“Extreme minimalism” - iPhone Design Philosophy in a word

iPhone represents minimalistic design that intensively simplified cognition

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iPhone has been hitting the world for years, changing the way humans live and behave. It is Apple’s flagship product that has been driving countless changes — widespread of smartphones, the ecosystem of mobile apps, design innovations of electrical appliances, and communication methods of mankind.

With this product, Apple became a company with the most successful sales in the world, the most valuable brand in history, and the most well-known icon of success, Steve Jobs. Why do people love iPhone so much? Which “hot” button did iPhone turn people on, so much that people are waiting for the next version with such loyalty?
 
While my last post “Liquid to Light - 10 minute summary on iPhone Design Philosophy” emphasized more on the Graphic User Interface (GUI) of iPhone, this time I would like to focus more on the device itself, how it is a result of a thorough design process and why humans love it so much. The more I analyze this product, the more perfection I discover about the iPhone design philosophy. I describe it with “Minimalism”.

In what perspective is iPhone designed so meticulously and perfectly?

**By the way, I personally use Samsung Galaxy S6 now, so this will not be one of those Apple-is-the-best posts, rather more objective

<The loyalty of iPhone users is amazing>

First, I want to discuss a bit about minimalism, which will be the main concept of this writing.

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Minimalism — simplifying the brain’s perception

We often call an object “minimal” when it is composed of basic shapes and bodies with a high unity and completion without any unnecessary attribute. This is not wrong, but if “minimal” is defined this way, most shape and color will be excluded, producing only simple shapes like circle, sphere, and square, and plain colors. As a result, a paradoxical situation removing the main design will occur.

What would be the key to preventing such situation and understand minimalism beyond this definition?

The answer is in the perception of humans.
<Donald Judd’s Minimalist Work. Simplifying perception is more important than simplifying form>

When a person sees something, he or she does not remember everything as it is, but rather simplify it in a form that is easier to save in memory. This phenomenon also appears in the Gestalt Law. Since a person has limited recognition and memory, his or her brain tends to simplify forms and structure as much as possible. By this way, the brain does not need to spend too much recognition process (= energy consumption) to process and save information. Optimizing energy consumption is a basic characteristic of the natural world, starting from molecular and atomic levels.

<Picasso drew this cow. It is unbelievable how you can recognize it as a cow even in the farthest right picture. This work perfectly captures the way of how human recognizes and remembers things>

Therefore, many areas, not only in product design, but also in company logos that need intuitive recognition, and app/OS design, apply minimalism that simplifies the recognition process. The fact that the modern society has too much information provided to us also have to do with such trend. Since information that needs to be processed increased exponentially, people nowadays have less energy and perception to spend on each one, so minimalist design, which makes it easier and more intuitive to obtain information, became popular. Minimalism naturally became a condition that the society demands. For this reason, an outcome that is designed to deliver complicated information and attributes in a more intuitive and concise format is being welcomed in all areas.

To implement minimalism, many design methods are used. Explaining every detail of Gestalt Law will be too long and complicated, so I briefly divided it into three directions to help your understanding.

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  1. Use of Basic Shape
<Circle and Oval. An oval requires more recognition than a circle. Some may or may not like it>

This method is using basic shapes that are frequently and intuitively recognized, like a straight line, circle, square, and regular triangle. For example, whereas a circle is recognized instantly, an oval requires the recognition of the proportion of width and height, the direction of the longer one, and location of the shape. Because of these attributes, different people can have likes and dislikes about a certain oval. If basic shapes are used, the design can prevent any preference coming from these steps of recognitions, thereby able to target a larger audience. Another example is that free shape curve can produce preferences according to sharpness and steepness, but using the curvature of a circle will most likely not.

<The structure of Adidas original logo. It looks like free shape curve, but it uses the curvature of a circle in the same angle>
<A work with more curves, angles, and shapes. Compared to the one above, you might need to recognize a lot of things>

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2. Use of Symmetry

<Symmetric and Asymmetric Trees. The right tree looks like something is wrong>

This method uses symmetry to show balance and stability.

Since we live on Earth with gravity, we unconsciously tend to prefer something that is balanced over something that looks like it will fall over soon.

In reality, most creatures that are affected by gravity are born with a symmetric form. However, not all people like symmetry. Asymmetry is preferred with its own sense when change is needed at a certain time. Nevertheless, a product that targets the general public, such as smartphones, will most likely have a symmetric, balanced design, since it does not require any change when it is used. Moreover, symmetry enhances simplicity by both sides having the same form.

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3. Grouping / Structuring

<This work composed of 32 shapes, but can be recognized in groups and structures of 4 lines of rectangles and 4 lines of circles>
When there are many same attributes, we perceive it as one group.

By this way, the brain decreases the energy consumption by reducing the number of things to perceive from 10 to 1. As a result, the whole picture is understood faster and then we can move onto the details of each group. In an iPhone screen, all icons are all soft-edged squares. Therefore, we perceive that icons are in the same hierarchy but has different contents and then look at the detail of each icon. If one icon is different from others, the intuitive recognition of the whole picture can be more likely to fail.

