“Flat Design”? Destroying Apple’s Legacy… or Saving It

No argument here: Jony Ive has produced some of the best industrial design in the history of consumer products. He’s done it by cutting out all the extraneous parts. By eliminating edges, by smoothing and streamlining.

But what works beautifully for hardware does not work for software.

The “purity” of Jony’s designs inspired a lot of reflection in the software design community. A few critics got their panties in a twist over the software that ran on those pure devices. The faux leather, stitching, and colored backgrounds. Because it was “skeuomorphic.” Because software isn’t “real.”

This kicked off a witch hunt against anything that is remotely “real” in its style — stitching, yes, but also buttons, outlines, and shading.

There was never any evidence that a few decorative pixels hurt the user.

But based on the saber rattling of a few, Apple killed it all.


This view in the Clock app pretty much sums up every problem with Apple’s new direction in interface design:

  • The awkward, time-wasting, inaccurate 3 dimensional “dial.”
  • The capricious use of red text – and only red text – for “clickable.”
  • The inconsistent bolding.
  • Labels (which never change) styled with more visual impact than the actual data (which does).
  • The confusion of button vs data element.
  • All four different types of data elements styled the same, with the same visual weight.
  • The lack of information hierarchy and priority.

There are design choices that can harm the user

But a little faux leather isn’t the problem. The problem is deeper:

  • misusing metaphors (e.g. turning buttons into links)
  • eliminating the only affordances that software can have — visual affordances
  • using fake physical metaphors for interactions, such as using “wheels” for data entry
  • eliminating information hierarchy – homogenizing spacing and typography, for “visual tidiness”
  • giving all types of interface widgets the same visual appearance
  • reusing the same interaction design for click UIs (on 13″-27″ screens) and touch UIs (on 5″ screens)
  • tiny tap or click targets with invisible boundaries
  • software and icons that all look the same

And these mistakes are especially galling because they’re exactly the kind of thing that Apple themselves used to rail against.

Apple used to lead the industry in usability

Apple used to publish its famous Human Interface Guidelines for designers inside Apple and out. Every guideline was user-focused. It covered everything from how to lay out a screen, to how to write an error message, to the appearance and placement of buttons.

The HIG was a powerful force for software quality in the Mac world. It was a major reason why the Mac’s shareware business was so strong, the quality so high.

The HIG wasn’t about aesthetics, it was about interaction.

It was based on research, not trends.

That Apple is gone, now.

Design isn’t how it looks, it’s how it works.

And “it” doesn’t “work” in isolation. Design is how it works for a human being. Thankfully, there’s more than 40 years of experimental research into human-computer interaction that tells us what human beings need.

At heart, what users — humans — need is to not deal with bullshit:

  • A user should never have to ask themselves: “Is that clickable?”
  • A user should never have to pause and be concerned: “Wait, am I in the right app?”
  • A user should never wonder: “Did that tap… work?”
  • A user should never have to use a widget where proper use impedes accuracy (e.g. a date/time scroll wheel, where scrolling with your finger covers the time being selected).
  • A user should never have to click on every single element to figure out which is a radio button, which is an on/off, which is a multi-select, which is editable text.
  • A user should never have to wonder about the purpose of the menu bar.
  • A user should never, ever, EVER be mistaken about whether the Shift key is active.
  • A user shouldn’t have to work harder to read text because it is made out of “translucent material.”

These rules are small, and basic. Break one of these rules and it’s not a big deal. Each of these rules represents a small frustration for an individual user.

But Apple doesn’t break just one. And they don’t have just one user.

You can get a grip on the scope of the problem with a little man-hours math:

Minor wastes & frustrations x hundreds of millions of users
= design crisis of epic proportions.

In other words, Apple’s design choices harm the user. A lot. At a massive scale.

Worse, Apple sets the trend.

There’s nothing wrong with minimalism.

You can strip the hardware to bare simplicity, as long as the software can pick up the slack; you don’t need a physical back button if the software is clear and consistent. You don’t need a physical alarm clock with dials and switches, if its software replacement is simple, forthright, logical.

