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Summary:

As the iOS App Store nears the half-decade mark, one of the biggest changes we’re witnessing is how app developers are beginning to go their own way in terms of design. Some of the most forward-thinking designers are bucking Apple’s traditional look for cleaner, simpler interfaces.

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Talk to a respected iOS app designer these days about their favorite iOS apps and something becomes clear: they don’t look like traditional Apple apps. Some of the best-received and most beautiful apps on Apple’s own platform lately are abandoning iOS’s textures, shadowing and 3D effects in favor of flatter, cleaner, often less cluttered designs. But rather than an aberration, this new look is likely the future of iOS design. And oddly enough, Apple’s probably going to be one of the last to catch up to the trend.

The iOS game Letterpress and to-do list app Clear, for example, look like they’ve parachuted onto iOS from another planet. The team behind Clear very intentionally steered away from a traditional iOS user interface — instead choosing a theme that is very flat and geometric with vivid colors. Besides Apple, its creators also drew on inspiration from other apps and sources, including rival Microsoft’s Metro style, Phill Ryu, one of the three co-creators behind Clear, told me in a recent interview.

Letterpress

Letterpress

While Ryu has great respect for Apple’s skeuomorphic design style that leans heavily on real-world metaphors, extra bells and whistles weren’t appropriate for his category of app.

“We felt as an app to help you get stuff done, the interface should 100 percent focus on those things and nothing else, so it was an exercise in keeping the number of puzzle pieces minimal,” he said.

A much larger team at Google, meanwhile, has been wowing Apple users with its revamped Mail, Maps, Search and YouTube apps. The look is coherent across its iOS apps, while at the same time abandoning Apple’s menu styles and UI touches like page curls. This came about after the company started devoting teams to developing apps for iOS that retained their “Googliness.”

A new era for iOS

Clear

Clear

We’re witnessing a turning point for design in the iOS era. From the time Apple opened the iOS App Store in mid-2008, it has been the main influence on third-party app makers. Through the iOS SDK as well as benchmarking best practices for developers at its WWDC conference, Apple’s design teams set the tone and made it arbiter of taste for design and user interfaces on iOS.

As we’ve seen, there’s now a limit to that influence. Some designers are just flat-out sick of the same old Apple look. Depending on how you look at it, this change could be considered an embarrassing turn for Apple: One of Steve Jobs’ most important and enduring legacies is his eye for design. The intuitive desktop metaphor of the original Macintosh, the ultraslim packaging of the MacBook Air, and the basics of iPhone software have inspired untold numbers of copycats and homages.

That designers are beginning to go their own way on Apple’s mobile platform is a sea change in the iOS era — but it may also be inevitable. Some of the app makers now working on iOS have been at it for nearly half a decade. The diversity we’re seeing in user interfaces and design language can be attributed to the platform’s maturity, users’ experience, as well as the need for brands to stand out among the more than 700,000 other apps Apple offers.

Trying not to fit in

Because of the size of the iOS store, companies naturally look for ways for to stand out from the crowd. For companies like Google, that means distinctive branding.

“[Apps] extending their brands are looking different because it’s now possible to build really complex apps on mobile,” said Daniel Raffel, who created the Snapguide app. “People need to distinguish themselves and their brands.” The downside is “it just takes a lot of work.” And not every app-making team or company has the time, resources or know-how to spend time on customized widgets or rewriting whole parts of apps.

That explains why there are just a few really skilled or resource-rich teams that are doing meaningfully different iOS design successfully.

Experienced designers can take creative license

Loren Brichter, the creator of Tweetie and Letterpress, tries to apply a different standard to his app than roughly 99 percent of others. He’s not drawn to design fads; he just gave his word game a very simple look because he believes that kind of design is what works most smoothly with the iPhone’s graphics engine, as compared to more popular, complex designs. “Flat, simple shapes lend themselves naturally to [the] current hardware,” he told me.

But Brichter is vastly experienced and regarded as one of the best developers working on Apple’s platform today. Ryu, who helped build Clear, compared Apple’s basic design principles to style guidelines for writers: “It’s like MLA writing style guides and stuff, it’s a great guide for beginning writers when you are most worried about making mistakes. But then you grow as a writer and start developing your own style, and bending the rules to suit various stories, and the MLA rules start holding you back from potential greatness.”

The case for skeuomorphism

You can argue what’s drawn hundreds of millions of mobile users to iOS devices over the years is Apple’s reliance on skeuomorphic design in its software. It’s what let everyone from “2-year-olds to 90-year-old technophobes” feel instantly comfortable interacting with an iPhone or iPad, Ryu pointed out.

Apple's Find My Friends exemplifies its taste for skeuomorphic details like stitched leather

Apple’s Find My Friends exemplifies its taste for skeuomorphic details like stitched leather

There are some in the design community who advocate thinking beyond this style, not because it’s “tacky” or old, but because of who the average user is now. Floppy disks, for example, don’t mean “save” to young people who have never used a floppy disk in their life. “Because we have so many people who are digital natives that don’t know the thing being referenced, it’s probably not an appropriate design fad going forward,” said Raffel.

But tablets are obviously not exclusively the province of educated Millennials. Plenty of people still need Apple’s basic design cues, which can act as “training wheels,” Ryu said. Sure, some people may not need them anymore. “But the way the smartphone market is still growing, I would posit it still makes sense to include training wheels by default.”

The future of iOS design

Jobs was the driving force behind the preference for those skeuomorphic details in iOS. He loved the stitched leather and spiral notebooks and torn pages. But as has been previously reported, a war over the future of that philosophy has erupted as those in industrial design head Jony Ive’s circle wanted to move on from that look.

