    lastly would be real “innovations” that break new ground for portable computing (like Siri did for iOS 6). i don’t see any of these in iOS 7 – yet (the next iPhone may still add something that is hardware based, like fingerprint passwords). which likely explains the tepid response of many to it.

    btw, the entire Apple ecosystem, including OS X Mavericks, should be a part of any analysis. a number of “catch ups” and “advancements” to Apple’s cloud ecosystem were announced too, but no “innovations” (like AirPlay proved to be).

    Finally then, there is the “packaging” – the look/feel/style of the UI. this is what has been getting most of the attention this past week. what Elgan is mainly writing about in this post is the well-known Apple “polish” – careful attention to all the little details – that sets its packaging apart from all the rest. what many are complaining about is instead its superficial style – icon design and colors, etc. (which are very easy to change).

    not being a developer, i don’t have my hands on iOS 7 yet. ask me what i think later this year when i do. but the superficial style is the least important to me, personally.

  • KevinQ

    Initially I was a bit underwhelmed by the new icons look and UI interface, judging from the screenshots on the web. But man, those images don’t even do any justice of the real things. Once I get my hand on it (developer version), played around a bit, discovered so many surprises, I changed my mind 180 degree. This is, as the writer said, masterpiece. Not in ‘in your face’ kind, but a very subtle perfection. I am impressed. Yes, the smoothness and all of the smart interactive designs only can be experience directly, but also the icons colour and finest details of the design can only be admired and seen directly on the Retina display of my iPhone 5. I like it.

    By saying that, I almost feel sorry for those who posted negative things about iOS 7 before using it. How true it is that ignorance is bliss.

  • Cowboy Ron

    I’m more concerned about “a fruity, copycat platform that crashes constantly” than what it looks like!

  • Bulldogger123

    I’m more concerned about “a fruity, copycat platform that crashes constantly” than what it looks like!

    I am sure when the final version is released, your comment will sound even more irrelevant than it does now.

  • LucasWolf631

    “What is this, a My Little Pony theme?”
    You say that like it would have been a bad thing

  • cprblak

    The ultra thin ‘Helvetica Neue Ultra Light’ font
    which is used system wide is anotherthing that doesn’t make it easier to read. There are too much white space in the OS which is not easy on the eye either.

    The thin font/lots of whitespace trend seems to the be the hot thing in UI design right now whether it works or not. What’s interesting about Ive’s UI team choosing this trend is that I can’t see his industrial design team making a choice for something like a Macbook based on “what’s hot”.

  • airmanchairman
    “Why iOS 7 Is A Masterpiece of Design”

    I’m an unabashed Steve Jobs admirer, Jony Ive fan and all ’round Apple supporter for decades. And yes, iOS 7 looks to be a major step ahead of any iOS so far. But let’s not laud too much praise on Apple or Ive. Even a cursory glance at iOS 7 shows that it “borrows” heavily from the jailbreak community. Thus far, I haven’t’ seen anything that isn’t available as a jailbreak tweak, add-on or application. As far as the ‘look’ of iOS 7 (colors, backgrounds, icon appearance, etc.) the jailbreak community is way ahead, with literally thousands of themes that can be easily applied. I hope the final version of iOS 7 includes some of these user-assignable changes.

    That said, not everyone jailbreaks their phone (certainly not as of 6.1.3), and I get that these improvements will be new and wonderful to the masses. That’s great. Let’s just not forget where most of the ideas are coming from.

    I hope you realize that the jb community started with one guy and has now grown way beyond the number of people Apple has on campus working on iOS. The further we go, the harder it will be for Apple (and all other companies) to stun us with totally unseen stuff.

    Precisely, you wise commenter! Are you related to Mrs Weaver of “Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles” , by the way? You certainly sound just as advanced, T-1000 class!! :-) iPredict has also hit the statistical nail on the head historically and numerically. Perhaps you both hail from some AI-dominated future to come…

    Tim Cook just announced at WWDC that registered iOS developers number over 6 million – 6 million!!! And that’s not even counting jailbreak community developers…

    There is no company on Earth that can internally muster that number of developers or even require more than a low hundred figure.