But it isn’t.

Minimalism in software is achieved by simplifying feature sets, not stripping away pixels.

In software, affordances are everything. And all affordances are made of pixels. It’s not minimalism to rip away the very things your users need.

It’s sadism.

The direction of iOS 7, 8 and 9 is simply wrong.

This is not an aesthetic argument. It’s wrong based on 40+ years of computer-human interaction research. It’s wrong based on 30+ years of Apple HIG.

There is no good reason to make the user guess at what is clickable. None! And it is even more wrong to apply these same designs to the desktop.

This is the result of a war between aesthetics and function…

  • increased user error
  • increased user uncertainty and anxiety
  • increased cognitive overload
  • wasted time, energy, effort, and confusion
  • loss of productivity, money, and… love

These are the effects of a philosophy of digital brutalism.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Jony is not single-handedly responsible for this.

But he’s the most powerful design leader inside Apple, and it’s his job to fix it.

Jony, you hold all the cards.

And where you go, so goes the entire software design industry.

Please don’t allow visual design trends to destroy Apple’s — and Steve’s — legacy of excellence in interaction design.

Please, bring back Apple’s legacy of usable design innovations, backed by its legacy of human-computer interaction research.

Please, fix this.

Recommended reading & watching


I made some interaction videos:

(Sound off if you don’t like impassioned cussing.)

From others who care…

I’d love to add more resources here. If you know of a great essay, video, or podcast about how Apple’s recent design direction is harming users, please let me know.

Neven Mrgan on Why Skeuomorphism Is Like a Classic Car from Story & Pixel on Vimeo.

Select Lists Are the Devil.

“You solve a problem with a select list. Now you have TWO problems.”

Bank Of America | Online Banking | Travel Flag Notification Details

Select lists are bad because:

  • they bury options
  • their keyboard controls are usually non-deterministic
  • they require precision mouse movement
  • they are slow & require extra steps (Click. Scroll. Mouse over. Release.)
  • they lead to satisficing

But select lists that force you to hum the alphabet to move forward? Those are the WORST.

I hate select lists with the pyretic flume of a thousand suns. I do my damnedest to design software that has no select lists ever.

Alternatives include:

  • custom form widgets that do autocomplete + list
  • custom clickable list (all broken out)
  • radio buttons

For this particular example… every other site on the internet has a select list that’s simply a list of countries. They see no need to break them down by arbitrary letter ranges. It’s not great — it is, after all, still a select list — but you know what?

This would be much better as an autocomplete text field.

But if you can’t avoid the horrible little goblins, at least put in the tiniest bit of effort to reduce the kind of cognitive load that sends you spiraling back to preschool singing circles:

Bank Of America | Online Banking | Travel Flag Notification Details 1

What’s the excuse for not including those extra letters? Saving a couple bits?

Great Software Requires Continuous Transgression

[W]hen you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is clear why professionalism is not enough. After all, what is required in our field, more than anything else, is continuous transgression.

Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure, and if you are professional, your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal.

Milton Glaser, 2001, at a talk given in London

When you sit down to design a piece of software, your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success.

That’s why software everywhere is plagued by the disease of sameness.

All to-do apps act the same. All calendar apps act the same. All email clients act the same — nearly identical to the first serious command-line apps from over 20 years before. Outlook and Elm don’t look that different.

Sidebars. Playlists. Table views. Folders. Threads.

Select lists which hide options instead of bulleted lists which lay them out, or live search/autocomplete fields which let the typing, keyboard-savvy user keep typing and savvying.

These are things we use without thinking, in many many places where they are inappropriate.

We need continuous transgression.

The Artist’s Machine (Goodbye, Steve)

Steve’s work has shaped the course of my entire professional life. I wrote this essay in March 1999. I was 14 years old.


There is a nearly global truth about Macs that says they are the preferred machine for the graphic arts. Today people will say “PCs are just as good,” but walk into most prepress and art departments across the country and you’ll see that it’s hardly true.

