The Simplicity of iOS 7: Why Critics are Confused

Apple's Definition of Simplicity

Simplicity is central to the design philosophy of iOS 7. However, there has been a lot of confusion about how Apple defines simplicity and applies it to their redesign of iOS.

Most critics equate simplicity with "flat design" or minimalism. They look at iOS 7 and see the absence of decorative textures gloss, and shadows. For them, iOS 7 is an application of "less is more".

For example, take Josh Topolsky’s description of iOS 7:

"[iOS 7] is an incredible deviation on design. Gone are lush, skeuomorphic objects, dials, and textures. Instead, they have been replaced with stark, largely white and open app spaces; colorful, almost childlike icons; pencil thin, abstract controls for settings."

Like many critics, Topolsky focuses on the the new icons and removal of skeumorphic objects and textures. For Apple, however, the goal of simplicity is more than just the removal of decorative elements:

True simplicity is so much more than just the absence of clutter or the removal of decoration. It’s about offering up the right things, in the right place, right when you need them. It’s about bringing order to complexity.

This view of simplicity goes hand in hand with the idea that "design is not just how something looks, but how it works." The new look of iOS is a consequence of how it works, not the other way around. The purpose of redesigning iOS was to improve the user experience by organizing content into conceptually distinct layers. This solution to organizing a complex system is what Apple means by simplicity.
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The Logical Structure of iOS 7

According to Jony Ive, iOS 7 brings "a whole new structure that is coherent and that is applied across the entire system." This is accomplished by using distinct functional layers to "help establish hierarchy and order". Translucency, depth, and motion are used not just as eye candy, but to reinforce the design logic of iOS 7.

While most critics have confused simplicity with lack of ornamentation, John Gruber is one of the few who has paid attention to the systematic nature of iOS 7:

The design of iOS 7 is based on rules. There’s an intricate system at work, a Z-axis of layers organized in a logical way. There is a profound reduction in the use of faux-3D visual effects and textures, but iOS 7 is anything but flat. It is three dimensional not just visually but logically. It uses translucency not to show off, but to provide you with a sense of place.

Outside this one piece, however, there has been surprisingly little focus on the "intricate system" that is the foundation of iOS 7 according to Apple. Gruber himself spent two episodes of his podcast on the icons, fonts, and buttons of iOS 7 without returning to the design logic that he described so well in his initial review.

The confusion about simplicity extends even to thoughtful critics such as Christa Mrgan. "According to Apple," she states, "the crux of iOS 7 is emphasizing the user’s content by doing away with ornamentation." Mrgan once again conflates simplicity with the absence of ornamentation. While deference to user content is one of the pillars of iOS 7’s user interface, the real crux of iOS 7 is the new structure of the user experience.

Mrgan appears headed in the right direction with her clever discussion of the transition from "faux 3D" to "real 2.5D" in iOS 7. Yet, while she notes that the use of perspective "enhances our sensation of depth", she does not explain that the ultimate purpose of this depth is to create a logical hierarchy for the user.

A New Direction for iOS

If one sees the removal of clutter as the goal of iOS 7, it is easy to think of iOS 7 as merely following in the footsteps of the Android Holo and Windows Metro designs. While iOS 7 undeniably draws inspiration from the minimalism of Metro and borrows specific features from the competition, its unique contribution is the use of depth, motion, and translucency to create a logical framework across the system. This is the aspect of iOS 7 that can only be appreciated by using it and will undoubtedly be emulated by competitors. Even while borrowing from others, iOS 7 pushes the industry forward.

To sum up, the simplicity of iOS 7 is not just about how it looks (what has been removed from the interface), but how it works (the structure that has been added). iOS 7 is far from perfect and has many rough edges, but Apple has created a bold and original framework that they can build on over time. The renewed focus on order and simplicity represents an exciting direction for iOS that will take time to develop and be fully appreciated.