“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:
Notes.app Icon: On iOS 6, the Notes.app icon was a little roundrect version of a yellow legal pad. It was warm, cute, and — most importantly — easy to understand. It immediately conveyed its purpose: this is for jotting down notes. The new icon looks like nothing at all. It has been designed with strict adherence to Apple’s new formal visual rules for their app icons, but only against that metric could it be called a success. The new icon puts form before function.
Buttons: On iOS 6, buttons had subtle gradients and borders, not as whizz-bang, but to make it abundantly clear where you were being invited to tap — just as sidewalks make it abundantly clear where you are being invited to walk. On iOS 7, it is often impossible to tell what is a button and what is not.
Slide-to-Unlock: On iOS 1-6, the lock screen slider was composed of a sliding button and a track. It was so easy to understand that babies literally figured it out on their own. The springy physics were reminiscent of the spring-loaded locks on gym locker doors, which helped both convey the slider’s purpose and how to use it. On iOS 7, the obvious slider has been replaced by a tiny chevron on de-valued visual footing against many similarly-colored elements. There is no visual affordance for how the unlock gesture is supposed to work. The “slide to unlock” text label is still there, but a) it doesn’t specify what or where you are supposed to slide, and b) is so thin and glittery that it is often impossible to read. Try starting a turn-by-turn Maps.app session and then look at your lock screen. It’s incomprehensible.
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.