How the Design of iOS 7 Evokes Such Strong Feelings

| Editorial

iOS 7 dramatically changes the look and feel compared to iOS 6. At first, we're not quite sure about our feelings. However, in time, important design elements surface in our consciousness. It's a fascinating journey.


When I look at iOS 7, it generates very strong, positive feelings. The strongest feeling I get is that of maturity. iOS 7 looks to me as if it were designed by a professional who is invoking design principles in order to achieve beter usability.

And, of course, it has been. By Jonathan Ive. His taste and his experience are legendary.

Yesterday, I started wondering about my personal reaction. What was I seeing? How does iOS 7 succeed in creating that sense of design maturity?

The first thing I thought of was how kids see the world. While I'm not an expert in this area, I do recognize that there are certain mental growth patterns for kids. A youngster in 3rd grade will typically interpret and draw a cruise ship like this.

As youngsters grow older, they develop a more refined set of principles that shape how they express themselves in art. An older student may create something like this.

That growth in the ability to interpret reality is what I think of when I see a mature design. This is a recurrent theme in the development, over time, of our GUIs thanks to better graphics hardware. Of course, maturity of design shouldn't be confused with needless mimicking of reality. That's skeuomorphism, something iOS 7 leaves behind.

The other thing I think of is artistic and graphic design principles. Some that come to mind are:

  • Symbology
  • Minimalism
  • Ornamentation
  • Typography
  • Skeuomorphism
  • Geometry: balance and scale
  • Use of color
  • Gradations, texture and translucency

When these principles are invoked to develop an effective GUI, the user can sense it. There's a mystical feeling that: "I like it, but I don't know why."

For example, now that we all know how to use iOS, certain symbols no longer have to be ornate and suggestive. We get that the    <   symbol means to go back. We don't need, for example, an ornamental arrow to suggest an action.

Here's another example. Think of the rule of thirds in photography. Photographers use this rule to create more pleasing, sophisticated images while amateurs produce vacation photos that look, well, amateurish.

In the end, I think my affection for the look and feel of iOS 7 derives from how all the design elements work together to arrive at something that feels more elegant and mature. Polished. Sophisticated.

Why Doesn't Everyone Love iOS 7?

My feeling is that several things get in the way, at first, of the appreciation of iOS 7. There's the use of color. I think many users tend to over react to how color is used because it's the most obvious, first thing to see. The color forms the shapes and patterns that our eyes see as icons and words. If the colors are off putting, then it builds a psychological wall that hinders the user's ability to accept the new design.

As a result, it's all too easy to gloss over the design elements and principles I described above. However, in time, they make themselves more apparent, perhaps even dominate. Eventually, there's a turnaround, and the response is, "Hey, this really is cool."

But it takes time.

Another problem may just be the natural resistance to change. There's an ever so slight mental adjustment needed to embrace something that shifts our appreciation for an interface. Perhaps it's an enthusiasm for -- or dread of -- the future.  If that resistance is strong, the design benefits will be overlooked.

Making the Transition

If you're considering the move to iOS 7, and you should, these are some things to consider. The list of security fixes to iOS 7 is impressive, and so holding back is risky business. My advice is to upgrade and withhold judgment. Let the interface grow on you. Let those intangibles seep into your psyche, and it won't be long before you'll realize you could never go back to iOS 6.


Cruise ships (1,2) and arrow via Shutterstock

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iOS 7 continues to grow on me. For those having trouble, I highly recommend using one of Apple’s wallpapers.

Thinking of Sir Ive’s comments about purity of design, and the move away from skeuomorphism, reminded me of a scene from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, about an architect named Howard Roark. Early on, he’s having an argument with his dean about design. During the argument, Roark asks why everyone considers The Parthenon to be such an architectural wonder. Roark then states:

“Look,” said Roark. “The famous flutings on the famous columns—what are they there for? To hide the joints in wood—when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?”

Something about Sir Ive’s ideas abut purity of design always remind me of that reasoning by Roark. I read that book when I was a junior in high school, and I remember just being blown away by that passage…by the undeniable truth about it. I think Sir Ive designs with the same mindset.

Lee Dronick

Well just because one of Ayn Rand’s characters said something doesn’t make it true.  Anyway Isn’t the Parthenon famous for being a golden rectangle, the subtle tapers of the columns, and other architectural nice touches.



Lee, the point Roark was making was that The Parthenon’s design wasn’t true to itself, that its elements were those of wooden structures, not marble. Just like the fake green felt and leather touches pre-iOS 7, the structure was something of a lie, with details made not out of structural necessity, but to mimic the look of previous wooden structures. Roark further states:

“Rules?” said Roark. “Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it.”.... (Dean)“But all the proper forms of expression have been discovered long ago.”.... (Roark)“Expression–of what? The Parthenon did not serve the same purpose as its wooden ancestor. An airline terminal does not serve the same purpose as the Parthenon. Every form has its own meaning.”

I know Rand is a controversial figure, but there’s a lot worth considering in her works. Plus, her novelette Anthem is what gave us Rush: 2112. smile

Lee Dronick

So we should live in draub Soviet era design apartment buildings, dress in shapeless gray jump suits, keep our hair closely shorn, and eat plain oatmeal three times a day because anything else is a lie? There is a reason for ruffles and flourishes and if it is a lie then so what. You can take flatness and its opposite to an extreme, there is a balance which is differnet for each of us.




So we should live in draub Soviet era design apartment buildings, dress in shapeless gray jump suits, keep our hair closely shorn, and eat plain oatmeal three times a day because anything else is a lie?

That’s not what’s being said at all, and not sure how you could possibly interpret it as such. Look at the works of Frank Lloyd Wright to see real-life examples.