Now that Ive is in charge of all of Apple’s interfaces, it’s a good bet he will get his way and a new era of iOS design will emerge in Cupertino. But it’s probably not going to be radical and it’s probably going to happen slowly. If the company sticks to its yearly release schedule that means that the next chance for Apple to exact any big or even medium-sized iOS design changes won’t come for more than six months.

It’s a testament to the flexibility of Apple’s platform and the dedication of its third-party developers to work hard to create the most innovative and forward-thinking apps for its platform. But it’s certainly a strange turning of the tables — not only that Microsoft and other designers are inspiring Apple developers, but that Apple itself is no longer the main influencer of what is considered cutting edge design on its own platform.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user jikatu

  1. Having a unique user experience is sure to set your App apart from the hundreds of options available today, and it’s smart to be on the cutting edge of design and user interactions. However, it’s not so much about iOS development, but HTML5 Apps, so you can write once, apply everywhere (iOS, Android, BB), immediately, without the hassle of App Store authorization. I cover new free HTTML5 apps with my website http://thisweeksapp.com

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  2. I’m in the middle when it comes to skeuomorphism. There are some times when it’s fine, and some when it’s not.
    I especially hate the skeuomorphic leather in the iOS Find My Friends app and the OS X Calendar application. There are some times when it’s not just pointless, but also ugly.
    However, some people also argue against things such as the ‘digital bookshelf’ in the iBooks app (among others). Personally, I see nothing wrong with a wooden bookshelf with book covers lined up on it. It looks nice, it’s appropriate, and it makes sense.
    For others, such as the Notes application, I also think it’s fine. For me, the skeuomorphic notepaper in Notes gives it a very different feel from, say, TextEdit (functionality aside). It’s not as “necessary” as a wooden bookshelf, but I still like it.

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  3. Nicholas Paredes Friday, January 4, 2013

    Should they be? My early experiences with the Apple dev process was far from positive, and in my opinion exercise too much control over the products admitted to the iTMS. We couldn’t add music experiences.

    The Mac HIG were intended to control consistency. My conversations with the iOS team regarding design was simply limiting. They really didn’t want a major pharmacy to have a launch pad. Great, but we felt that worked at the time.

    Apple needs to establish their role. They cannot continue to be modelled on Steve’s ever watchful eye. I am quite sure that Ive will be different, and nobody will miss the stitched leather.

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    1. Sounds like you need Android where nothing is consistent, and no one as a consequence gets paid, where everything is free, Jon Ive being in charge isn’t going to result in free, or great changes in the UI’s used in OS X or iOS, Apple has always gone for ease of use in UI design in comparison to Google and Microsoft, and that is reflected in their success.

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  4. I have to say I am a big fan of Prismatics UI. The way it displays content is clean, easy to read, guesstures work in a natural way and my favorite UI function is so simple. It’s the way they control “flipping” through news stories. I love that the UI stops at the next news story when you flick down and a longer flick down scrolls with inertia like your typical iOS app. That extra little touch really adds a lot to the app and makes it easier to read through stories and skim over ones you don’t want to read.

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  5. I don’t understand why the Clear app has been demoed again and again to be claimed a good user interface and user experience. The app doesn’t too much things. An user’s review on Apple Store pretty much states what I think about the Clear App: A pencil and paper will server better. In all, I am an iOS developer, not only iOS SDK provides the libraries for the UI customization, but also the necessary functionalities to get job done quickly and nicely.

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    1. I tried Clear and deleted it the same day. Then more recently stumbled on this article :http://blog.maxrudberg.com/post/38958984259/if-you-see-a-ui-walkthrough-they-blew-it
      The best point here is that an app such as Clear that needs to present a ‘walk-through’ of its non standard interface is a failure.

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    2. I tried Clear and deleted it the same day. Then more recently stumbled on this article :http://blog.maxrudberg.com/post/38958984259/if-you-see-a-ui-walkthrough-they-blew-it
      The best point here is that an app such as Clear that needs to present a ‘walk-through’ of its non standard interface is a failure.

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  6. I think it’s helpful to think of the word “spectrum.” Anywhere you travel in the real world, the design of the streets and the design of most homes and buildings, even the colors we paint them are largely traditional and standardized. But go inside a house and anything goes. And Ikea is so different from Costco.

    Apple wants the first layer of design to be boring and dead simple so that anyone from a toddler to great grandma can pick it up and figure it out, and then when using your first apps things are also pretty much the same, but there is still great freedom in how anyone else can design the inside of their app (house). It goes along a usability spectrum and pathway.

    When things started out and we were blazing trails, it was important to exercise control, because it’s super hard to put the genie back in the bottle. (See Android)

    But now 5 years later we can see how the metropolis turned out. One is more like Disney World, and the other is more like . Now that we live in beautiful Disney World, we can relax more. It’s all going to be okay.

    It’s that simple. Dead simple.

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  7. ClipClock downloads all your friends’ videos fromsocial media sites like Facebook, so you don’t miss videos that friends share! Check it out: http://www.clipclock.com/download/4042

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  8. Jelly bean simplicity taking over.

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  9. The skeuomorphism was just horrible. With Ive now in charge the hope (and likelihood) is that he will assemble a design team and come at it from a totally new approach that will break new ground.

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  10. Looking forward to IOS 7, too…

    Another example of an App that does it’s own layout is Cloud Commander, which lets you drag and drop files between local and cloud drives

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