But there remains a single question: Why?

Consider a simple paintbrush.

Simplicity and good design are staple requirements for many things: paintings, drawings, and writing. The elements of each are not to draw attention to themselves as separate elements, but rather to lend to the impression of the whole, to act as one to convey an emotion or thought. The parts are not there to do anything but help you forget that they are there; you’re not supposed to be distracted from the overall impression because of a glaring misspelling, nor a single incongruous brushstroke. The most simple tools of all, perhaps, are those of the artist.

Why should it be any different for computers?

Apple’s answer is obvious: It shouldn’t.

This is the reason above all other reasons that causes people to love the Mac OS. Yes, Macs are very powerful. Yes, they are much easier to deal with. Yes, they are more human than Windows; they smile at you when they start up, they’re friendly. You’ll never have to fiddle with an autoexec.bat or BIOS. But there is one special reason that people love their Macs and it’s one they often can’t put their finger on. It’s something designers and people of other creative disciplines learn to appreciate: unity and composition. The look and feel.

This is what Windows tries to emulate, the look and feel. But they just don’t get it. Windows still feels like the empty cheeriness of hospital waiting rooms. Windows tries to be everything to everybody and ends up being nothing real to anyone; it’s the difference between a company that says the user experience is very important to them and a company for whom the user experience is everything.

Every promising new technology (and a lot that really aren’t) makes its way into Windows, but they lack direction.

Simplicity will never be found with Microsoft’s strategy. Simplicity requires a lot of judgement and leaving things out — yes, letting things get passed over and ignored. Microsoft could never bear to do that. Windows 2000 Consumer was supposed to be based on NT 5, a behemoth of an operating system. What did this spell out for the user? More bloat. More unused features. Far less usability. It would probably have eclipsed Windows98’s ten million lines of pre-existing code. Ten million!

Who needs ten million lines of code to do anything? The home user surely doesn’t need all that. The artist doesn’t need all that, not in an OS. The loyalty obviously isn’t about the hardware, it’s about the operating system. We lucky few are able to not only get our work done easily without the hinderances of having to play games with the OS to get it to do what we want, how we want it. We can enjoy what we do while we’re doing it. What PC users repeatedly fail to understand is that it’s not about whose computer is the biggest and baddest, it’s the user experience.

We love our Macs as much as we’d love a favorite car or book because we find pleasure in using them. We’re fans.

The Mac is a stereotype smasher. PCs in general have been epitomized as cold, lifeless, ramshackle wretches used only out of necessity, not desire — who loves a TV or a blender? Most people view their computers no differently than any other appliance. Mac users are perhaps the only ones that realize there’s so much more a computer should be and we know that even though the gameplan isn’t perfect yet, Apple is on a mission to change that preconception.

Is it any wonder that we love our Macs with a passion?

The iPad, and the Staggering Work of Obviousness


On Thursday, I set my iPad up for the first time with the fold-out case and Bluetooth keyboard. And I got walloped but good by Nostalgia. Nostalgia that was chunky and green.

The heartbreaking fate of the lovable Newton is exemplar of everything that is wrong at an Apple without Steve Jobs, and why a customer reaction of “Is that it?” can be a product designer’s best friend.

Take a little trip in my time machine

We can’t pretend to understand the present without first understanding the past. In this case, Apple’s past:

1998: A revolutionary, lovable Apple PDA with little squareish icons, on-screen keyboard, common icons across the bottom, single-tasking, and the best compact keyboard of the decade, complete with an ungainly but functional fold-out case. The Newton.

2010: A revolutionary, lovable Apple PDA with little squareish icons, on-screen keyboard, common icons across the bottom, single-tasking, and the best compact keyboard of the decade, complete with an ungainly but functional fold-out case. The iPad.

One an unmitigated, iconic flop, the other destined to be a success of Biblical proportions.

What a difference a decade makes.

What a difference a Steve makes.

The unbearable lightness of being steved

Steve brutalizes any attempted whizzbang without a real purpose. He’s so famous for it that he’s got his own verb.

