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Out with skeumorphs, in with Jony Ive: Apple's iOS 7 mobile operating system is about to go 'flat'


Although the latest version of Apple’s operating system for iPhones and iPads (iOS 7) has yet to be released, the rumours surrounding the update - and what it’ll look like - are all strangely uniform. In fact, they’re so uniform there’s only one word that’s being whispered: ‘flat’.

“Black, white, and flat all over,” said one insider describing the new OS. But what does this even mean?

‘Flat’, it turns out, is shorthand for a design style; for the new look of iOS 7. But it’s also a design choice with a history, one that has everything to do with the placement of Jony Ive in the ‘Human Interface’ department of Apple. Ive is the industrial designer par excellence responsible for the look of Apple’s most iconic hardware, but this will be the first time his influence in software design will be truly felt.

And for all his ability to create beautiful physical objects, when it comes to iOS 7 it’s rumoured that Ive has been removing all traces of the physical instead.

Skeuomorphs – timeless style or a style out of time?

These physical traces are often referred to using the delightfully alien-sounding word ‘skeuomorph’. Simply put, a skeumorph is an element of a product’s design that has become redundant but is still replicated in newer versions of the product. More simply put: when did you last save a file on to a floppy disk? So why is the save button on Microsoft Word still represented by a floppy disk?

Skeuomorphism (as it’s known) has been widely used in Apple’s design ethos too, and was known to be a favourite styling of the late Steve Jobs. From the mocked up bookshelf of iBooks to the handwriting-style font used in the Notes app, Apple’s software is full of these mementos of the physical world.

Some designers think that these touches reassure the user, guiding them through familiar visual cues, but others say that they’ve become redundant; they’re empty signifiers that no longer connect with the original object (eg the extinct floppy disk) and only serve to distract users.

With Apple there’s also whole range of textural gimmicks; from the glossy transparency of the unlock screen to the casino-inspired green beige of the Game Center. Ive is tipped to get rid of all these effects and simplify the design – thus the rumours of “black, white and flat all over”.

Dealing out a new hand

Interestingly, though, Apple’s promised revamp is hardly trailblazing - ‘flat’ has been in vogue with the other tech giants for much longer.

Google have been redesigning their services based around a new ‘cards’ system since 2012 (this started with Knowledge Graph, but Maps and Google+ were also revamped earlier this month) while Windows was ahead of the curve for once with the release of Windows 8 last year and its signature tiled design. 

Google’s ‘cards’ have been crucial in the design of Google Now – the personal assistant service (like Apple’s Siri, but less widely integrated) that learns from users’ data to offer to the answers to questions yet to be asked. Information pops up in little rectangles which are as minimalist – and as flat - as can be.

Writing for Fast Company Mark Wilson has pointed out that the new cards have “permeated most of Google’s biggest products”, becoming “the company’s new voice for data, imbued with a seemingly effortless tangibility that seems to scale to any interface on any hardware.”

Wilson’s evaluation may sound slightly hyperbolic, but if we consider Google’s previous prioritization of engineering over design, then this precise and considered attention to interfaces is something exceptional.

Microsoft on point

When Microsoft went ‘flat’ the change was even more of an upheaval. Despite recent suggestions that the company might be rolling back on some of its more ambitious alterations, the leap from Windows 7 to Windows 8 remains a significant change.

Windows 8 ripped out the familiar desktop-orientated OS in favour of the multi-coloured mosaic of the usual desktop view (the Metro Start screen). Flat was the new style, with an immersive full screen experience that relied on panels for programs (now called apps) with clean typography and minimalist icons.

Reactions from the tech community were not approving however, and some believed that the ambition that fuelled the changes to Windows may have turned to hubris.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Windows 8 received such a negative reaction. In many ways, the desktop is the original skeumorphic design – the overriding metaphor for decades of computer use – and when Microsoft removed it, users faltered. Designers claimed that they were pursuing some purer design ideal, but why bother if the system was just harder to use?

A flat new world?

This seems to be main argument behind the current trend for all things flat. Designers claim it’s a more refined computing experience, but users (the people who matter - maybe) are more likely to baulk at the changes.

Despite this it seems that the flat world is where design is at, for now at least. The coming updates to iOS 7 are likely to be welcomed; Google and its card system have been met by general approval, and it’s only poor Microsoft that is receiving flack for the redesign - and even Microsoft is continuing undaunted, with the Xbox One replicating Windows 8’s tile layout

It seems likely that this trend will eventually become the norm. If future generations never use a desktop style operating system, then why would they miss it? And with the increasing ubiquity of mobiles and tablets, the desktop might simply be relegated to specialised use – associated with the workplace, but not with ‘normal’ technology. A flat world awaits, let’s hope it’s worth exploring.