<Basic screen of iOS 9>

Isn’t all smartphones like that? Android has an icon design guide, but it still incorporates different shapes of icons, so in terms of grouping and structuring, its design was relatively unstable, until the recent release of Material Design guide, which enforced its design rule on icon shapes.

<Android Icon Design Guide with four different shapes>
People nowadays unconsciously demand simpler recognition and perception, due to the flood of information.

This is also in parallel with nature’s tendency to minimize energy consumption. Thus, minimalism, which makes obtaining information more intuitive and simplifies the thinking process, is being welcomed. To accomplish minimalism, methods like “Use of Basic Shape”, “Use of Symmetry”, “Grouping/Structuring” can be used.

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iPhone Design in a minimalist perspective

Apple understands and realizes minimalism in an unbelievably perfect and thorough way. Ever since the iPod, which had a design principle of “every function should be reachable in three touches”, Apple tried to design things in a minimalist way on every aspect of its product — intuitive touchpad, one-button touch mouse (although there were preferences), and somewhat too extremely simple designs. For this reason, Apple is getting huge popularity from people nowadays, no matter what kind of product. So let’s look at Apple’s most recent product — iPhone 6.

If you glance it for the first time, you would feel like: “Quite pretty”, “Very stable”, “There is nothing to criticize”. Of course, there are different preferences among people, but this world’s best selling smartphone is stirring the area that most humans feel in common.

Why is that? Let’s look at it in a minimalist perspective.

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1. Use of Basic Shape

To help your understanding, I have drawn some guidelines. No other attribute is used other than straight lines and circles, which are basic shapes.

Let’s look one by one,

1) Product body is composed of straight lines, without any curve
2) Each corner is not a free curve, but quarter-circle.
3) The home button is a circle.
4) Volume button, power button, mute button, and all other small buttons are combinations of straight lines and half-circles.
5) Rear camera, flash, and sensors use circles.
6) Not only the bottom speaker and earphone jack, but also power cord use straight line and half-circles.

Personally, the most surprising aspect was that the vertical side of the product is also a half-circle. The body of iPhone 6 is metallic, the screen is a strong glass with curved edges, and in between the two a buffer material is used for a connection. These three layers are compiled in a way that the curve rates of the body, screen, and buffer all match those of a circle, thereby making one semicircular arc. Seeing this kind of composition, we perceive the iPhone as a whole mass without separating into front and rear.

<Metallic body, buffer, and screen — total three layers, but as a whole it composes one semicircular arc>

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It is hard to find a part that does not use a straight line or circle. This kind of philosophy comes from the previous versions. Although present only on iPhone 4 or 5, the diagonal diamond-cut metallic border had a 45-degree cross section. The power button used from then has a 45-degree cut. Volume button was a circle, and the strong glass used for upper voice speaker had a 45-degree cross section. If you look closer, you find that even in very small portions are composed of basic shapes like straight lines, circle, right angle, and 45-degree angle. I am not completely sure since I am not an Apple employee, but I feel like there is a very strict design guideline about these rules.

<Remember these? Above is iPhone 4, and below is iPhone 5>

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2 Use of Symmetry

iPhone design shows great usages of not only of basic shapes but also symmetry. When symmetry is used appropriately, as mentioned above, both left and right sides will be perceived as one and naturally give a balanced and comfortable feel. Let’s look at where symmetry is used.

1) Product body has both horizontal and vertical symmetry.
2) Circular home button has same upper and lower margins.
3) The front upper speaker is placed in the center and has regular margins with other sensors.
4) The Apple logo and product name on the rear side are each placed on the center of mass of upper and lower half of the body.
5) Bottom power cord’s shape is in symmetry in both horizontal and vertical direction.
6) Earphone jack and speaker are placed in symmetry based on the power cord.

Other than these six parts I mentioned, there is almost no asymmetric part. As a result, the product looks very balanced from any point of view and is easy to recognize the shape and function. The lower part can be tricky to keep symmetry due to the different size of the speaker and the earphone jack, but the effort to solve this problem is done by balancing out the weight of each component. Just by looking at iPhone 4, which was totally symmetric, we can find that this philosophy has been continuing for a long time since iPhone 4 and 5.

<Above is iPhone 4, and below is iPhone 5. Efforts to keep symmetry is noticable>

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3. Grouping / Structuring

Grouping and structuring can be explained in one word — alignment. It is about how arranging multiple components in alignment will prevent each one from being perceived separately and be perceived as one structured group. Grouping and structuring this way will minimize the perception process and, therefore, minimize the energy consumption of a brain.

<Same twenty dots, but with different perception process>

If you are memorizing 20 digits, numbers like ‘28563729395749121038’ are hard, but ‘13131–24242–79797–03030’ is much easier. If dots are just randomly scattered, they are hard to recognize, but if they are aligned in 4x5 matrix, they are easily recognized.

Let’s look at alignment and grouping in the design of iPhone. Let’s look at the iPhone image again.

