Flat designs are not made in Innsbruck

Human interface guidelines don't dictate linen

Innsbruck is picturesque Austrian city proud of its commerce heritage and blessed with the incredible natural beauty of nearby mountains. Innsbruck, according to a scoop reported on 9to5mac.com by Mark Gurman, is also the codename for Apple's new visual language for its mobile interfaces to be introduced in the next update of the operating system of iPhones and iPads, iOS7.

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There's been a lot of talk about the new direction Sir Jonathan Ive is pushing into the team in charge of iOS since he was assigned leading the Human Interface software teams. Although the Brit has been a key figure in Jobs' Apple, his previous work was limited to product design and not software, where Scott Forstall stamped a style not in vogue anymore: skeuomorphism.

If Microsoft had to refer to German design — the modernist Bauhaus — as a source of inspiration for a new visual language for its Windows 8 and Windows Phone interfaces with Metro, will be Apple looking at germanic influence in reference to the Austrian city of Innsbruck too? Well, it's only a name picked from the rumour mill.

A gloss-less style

The iPhone's operating system has remained loyal to its beginnings since it was first demoed in 2007. Saying that the looks haven't changed in all this time, however, is incorrect. From the subtle changes in each update to huge gambles in apps like Friend my Friends, we cannot say the design in iOS has stalled.

When it first shipped as iPhone OS and the first SDK was available for developers, adding a gloss layer over the icon was an absolute must. Even the feature to bookmark websites on your home screen would drop that aqua layer on top. You see that on App Store today? There's none left. The stories talking about Ive removing all reminiscence of superfluous textures are a thing. Small steps have been taken already over the years, as well as adding more skeuomorph extravaganza.

The point I want to make in this post is that, regardless what Apple comes up with, developers will iterate and bring new ideas — for the good and for the worse — to the platform. Apple has been very conservative to push a full overhaul of the system, making small changes that can look out of place, making design-conscious users cringe. Everything new makes the old look older. That's not the whole story. From one of the first Facebook iPhone apps by Joe Hewitt going through the groundbreaking little things by Loren Brichter with Tweetie in several occasions, iOS design has always been in constant evolution.

Rene Ritchie imagines an all-aluminium theme

Rene Ritchie imagines an all-aluminium theme

Reading about the new iOS 7 design changes, there are some recurrent topics that keep appearing in the conversation. Rene Ritchie has illustrated how a vanilla operating system would look like using the current layouts with the grey theme used on the stock Music app. Although I also disdain the poker table atmosphere in Game Center, there is something about giving each app its own character rather than homogenising the whole lot. In an environment where you live in fullscreen apps, having those distinctive elements can be a good thing, as long as gestures and navigation remain familiar.

See Realmac Software's Clear for instance. A simple ToDo app that breaks the rules in user interface design. Those gesture interactions, use of colours and shading, lack of textures and conventional navigation elements are a complete departure from what we're used to. They also end up being tremendously disorientating. If I have trouble remembering what gesture does what on my iPhone, I don't know how my dad can. He claims he uses Clear regularly — he probably likes the bulky text and animations — but a quick peek at his To Do list says otherwise; not much in there.

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Now I'm bringing an example I bumped into last week, which is perfect to explain what I think the problem with iOS really is.StopwatchOne is a timekeeping app designed for athletes needing something more advanced than the stock Apple Clock app. From the screenshots you guess this app is not going to win a design award, nor a feature on the App Store. Seeing it in action shows the type of thing a sports coach would find very useful on the training grounds or the gym; big bulky buttons easy to tap, bright colours easy to understand, high contrast to try to improve readability. There's even a live representation of the time on a bar chart that changes colour automatically to spot easily the shortest and longest laps. The lack of textures and shadings would make this a “flat” design app, although the digital clock numbers are stereotypical skeuomorphs.

Whenever a developer shows me an app like this I think for myself: "That's some great functionality right there, if only it was presented a bit better". Perhaps there's some market research that indicates a stopwatch app like this should be presented in this manner — I'm respecting the decision. The problem comes when you incorporate elements from a design language that don't belong there. The top menu bar in black and the share menu, all standard following iOS interface guidelines, are a massive clash that cheapens the finish of this product. Had the developer left out those and use custom menus would it be more palatable? Probably yes.

The taste and sensibility to avoid pastiches

This is to say that regardless of whatever flat design iOS 7 will use, designers will be free to bring what they think works best for their projects. Every time a new cool app comes out you can see the influence going on sites like Dribbble. These are trends. If Apple puts sheets of dark linen behind and on top of the iPhone springboard, who will follow? Who likes a visual pastiche?

Shame on designer following the trend. Shame on that faux leather stitching for the sake of showing tiny details on a Retina display. When iOS ships we will see how many developers update their apps to mimic what has been decided in Cupertino. Shame on them. Most will jump to the latest trend bandwagon instead of doing what they think works best for their app. Call it Innsbruck if you want. The most suitable design is the one thought out at your desk.

Image from the comments thread on The Verge by RTFM