Cutting-edge tech, fabulous, intuitive, friendly interface, lovable design — none of it matters, and nobody knows that more than Steve.

The Newton had all of those things and more. To own a Newton was to love it. It had the smile factor unlike anything else, since the original Macintosh.

The Newton was too ahead of its time. The final version, the MessagePad 2100, was released almost exactly a decade earlier than the first iPhone.

And so when Steve came back to Apple, he steved the Newton.

now, the technical problems were nothing

Critics slammed the Newton for being overpriced, for not having enough software, for the green screen, for the handwriting recognition’s imperfections, and for its chunky design — well, they didn’t get it then, and they sure as hell don’t get it now.

The problem with the Newton wasn’t any physical or technical problem. Those are easy to surmount. The problem that broke the Newton was that nobody was prepared for it.

There was no mental slot in people’s heads that the Newton could glide into.

Nothing like it had ever existed before. It was revolutionary. It was a total surprise.

the ipad has technical problems too, but it doesn’t matter

Today, of course, it’s an entirely different story: we’re all intimately familiar with the concept of the little computer in our pocket. We fell repeatedly for watered-down Palm handhelds which, in reality, we used rarely; we replaced them with iPhones, which we use too much.

Now the same critics who shit-canned the Newton for the wrong reasons are shit-canning the iPad for the wrong reasons.

The iPad, though, unlike the Newton, is going to win, and win on an epic scale.

Nevertheless, the shortsightedness of punditry is evergreen. Instead of praising the iPad, critics express their disappointment, because they expected more. They expected a genre buster. They expected something they’d never seen before, something beyond their imagination. Something revolutionary.

They’re disappointed that the iPad is so… well… unsurprising.

Therein, of course, lies the genius.

the ipad is barely a surprise at all

The design, delivery, and timing of the iPad couldn’t be more different than the Newton. The iPad wasn’t a surprise at all. It’s the capstone in a family of devices.

There’s a cozy, pre-existing slot in people’s brains that the iPad fills quite nicely.

“Oh,” they say. “It’s a big iPhone.”

It doesn’t matter if they utter that phrase in distaste. That little sand grain of dismissal becomes the core around which will form a pearl of understanding.

“Trying to deal with email on the iPhone is tough. The screen’s too small.”

“I wish we could both work on this at the same time.”

“I’d like to sketch concepts with touch, but I keep running off the borders.”

Ding ding ding.

Steve knows, better maybe than anyone else, that you don’t just slap a product out there and hope it will succeed. You have to prepare people for it, first.

And it’s better that people misunderstand a product, at first, than not understand it at all.

the “of course” model of innovation diffusion

People won’t buy a product if they can’t understand it immediately. They can’t understand it immediately if their worldview doesn’t already have a readymade place for it. And their worldview won’t have a readymade place for it, if they’ve never seen anything like it before.

Steve expertly wields the powerful tool that is the feeling of recognition.

That feeling tells us, hey, I’ve been here before, and good things happened, and people were nice to me. Recognition is a poor man’s wisdom. It helps people decide whether to buy. Without recognition, they won’t even entertain the question.

So, because one Steve is worth a zillion other CEOs, Apple paves the way to the future by giving us devices we can understand today, in order to create more revolutionary (but still recognizable) devices tomorrow.

Do you doubt that the iPod was laying the groundwork for the iPad all along?

the takeaway for you, the designer

The question becomes not Why is the iPad so obvious? but rather, What’s next that we’ll consider obvious by the time it comes?

And How can I be the one to do it or take advantage of it?

And, How can I use the feeling of recognition to introduce my next product?

Intrigued? My personality-based recommendation system suggests that you also try my previous essay, Don’t Listen to Le Corbusier — Or Jakob Nielsen.

If you’re a freelancer, consultant, or somebody else who values their time, you should also check out Freckle time tracking, a product I designed & run.