Lee Dronick

I like Frank Lloyd Wright’s stuff, but I also like Irish cottages, Moorish influence buildings, Queen Anne houses. I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis.


So says Mr. Ive:

“Conspicuous ornamentation has been stripped away”

He forgot to strip away the blurry frosted-glass overlays, slow animations, and the gaudy, cheap parallax effect.

“Unnecessary bars and buttons have been removed”

Sadly, not completely. There are 2D buttons with solid color fill, 2D buttons with no fill but outlines, and 2D buttons with no outlines. As well as text in a different color, which may or may not be a button. Very, very inconsistent UI design.

Sorry, can’t see the elegant design. And I think the iOS7 icon design is more like the first cruise ship, not the second.

Lee Dronick

@fmally, maybe Ive’s kid did the design smile

Yes, it is probably a work in progress and Apple will refine it over time, find the balance.


What I have seen of the new OS, it looks frail and sickly using 16 bit colors.  Florescent lime green, egad!  If my garden looked like this, I would add more compost and fertilizer.  Bring back the wholesome skeuomorphisms.


Hey Lee,

With such world-class talent as the much-praised, highly-compensated Sir Jonathan Ive, I wouldn’t expect an amateurish work in progress…it should look polished and refined.


“Thinking of Sir Ive’s comments…, etc.”

For the 23rd time, it’s Sir Jonathan, not ‘Sir Ive.’

“So we should live in draub Soviet era design apartment buildings, dress in shapeless gray jump suits, keep our hair closely shorn, and eat plain oatmeal three times a day because anything else is a lie?”

How in god’s name could you possibly come to such an absurd conclusion? Examples of modern architecture without classical doo-dads or faux cottage abound. The works of Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei, Zaha Hadid, Philip Johnson, Tom Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Corbusier, Renzo Piano, and Moshe Safdie are just a few off the top of my head, and not a single Soviet among them.

I have practiced architecture for several decades, I while I don’t rank with those names above, I have never once felt compelled to add anything to a building that would make it look like something from ‘the good old days.’

Quite frankly Lee, your comment is more than a little offensive to those of us that have worked hard at making our designs reflect our own times – i.e., modern times.  You like Irish cottages? Try living in one without electricity, Wi-Fi, or indoor plumbing.

Soviet, my arse.


Read the I’ve/Federighi interview on USA Today.  These guys’ almost ache in their passion and dedication to their work.  Ive almost sounds like Van Gogh (or the cinematic version thereof) in how intense he gets as he describes his design philosophy.  One noteworthy nugget: Federighi said 7 is the first post-Retina smartphone UI, so there were things they did that they couldn’t do before.  I take that to include the slender typography.

As for who likes it? My 15 yr old daughter is waxing poetic about it and she said her friends who were eager to get home and check it out got all excited when she showed her updated iPod Touch to them.  I suppose if teenagers, for whom the word blasé was invented, lose all composure over it, then one can safely say the redesign was a success?

Lee Dronick

Well iOS 7 certainly evokes strong feelings.

My exagerated point was that if skeumorphism is a lie then so what?

Now understand that I am using iOS 7 and getting comfortable with it, but it is rather plain. My wife and I had her iPhone running iOS 6 alongside mine and we compared them. There is some good and bad about both of their looks.

Lee Dronick

Now to lighten things up a bit, see today’s Joy of Comic.


I just wonder if any Apple exec has looked at an iPad 2 running iOS 7 in bright sunlight; the detail on the iPad home screen with default (water droplets) wallpaper is almost unreadable because the text should be dark not light.. OTOH it’s much better on the small screen of a retina equipped iPhone.


John et al:

The fact that it evokes ‘strong feelings’ is a good sign. A very good sign. It means that it is reaching into the deeper layers of our psyches and touching core values and hard truths about ourselves, what we really like and don’t. In a word, who we are and whom we are not. This means that Apple have succeeded in doing what the critics claimed it had ceased to do, which, to cite Lee’s word above, was a lie if ever there was one, namely they have revolutionised their iOS interface. Were it simply a modest evolutionary step, it could not have been so evocative because it would have been a natural extension of what we had already come to accept. Whether we liked it or not, passions would be modest at best, and most of us would simply move on without further ado. Not here. Not this time. Apple swept the old carpet from beneath our feet and laid out a hardwood floor in its stead. The difference is not subtle, indeed, its a game changer that exploits powers yet untapped in either the OS or the chipsets and apps that support it.

I know that this a late post, however I just returned home from a week’s travel and my first order of tech business was to download iOS7. I for one love this OS.

This is a masterpiece of subversive and disruptive revolution that, as with all successful revolutions, is under-appreciated in its scope, depth and reach at its birth - lest it be torn out by the root.

Those who are put off by such superficial attributes as ‘flatness’, before exploring further are missing brilliant layering of features and functionality, the richness of new themes for interaction and the obvious opening of new possibilities no less than did a previous generation who dismissed the post-impressionist works of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse simply because it departed from the familiar and forgetting that they and a previous generation had objected to the impressionism of Monet before them. Such is the perversity of humanity, and simultaneously indeed counter-intutively, its promise. The mere act of reacting, particularly if negatively, is the surest indicator that, in time, because core values are challenged, humanity will re-coalesce around this new construct. For all of our whining and rebelling, we want and require change; we just resent it passionately when it comes and we are forced from our haven of comfort and the familiar.

I, for one, am impatient to see where this all leads, but in the meantime, while I wait for my new iPhone 5s, will join the ranks of those who will squander untold hours exploring all of these new features.

Lee: many thanks for that Joy of Tech link. Ground truth draped in humour.

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