Talk to a respected iOS(s AAPL) 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.
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,(s GOOG) 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
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.
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.