I wrote and edited this essay in its entirety on my iPad, using my Apple bluetooth keyboard, and the iPad Pages app, and posted using the WordPress app. I only inserted the images on my Mac. It was awesome… and reminded me of writing posts for my old Mac news site, circa 1998, on my Newton MessagePad. Sniff.

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Don’t listen to Le Corbusier—or Jakob Nielsen


Cheerful software, above all, honors the truth about humanity:

Humans are not rational beings.

A human is a walking sack of squishy meat and liquids, awash in chemicals.

We laugh. We cry. Sometimes we laugh while crying. We love, and hate, and dream about tomorrow while paying no attention to today. We do ridiculous things in pursuit of love or happiness or self-esteem. We sabotage ourselves. We see faces in inanimate objects, clouds, rock formations, and unevenly toasted bread. Then we sell them on eBay.

We pray to giant humans up in the sky. We think that a fly could be our grandmother. We work for free because we’re bored. We create art, dance, and sing even if we are starving. We give to others when we have little, or we give none when we have a lot, even if we gain no clear survival benefit either way.

Rationality’s not all it’s cracked up to be

We can aspire to cold, pure logic—but our lives fall apart if we get there.

People who have had damage to the emotional centers of the brain can’t even decide which pair of shoes to wear. If you—with your intact brain—think harder about a choice, the chances go up that you will make one you regret.

This is what psychology and neuroscience tell us: the beauty and the rot is all mixed up. You can’t have a human without both.

But that doesn’t apply to designers. Does it?

Despite all this, it’s so appealing to think that the work we do can be reduced from infinite uncertainty to finite, scientific certainty.

We think that eye-tracking studies, or any other research, can go beyond telling us what they found and tell us what to do.

There’s nothing wrong with the scientific study of usability. Until you pretend that it’s prescriptive, instead of descriptive. That something good for humans can be reduced to mathematical certainty.

That there is a science for designing.

Then you get engineerism.


Engineerism is nothing new

This happened before. When this notion occurred architecture, bad things happened:

Home life today is being paralysed by the deplorable notion that we must have furniture. This notion should be rooted out and replaced by that of equipment.

– Le Corbusier, in response to Mme. Savoye’s request to fit an armchair or two into her famous but unlivable Corbusier-designed home

Le Corbusier thought sofas and armchairs were a terrible thing — the softer and cuddlier, the worse.

“What [modern man] wants is a monk’s cell, well lit and heated, with a corner from which he can look at the stars,” he wrote.

He designed what he called “machines for living,” buildings that served all of the functions that a human putatively required.

They were a beautifully austere, ‘scientific’ vision.

They were hated, and abandoned.

People don’t want to live in scientific certainties

Sofas are what people want.

And “machines for living” don’t honor the messiness that a human life represents.

When they have a choice, a person’s home is more than a place that meets their scientifically ascertained needs. It’s a reflection of who they are, and how they want to be. They fill it with things that support their future aspirations, and remind them of the past. Whether they love lofty open rooms and lots of glass, or exposed wooden beams and tiny windows.

Architecture is not just a way to house bodies and fulfill function, but to feel.

Software is no different.

Engineerism is taking over interaction design

The voices of interaction design pretend to be scientists. They take eye tracking studies, and scrolling studies—and never mention how well-done the content in question might be, or whether it was exciting and relevant to the test subject.

“Users don’t scroll.”

“Put content on the left side.”

They argue that the ultimate test of a software design is whether it is usable. Just like Le Corbusier and his army of engineers, they focus on the pretend science of utility.

This is the same as a machine for living in or a well-lit monk’s cell.

We don’t make software our homes, but we spend 7 – 8 hours a day there.

Software cries out for personality, for ornamentation, for delight. To reflect higher aspirations, and evoke emotion.

For designers who don’t think it’s silly to imagine software as a helping hand, rather than a tool to be used.

In short, software cries out for love.

Thanks to Alain de Botton’s fabulous book The Architecture of Happiness, for helping me cement a way to explain the things I felt about design and providing the Le Corbusier quotes. You should read Architecture. Start with this excerpt, which dovetails perfectly with my essay.

Software has pathos and depth