“Form Follows Function” Is More Complicated Than iOS 7 Thinks

Dave Brasgalla has an interesting write-up on the iconography of the first Alien film and its parallels to the iconography of iOS 7. In the course of his article, he offers his take on iOS 7:

For my part, I have a very positive feeling towards iOS 7, for one main reason: it brings computer iconography firmly back around to concentrating on communication rather than illustration – function over form. This is the realm of the graphic designer, where informed decisions about composition and colour create successful, strong symbology that will outlast trends, and is applicable over multiple uses.

I think everything he writes makes sense, but I also think what he says is totally irrelevant to why most people buy and enjoy iPhones and iPads.

People don’t choose an iOS device out of respect for Apple’s adherence to formal design principles. They are only dimly aware, if at all, of the design battles being waged between people who make apps and smartphones for a living. People buy iPhones and iPads because they are the first computers that you can use without feeling stupid.

The warm, evocative design of iOS 1 through 6 made using a computer easy and fun. For many, many people, this was an entirely novel experience. Most people had only ever owned or used clunky, complicated Windows PCs for work or school. It was walking on egg shells, and it was never fun. The iPhone changed all that.

Designers with more rarified tastes may cringe at torn paper textures and green felt, but these extremes were the exceptions, not the norm. This bears repeating: the sqeuomorphic excesses of iOS 1-6 were the exception, not the norm. The norm was much more nuanced. The aesthetics were focused on making things intuitive and fun:

We’ve all heard the old design adage that “form follows function.” Those of us who make apps for a living have heard it so many times that it’s easy to ignore it as trite. In reality it is very difficult to adhere to that principle. It is difficult because separating form from function is a messy exercise. It must be done delicately, and with respect for what our users think and feel.

On iOS, putting function before form is not as simple as paring down icons to a strict grid and color palette. There are functions beyond literal communication that iOS designers must balance. Making icons warm and inviting serves many deeper purposes. It builds your confidence in the device. It makes you feel in control. It sets your mind and thumbs at ease. It communicates through feeling and memory, and when done well, resonates with human experience in a way that PCs never could.

|  2 Nov 2013