On Grids, Icons and Wrongness

I came across a surprising article via Daring Fireball last night.

Designer Neven Mrgan weighed into the discussion about iOS 7 icons, with this:

Just about the most asinine, presumptuous, hubris-filled thing a designer can say is that someone else’s design is "wrong". That word is reserved for judgments of absolute truth or ethical guidance; for flawed mathematical proofs and crimes. And yet, allow me to declare the following: Jony Ive’s icon grid in iOS 7 is wrong.

Okay, so the guy is a designer. What he's telling me is what my gut told me the first time I saw the iOS 7 icons - they look bad; something is wrong with them. So I was looking forward to hearing him explain why they are 'wrong', what makes their design bad?

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Jony Ive’s new "icon grid" is a guide meant to ensure that different apps’ icons look harmonious on the home screen. That’s a lofty goal. The issue of whether a grid can really accomplish that is complex; most designers think that non-block-based designs (so, not paragraphs of text, not photos, not headings) require a lot of "optical adjustment". This is fancy talk for "tweak it so it looks right."

But whether we accept the idea of a grid or not, here’s the bigger point: no icon designer I've asked thinks Ive’s grid is helpful. In that sense, it’s wrong. The large circle is too big. Many apps in iOS 7 use it: all the Store apps, Safari, Messages, Photos… In all these icons, the big shape in the center is simply too big. Every icon designer I’ve asked would instead draw something like the icon on the right. To our eyes—and we get paid to have good ones, we’re told—this is more correct.

At this point, I realise I'm not going to get the objective answer I'm looking for. I realise that the entire thrust of his article is "it looks wrong because it's wrong". Or perhaps "it's wrong because it looks wrong".

I think he's made a fundamental error here, and I think I can demonstrate it pretty clearly.

Like I said, my initial reaction to the new icons was - they look bad; something is wrong with them. But after using iOS 7 for a day, they didn't look bad. I was confused. I went back to my iPod and iOS 6, and the icons looked nice. A bit old, but familiar and comfortable. Going back to iOS 7 was a little jarring, but it didn't last. iOS 7 feels more modern, fresh.

Could it be that icons designed around smaller circles simply look 'right' because that's what we're used to? I think so, and I think I can prove it. Let's look a bit more closely at the contentious icons.

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And now back to what Mrgan calls "optical adjustment". Note that what he has done is "optically adjusted" the circle motif to match what we've become very familiar with over the last 6 years.

But what he's also done is failed to realise that this isn't an "optical adjustment", so much as re-fitting the design into the old grid. Because, yep, there was an old grid:

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Full Size

This leaves one remaining question. Is the new grid somehow 'wrong' and the old grid 'right'? Is this really a case of familiarity or is there some innate grid that is universally more aesthetically pleasing? Well, iOS 6 also provides an excellent control for us. Two, in fact: the Clock and Compass icons.

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Neither of these conformed to the more common grid in iOS 6. I don't know why, but I'd guess that it's because their designer/s decided to favour detail over consistency. In fact, they almost perfectly fitted the "Jony Ive Grid". But neither of these looked out of place in iOS 6, and neither of their iOS 7 replacements look out of place in iOS 7.

And when some amateur redesigners "fixed" iOS 7 for this forum and elsewhere, they made the mistake of sizing the Clock icon down to fit the "Forstall grid" and it looked wrong.

Why? Because this whole storm in a teacup is a misdiagnosis. People are confusing familiarity bias for good design. And just like mullet haircuts, happy pants and macrame discovered, things that conform to a particular fashion can "feel right" without being universally "right".

TLDR: This person is wrong.