Apple’s muddled design philosophy

September 19, 2013

Apple Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks about iOS 7 on stage during an Apple product announcement at the Apple campus on September 10, 2013 in Cupertino, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I recently watched a fantastic documentary. It's called "Helvetica," and for those of you who aren't typeface geeks, it's a delightful look by Gary Hustwit at one of the most common fonts on Earth. Loyalists admire the way Helvetica effortlessly conveys information — to the point that you stop paying attention to the typeface itself. It's unobtrusive. It's conformist. It's clean, and simple, and just gets the job done.

Unsurprisingly, Helvetica's design principles have a lot in common with Apple's. In fact, the font made its first appearance on the iPhone way back in 2008. But it wasn't until now that Apple finally allowed Helvetica — or more precisely, its cousin, Helvetica Neue — freedom to roam across the whole operating system.

Helvetica Neue is everywhere in iOS 7 — on the lockscreen, in the settings, in the notification tray. Its cleanliness is beautiful. But Apple uses it like a crutch. Text plays a much larger role in iOS 7 than it did in iOS 6. Here's what happens when you try and share something in either environment, for instance:

(idownloadblog / The Washington Post)
(idownloadblog/The Washington Post)

In iOS 6, the icons are bold and dominant over the text. In iOS 7, the icons are more subdued. Particularly on the bottom row, the icons look vaguely like their predecessors but rather than asserting themselves, their more abstracted appearance means they actually need the text to help explain what'll happen next if you tap them. Imagine if the "Use as Wallpaper" prompt were left blank, and all you saw was a picture of a phone. You'd have no idea what that button was for.

Here's another example. When you pull up the tray that lets you access airplane mode and other settings, you get a handful of icons that look reasonably familiar — but just in case you weren't sure, tapping those icons brings up some text that tells you what you just did.


This is actually an unfortunate result of a generally positive development: Apple's decision to abandon skeuomorphism, or the idea that on-screen elements ought to look like their real-life counterparts. You're probably familiar with the criticisms: The green felt in Game Center and the faux-leather in the Calendar app are tacky — anachronistic, even. So with iOS 7, Apple did away with all that.

Trimming away background skeuomorphism wasn't enough, however. iOS also stylizes many of the elements you actually interact with on the screen. That makes a certain amount of internal sense, philosophically; if you take anti-skeuomorphism to its logical end, then buttons should not look like buttons, either.

But greater abstraction also risks confusing people. So the text becomes more important, and what began as an effort to show, not tell, becomes just the opposite: You need to tell more in order to explain something that, if your icon is doing its job correctly, shouldn't need to be explained at all.

As others have pointed out, Apple's big move with iOS 7 is to say, "We know you know how smartphones work. So we'll just get out of your way."

Yet by smearing Helvetica Neue everywhere, it doesn't seem like Apple is fully confident in the message yet.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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September 19, 2013

Apple Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks about iOS 7 on stage during an Apple product announcement at the Apple campus on September 10, 2013 in Cupertino, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I recently watched a fantastic documentary. It's called "Helvetica," and for those of you who aren't typeface geeks, it's a delightful look by Gary Hustwit at one of the most common fonts on Earth. Loyalists admire the way Helvetica effortlessly conveys information — to the point that you stop paying attention to the typeface itself. It's unobtrusive. It's conformist. It's clean, and simple, and just gets the job done.

Unsurprisingly, Helvetica's design principles have a lot in common with Apple's. In fact, the font made its first appearance on the iPhone way back in 2008. But it wasn't until now that Apple finally allowed Helvetica — or more precisely, its cousin, Helvetica Neue — freedom to roam across the whole operating system.

Helvetica Neue is everywhere in iOS 7 — on the lockscreen, in the settings, in the notification tray. Its cleanliness is beautiful. But Apple uses it like a crutch. Text plays a much larger role in iOS 7 than it did in iOS 6. Here's what happens when you try and share something in either environment, for instance:

(idownloadblog / The Washington Post)
(idownloadblog/The Washington Post)

In iOS 6, the icons are bold and dominant over the text. In iOS 7, the icons are more subdued. Particularly on the bottom row, the icons look vaguely like their predecessors but rather than asserting themselves, their more abstracted appearance means they actually need the text to help explain what'll happen next if you tap them. Imagine if the "Use as Wallpaper" prompt were left blank, and all you saw was a picture of a phone. You'd have no idea what that button was for.

Here's another example. When you pull up the tray that lets you access airplane mode and other settings, you get a handful of icons that look reasonably familiar — but just in case you weren't sure, tapping those icons brings up some text that tells you what you just did.


This is actually an unfortunate result of a generally positive development: Apple's decision to abandon skeuomorphism, or the idea that on-screen elements ought to look like their real-life counterparts. You're probably familiar with the criticisms: The green felt in Game Center and the faux-leather in the Calendar app are tacky — anachronistic, even. So with iOS 7, Apple did away with all that.

Trimming away background skeuomorphism wasn't enough, however. iOS also stylizes many of the elements you actually interact with on the screen. That makes a certain amount of internal sense, philosophically; if you take anti-skeuomorphism to its logical end, then buttons should not look like buttons, either.

But greater abstraction also risks confusing people. So the text becomes more important, and what began as an effort to show, not tell, becomes just the opposite: You need to tell more in order to explain something that, if your icon is doing its job correctly, shouldn't need to be explained at all.

As others have pointed out, Apple's big move with iOS 7 is to say, "We know you know how smartphones work. So we'll just get out of your way."

Yet by smearing Helvetica Neue everywhere, it doesn't seem like Apple is fully confident in the message yet.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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