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Apple unveiled iOS 7, the most significant iOS update since the original iPhone, featuring a new user interface recognizes smartphone interfaces are longer an exotic novelty that needs explaining. (Apple)
Apple unveiled iOS 7, the most significant iOS update since the original iPhone, featuring a new user interface recognizes smartphone interfaces are longer an exotic novelty that needs explaining. (Apple)

iPhone ubiquity makes iOS 7's radical design overhaul possible Add to ...

The Game Center icon is even more abstract. In iOS 6, the app is represented by four shapes related to games, such as the horse from chess or the rocket ship from... some game involving rocket ships. In iOS 7, the Game Center icon is made up of four brightly coloured soap bubbles. This inexplicable icon has me convinced that somewhere in Apple’s user interface design studio, there is a big red button that says, “DO A RANDOM THING,” and perhaps one of the designers accidentally leaned on it during the creation of the Game Center visuals.

And so we’re left looking for some kind of overriding design principle, something that explains why iOS 7 turned out looking the way it does. Minimalism doesn’t quite work as an explanation, because some icons, such as the camera, are actually more visually convoluted than the iOS 6 versions. Ultra-modernism doesn’t work, because the icons for apps such as Music and Videos use old-fashioned metaphors (a musical note and a clapperboard, respectively), while others, such as the camera and Newsstand, look downright retro.

The only way that the iOS 7 visual language makes sense is if its designers’ overarching principle was abstraction.

A few days ago, I was talking to Matt Frehner, one of the Globe’s and Mail’s mobile development wizards, about skeuomorphism. This is the fancy name given to the design process by which digital things are represented visually with images of their real-world counterparts. Skeuomorphism is the reason almost every Save button on every word processor in the world has a drawing of a little floppy disk on it.

In the lead-up to the iOS 7 announcement, everyone expected Apple to ditch skeuomorphism – and, with some exceptions, the company appears to be doing just that. Matt suggested that the reason Apple’s designers could leave that mode of thinking behind is because smartphones are no longer new or exotic. People know how the devices work. In much of the Western world, nobody even calls them smartphones any more – they’re just phones.

Apple executives took a lot of jabs at the whole concept of skeuomorphism at the iOS 7 launch event. But in truth, making the digital world look like the physical one was necessary in the early days of the iPhone, when smartphones were still unfamiliar things. In fact, the idea of real-world metaphors has always been essential to new digital technology. Perhaps the best example of this is the most popular operating system in the world, Microsoft Windows.

But now that smartphones are on their way to becoming commodity products, and nobody’s daunted by the idea of swiping a finger across the screen or asking Siri to look up the capital of Uruguay, Apple’s designers can afford to speak in abstractions. Over time, other smartphone makers are going to follow suite.

For a glimpse at the future of smartphone interface design, look at the dashboard console in your car. To somebody who has never been inside a car before, almost all the icons on all the buttons will make no sense. But everybody is familiar with cars, and this allows for an efficiency of design language.

Nobody looks at the air-conditioning selector in a car and thinks, “Hey, this must be the button that fires a large arrow directly into the driver’s crotch.”

With iOS 7, Apple has come up with a new (and controversial) design that recognizes smartphones are no longer exotic gadgets that need to be explained with real-world metaphors. It has ditched its version of the absurd “horsepower” metric. Now the company’s customers will have to wait a few more months to find out whether Apple is willing to take equally big risks with the design of its hardware.

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