1) Rear camera, flash, and sensors are aligned in center horizontally.
2) The front upper speaker and camera & sensor are aligned in the center both vertically and horizontally.
3) Upper volume button and power button height aligned.
4) Two corner half circles of the volume buttons are the same margins.
5) All components on the bottom are vertically aligned.

By having as many alignments as possible, iPhone design makes many components as one group and minimizes recognition process. This process is especially important in a minimalist perspective because people tend to understand multiple components in terms of relationship and connection. If the number of components increases, the combinations increase exponentially.

Let me give you an example:

<The number of components increases linearly, but the number of combinations increases exponentially>

With only 5 components, if you think about pairs, pairs of pairs, and triples, the number of combinations is dozens. If these components each has a different location, size, and color, the recognition possibilities will easily increase up to hundreds. Nevertheless, our brain unconsciously tries to find relationships and meanings, so if this fatigue is accumulated it may think, “I do not like this design. Just not my style.” Considering this fact, a good design should be minimal, delivering the objective and not tiring the user. For this reason, grouping and structuring are very important. In that aspect,

iPhone is so meticulous in keeping these principles so rationally that users will feel the design as “comfortable.”

They will not need to use so much brain power but still the minimalist design keeps up naturally with the flow of recognition and makes it attractive.

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Competitor’s smartphone design

We looked at the iPhone’s hardware in a minimalist perspective, which is demanded by the modern trend. Then how are other smartphones that directly compete with iPhone designed? Of course, it is hard to say which is better or worse. Designs are about preference. But it is possible to interpret each design whether components and functions can be easily recognized in a minimalist perspective. One may like extreme modernist, one may like chaotic punk, but considering the fact that smartphones are targeting a market for the general public, looking at the design strategy in a minimalist perspective can be one answer. Based on the story above, the advantages and disadvantages of designs of other smartphones are notable.

Let’s look at each design in a perspective of ‘Basic shape’, ‘Symmetry’, ‘Grouping/Structuring(Alignment)’ — in detail, usage of basic shapes and free curve, horizontal and vertical symmetry, complete structuring composition of different components. Moreover, how it looks as a whole image. Let’s look at the most recent products, Samsung Galaxy S7, LG G5, Huawei P9, Xiaomi MI5, and previous version of LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge.

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Galaxy S7

LG G5

Huawei P9

Xiaomi mi5

LG G4 &Samsung S6 Edge

What do you think in terms of minimalist design strategy?

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Appropriateness of Design — Minimalism in a logical and emotional perspective

So far, we looked at iPhone and other smartphones in terms of minimalism. Explained with the usage of basic shapes, symmetry, and structuring, minimalism is a keyword that cannot be omitted when discussing modern society. Even various products of Xiaomi, which are recently popular (jokingly by Koreans as a mistake of the Mainland China), follow the same principle and are acknowledge by many people.

<Xiaomi Supplementary Battery gained huge popularity. Extreme minimal design with only straight lines and circle>

Finally, this minimalist design can be explained in terms of appropriateness of design. It means, “this should be designed this way,” in a logical judgment. For example, if this curve and thickness are used, it should be explained why. When a designer just drew a curve and say “let’s go with this”, such practice has the risk of users’ preferences since the curve is also drawn with the designer’s personal and emotional preference. It is okay if the designer targets certain customer base or wants to experiment, but when the product is a smartphone which must target the general public, such approach can end up narrowing down the customer base.

For this reason, designing this kind of product requires a conscientious design strategy that keeps one’s emotion but at the same time rationally keeps the appropriateness of design through modern human design methodology of minimalism with basic shapes, grouping, structuring, and symmetry.
<A design strategy using both sides of the brain is needed>

In a nutshell, emotion/reason, feel/calculation, and right/left brain should all be used to complete a design that can be targeted to everyone. Once any unnecessary ornaments, color, pattern, and unique style is included, the design may lose the whole structure and unity and harm the minimalist sense by causing extra recognition process. Even when adding one LED light, think whether this harms the user’s recognition, then the design will have a better philosophical direction. Think about the design principle, “Less is more.” How are you perceiving and designing things?

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Conclusion

We looked at the iPhone in a minimalist perspective that optimizes recognition. There must be other design factors that I do not know of, and some of my interpretation may even be a bit far-fetched. However, minimalism became a concept that cannot be disregarded when discussing the modern public product design (Xiaomi is even putting out minimalist designed rice cooking pot). As a conclusion, let’s look how Samsung Galaxy S and LG G series changed so far in history — how each model is being perceived, how the curves and borders are used, how the alignments of components are, how the colors and patterns are, and how it can be improved in a minimalist perspective.

If you are interested in the design philosophy of iPhone screen (not the device itself), take a look at my last post “Liquid to Light - 10 minute summary on iPhone Design Philosophy”.

As a series, I would like to continue talking about how iPhone’s hardware, screen, software, and service design all align in one huge philosophy.

Thanks for reading such a long post.

<Upper Design changes of Samsung Galaxy S Series>

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<Design changes of LG G Series (The rear design of LG G series is important)>