Today at WWDC, Apple released the much hyped iOS7 ‘flat design’ theme, and as a designer, I was very much looking forward to seeing what Jony Ive and his team would show the world.
I was surprised when the screenshots started showing up. Inconsistent look and feel. Harsh colors. No harmony. No core theme. Was this really the product of Apple’s world-famous design team?
Then it hit me. Apple is suffering from the same problem that Google once suffered from.
Design By Committee.
All of the signs are there. Unnecessary complexity, inconsistency, logical flaws, banality, and above all, no unifying vision. I believe Jony Ive did not lead the design team by example and vision. Instead, I believe Ive laid out key concepts and showed his design team a mood board of flat design examples, but told them to innovate. Then he let them loose as a committee.
Google: Test 41 shades of blue.
Google is a famous example of ‘design by committee’. Doug Bowman left his Design Lead position at Google to join Twitter eventually, because he found it hard to push his ideas at Google, because Google relies on data in design. They tested 41 different shades of blue by multivariate testing. The end result? A completely unemotional design.
When Doug Bowman was at Google, he found that his environment wasn’t as open and free as he would have liked. His design decisions were vetted by high-level executives at Google, all of which are engineers. Engineers that are incapable of making intuitive emotional decisions. Engineers that fall back to data and reduce every problem to simple logic. Data-driven design, a symptom of design by committee. Data-driven design works wonderfully for UI and UX, and conversions. Not so much for aesthetic.
However, Google has gotten a bit better about it lately, especially with the new online Maps redesign and some of their recent iOS offerings, like Google Now and Google Maps.
Note: @nathansmith points out that Doug Bowman did indeed leave Google after 41-shades-of-blue-gate. I’ve corrected my statement to reflect this.
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming: iOS7
It’s obvious to me that iOS7 is the result of design by committee. I’ll point out some specific examples. First up is the icon design itself:
Safari’s icon - what were they thinking? The gradient goes from light to dark. Contrast that to Mail’s icon, which goes from dark to light, and also sits on a filled background. Why? These are arguably two of the most used icons you’ll see on an iPhone and both would probably sit on the ‘Bottom Row’ along with Messages and perhaps Phone. Next to each other. The two gradients use the same base colors, but are inverted and don’t complement each other. Why?
Let’s rewind a bit and think about flat design principles that Ive so wanted to follow (apparently). The whole point of flat design is to simplify, reduce complication. Don’t add complexity by adding effects, e.g. drop shadows, bevels, glows, and above all, gradients. Use harmonious color palettes carefully so that colors have a hierarchy. Bold colors for high use elements, muted colors for background objects.
None of this applies to the homescreen on iOS7.
You can’t really call that harmonious. This just makes me think that each individual app team submitted their own design for an icon based on some loose guidelines and they all got thrown together into a bucket. That’s what it feels like to me. Nobody could agree on a consistent direction for what is possibly the most exposed and most widely seen screen in all of Apple.
So, if the homescreen is ugly, why do the individual apps look beautiful? Mail is a great example of what to do right.
Clean, simple, minimal explanation required. Beautiful interactions. All or most of the new apps follow the same design paradigms as Mail.
So why is the homescreen and the ‘control center’ so different?
I just hate looking at this screen. The frosted glass effect combined with ambiguous icons. Is the WiFi on or off? Unreadable white text on a light, muddy background. Two sliders in the same space, but both with completely different purposes.
My guess is that Ive’s team attempted to take the app style principles and apply it to the overall iOS7 experience, but at the same time, tried to segregate it from each individual app, so the user realizes when they are in a ‘top level’ view versus being in-app. This resulted in this. Frosted glass effects. Mish mash colors. Poor contrast. They tried to NOT follow flat design principles for the sake of being unique.
I’m probably not giving Apple enough credit here, I’m sure they poured millions of dollars and thousands of man hours into testing, revising, testing, reviewing data, testing some more until they had perfection.
However, that’s where I believe they failed. I believe Ive did exactly what Google did. Relied on data instead of instincts, because he didn’t trust his own design instincts. His hallmark is product design. You can’t apply product design principles to human interface design, they’re two different paradigms entirely.
Jony Ive tried to rely on design by committee to make the decisions for him. iOS7 is the end result. Will it stick? We’ll see.