Craig Hockenberry: 'iOS 7 Was As Much A Strategic Move As An Aesthetic One'

24 March 2015

Craig Hockenberry:

I’ve always felt that the flattening of Apple’s user interface that began in iOS 7 was as much a strategic move as an aesthetic one. Our first reaction was to realize that an unadorned interface makes it easier to focus on content.

But with this new display technology, it’s clear that interfaces with fewer pixels have another advantage. A richly detailed button from iOS 6 would need more of that precious juice strapped to our wrists. Never underestimate the long-term benefits of simplification.

I really don’t believe that the aesthetics introduced in iOS 7 was a tactical manoeuvre. Ive’s flat design was not ‘strategic’. I think you can say iOS 7 was triggered by company politics because I think the actual reason iOS changed appearance so radically is easily traced in time.

Between iOS 6 and iOS 7 Forstall left and Ive took charge. Ive liked the flatter aesthetic which meant that iOS became flatter. The cause and effect isn’t hidden here. Forstall may have wanted to move away from skeuomorphism eventually but he wasn’t planning on it for 2013: new features like iTunes Radio had already been built out with iOS 6 aesthetics by the time Forstall left in November 2012.

If Forstall was still in power, do I think the Watch would feature Corinthian leather and glossy textures? There’s a chance. The square iPod nano shipped with exactly that. The more likely outcome is that it would be toned down to suit a 1.5 inch display because the design of iOS and Watch OS are on different tracks.

I think this approaches my bigger point. Watch OS and iOS are not mirror images of each other. They are different. A skeuomorphic iOS and a flat Watch OS could definitely coexist. A ‘strategic’ master plan to have both devices on the same design path is unnecessary. There are bits of Watch OS that will never come back to iOS and there are bits of Watch OS that should come back to iOS. But, if there really was a long play to synthesise both OS’s then they should already be the same. Arguably, iOS should already feature dark black UI’s. It doesn’t though — proof by contradiction that they are independent products with independent user interfaces.

I hear the same revisionist perspective on iOS 8 extensions. ‘Extensions would have never worked without a redesign like iOS 7 due to the clash of design elements’. This is not true either. With iOS 7, Apple overlays extension UI with little adornment. However, in a iOS 6 design world, Apple would have just shoved massive drop-shadows between the pieces of UI to make them distinct units.1 It seems like the obvious progression today but I think people forget what tricks were used before.

It is thoroughly documented, almost more than anything of recent Apple journalism, how iOS design became dictated by Ive and Apple rushed to engineer the new direction under his leadership. I don’t see why people find it necessary to conjure up other reasoning for the change.

1 No, massive shadows wouldn’t look weird because that is what we were used to back then.