    Now these 3rd parties, including the jailbreak community, are free to focus their efforts on any aspect of iOS software development that they fancy – not so the Apple developers, whose efforts are restricted to the areas assigned to them within the OS as dictated by their contract (Maps, system, kernel. audio, video, social etc). Apple’s overall responsibility is for the entire software stack , not to mention their Objective C language, code signing and ratification for the various permitted standard languages and scripting like C/C++, C sharp, Adobe Air, JavaScript and so many others.

    In fact, Jony Ive’s software design team actually owes them all (and the users primarily) a duty of distilling into the system software as much support for the capabilities continually created by these geniuses, and this frequently involves absorbing their efforts into the default system to keep the core coherent and not a hodge-podge of 3rd party code .

    Inter-app Communication is the next frontier for mobile apps, and the music app developers have stolen a march on Apple and the rest of the community with efforts like AudioBus and JACK . Apple is obviously working behind the scenes to extend their principle system-wide to create a coherent, secure solution for all apps. For instance, without CoreMIDI, Cut-and-Paste and the recently-introduced Background Audio and Audio Streaming , AudioBus and JACK implementation would be impossible.

    Apple’s unifying work behind the scenes is tremendous, and has only just begun in earnest, hence their need to bring hardware and software under one all-inclusive, internally-transparent leader. Uneasy lies the head that wears that crown. Here’s looking at you, Sir Ives…

  • stefn

    My take: Apple is holding back on frosting the iOS 7 cake, so that developers don’t clone and corrupt its icons and screens. Let them eat cake.

  • ray1claw

    I live in India and still hate those colours. And living pretty close to China I’m pretty sure that they hate it as well. Problem?

  • emelgeek

    When you’re in a full-screen application and double-press the home button to get to the multitasking view, the Palm used to zoom out with the “card” you were running in the center. iOS7, on the other hand, zooms out but guesses at and zooms to the “card” you want next. It’s usually really good at guessing.”

    iOS 7 doesn’t “guess” what card you want next. Just think of it in the way Command-TAB works in OSX – the new multitasking view lets you cycle quickly between your two most recent apps. The app card at the center is the last app opened before your current one.

  • oliversl

    As a latin american (don’t even know is that is a word here), the new iOS7 sucks big time here too. No matter where you look a the new design, it is unpolished, inconsistent and let me repeat: ugly

    Before this article, I didn’t the concept of geo design. Sounds a little racist too.

  • theroadtrip

    Reading this article is like reading a Fox News story talking about how the backsides of corrupt republicans smell like roses. What I don’t get is why apple- who has THE BEST customer service- App Store- quality- and useability BY FAR has to resort to the same tactics of Fox News by putting pr propaganda all over the net to brainwash people. If apple didn’t make the new ios so ugly and with such a lack of good design- it wouldn’t need any of these rush Limbaugh esq nonsense articles.

    If this article was how you personally like the lack of design- so be it- but to insinuate making countless design 101 mistakes – making a product have bright ugly colors with hard to read text- is GENIUS??? Seriously Fox News- I can’t take the nonsense.

    Apple used to not only have the best products but the best style as well – thats why it sold for higher prices. Now it is ugly so time will tell how this unfolds. I personally think that considering the new design would flunk an art student in a freshman level class- we may have to worry that the company we know as apple no longer exists.

    I have an iPod touch 5 and wanted an iPhone forever but will now get a Samsung because it looks so much better- it’s no ios6 but is way better looking and way better suites for texts and phone calls. At least I have all the great apple apps for my iPod touch. I was also going to get an ipod mini but will now get a kindle fire- which kind of sucks because the aps suck compared to apple- but it is nice to look at and easier on the eyes.

    I will always have to have at least one apple product though- as it will always have the best apps and best games. Plus apple tv is the best mirroring device that currently exists.

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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