The launch of iOS 7 by Apple™ had definitely shaken the design industry. A company which has consistently stuck to its skeuomorphic principles decided to jump onto the bandwagon with other tech giants like Google and Microsoft to embrace flat design as an enhancement to its new user interface (UI). Though arguably iOS 7 is not as ‘flat’ of a design and critics have taken a jab at Apple™ for such ‘unpolished’ work, the idea though is that flat design seems to have more standing than just a trend.
Skeuomorphism and Realism
Before flat design, Apple™ had what designers would term as skeuomorphism, which is defined in the digital world as primarily the technique of using metaphors to induce familiarity. This was a design concept the company had been famously associated with and something the late CEO of Apple™, Steve Jobs loved. After all, it did made software easier to use as functions like buttons became instinctive so people could use Apple™ products with minimal instructions. For instance, compare the iPhone’s calculator with a skeuomorphic design and a flat design. The drop shadows and slightly beveled buttons on the left leave us with a more instinctive nature to press them rather than the flat design buttons on the right.
While there is good philosophy behind skeuomorphism, there are also a lot of issues that come with using it in digital design. Take for instance how elements in the skeuomorphic design might be purely ornamental but non-functional, also known as the “uncanny valley” of user interface design. A bigger problem would be that when borrowing elements from a design’s previous incarnation, you also bring their limitations along, even though these limitations need not need to exist in the digital world. Take a look at the calculator app in the iPhone again. Despite having that realism with such a skeuomorphic design, Apple™ has also brought along the limitation of the calculator – single lined screen and limited buttons, which equate to limited functions, when there clearly is potential in the digital world to provide more than what a real-life calculator can offer. The bottom line would be that such a strong association triggered by skeuomorphism stops us from thinking out of the box and improving on what has already been done. (Perhaps this could be the result of why the calculator’s functions have not improved over the years.)
Hence with such issues comes the response of flat design. Not to say that skeuomorphism was totally irrelevant from the start, but perhaps it is time to move on to something else. As what John Ives said, “An entire generation of users have now become familiar with the touchscreen interface, it’s time to remove the “training wheels” — we no longer need skeuomorphism’s solution to a problem we no longer have.”
The iOS 7
With those “training wheels” off, digital design has now matured into flat design, embracing the real limitations of digital experience and doing away with the limitations of skeuomorphism.
As with the case of most digital flat designs, iOS 7 has been designed with a healthy use of margins and paddings, sans-serif fonts and multiple bold colours. Drop-shadows, textures, beveled buttons and all other unnecessary styling has been removed. As a result, the new user interface has a lighter and more breathable layout, allowing it to look friendly and approachable to users but without having the need to warp and mimic something familiar.
Also, the new UI brings forth focus to the content rather than competes with it, as in the case of skeuomorphism. One good example would be the new Weather app, where the flat design gives more attention to the current weather information due to the clean and ‘free’ layout, as compared to skeuomorphic design, which appears to have information artificially confined.
In order to create depth, iOS 7 has realistic motion and parallax effects in place of drop shadows and beveled buttons. One example would be how the Notification Center when slid down, bounces back as if rebounding from a fall.
Indeed, when executed properly, flat design allows both function and beauty to be in harmony, bring user experience to greater heights. Even though critics have warned that minimalism when taken too far could have serious consequences to usability, but I believe that as flat design evolves, designers would be able to strike a better balance between minimalism and realism.
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