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

by amy

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.