Have you upgraded to iOS 7 yet? If you’re an Apple iPhone or iPad user you know what I’m talking about (if you aren’t an Apple user, indulge me please and read on. You’ll catch on quickly.) iOS 7 is Apple’s chief of design Jonathan Ive’s first public shot at overseeing the entire ecosystem of their products, both hardware AND software. There are two noteworthy parts to Ive’s debut operating system – the new software features and the design updates. Let’s leave the software function changes discussion to the industry program pundits; what I want to discuss here are the design developments.
Besides changing the colors and the icons, the biggest change Ive made was to get rid of Apple’s trend setting skeuomorphism design protocol (don’t feel bad, I didn’t know what skeuomorphism meant either. Skeuomorphism is the design of a derivative object that retains the ornamental design cues that were prevalent in the original. For example, the yellow-lined paper for Notes, the leather binding for Calendar, the wooden shelves for iBooks). As David Pogue wrote in The New York Times, “The look of iOS 7 is sparse, white — almost plain in spots… it’s all blue Helvetica Neue against white.”
Because of these changes, when people talk about the new system what I hear is either praise for the stark new look or complaints about it. Being a minimalist at heart, I happen to really enjoy the new clean look. But in this instance, I think discussion of the aesthetics of the new program really misses the point.
Back in the early 1980s when Apple first introduced their Macintosh interface and again when they introduced their first smartphone 20 years later, Apple was showing us something we’d never seen before. In fact, Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It was Apple’s job to expose us to something we’d never experienced before that would quickly become both intuitive and intrinsic.
Because Apple was showing us something new with the original Mac, they needed to use a visual language that we already understood. THAT’S why the icon for deleting digital files looked like a trash can and the icon for pointing at things on the screen looked like an extended finger.
Jumping forward to the original iPhone operating system and all the way to the one iOS7 just replaced, Apple used these same visual metaphors to shortcut the need for wordy explanations.
Which brings us back to skeuomorphism. And so the “bookshelf” was dressed in wood grain, the “notepad” looked just like the old school yellow legal pad we all instantly recognize, and the “datebook” was represented with a faux-leather cover and computer-generated wire binding.
Those real world finishes were not simply design elements used to make the interface look better but were, in fact, visual metaphors judiciously employed to quickly explain what the phone could do for us.
That leads me to believe that Ive’s elimination of these realistic design features was not just an overhaul created to bring the iPhone’s operating system in line with his design aesthetic. Instead, it was the realization and acceptance that today’s consumer is savvy enough to no longer need the visual training wheels that Apple first bolted on their early phones.
Business consultant Marshall Goldsmith’s last book was named What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Goldsmith’s title describes a lesson that Apple clearly took to heart. What Apple and Ive figured out is that because it’s not broken doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fix it. Ive clearly understands that unless Apple constantly innovates and updates their mighty iPhone it could just as easily suffer the fate of the Palm Pilot and Blackberry and wind up on the unforgiving trash heap of irrelevance.
Whether it’s abandoning skeuomorphism or moving on from an operational system that no longer supports their brand, Apple’s iPhone refresh is a great lesson and reminder to all of us of the importance of staying ahead of our competition AND our customers before we too suffer the cruel fate of the outdated and the obsolete.