✎ Flat UI is not the only way forward
It’s curious how Apple’s hardware and software have taken such divergent paths. Looking at iOS hardware and software separately, one might think they were produced by different companies. The drop-shadows and textures of iOS stand in sharp contrast to the clean lines and invisible seams of Apple’s hardware. Comparing major models of either the iPhone or iPad line, Jony Ive’s industrial design team seems to be on the march, creating devices that feel ever more like they’re carved from a single block of magical stone. So why is it that Apple would ship these devices with software featuring deep shadows and visible stitching?
The above quote from Dave Wiskus was used by John Gruber to argue that the future of UI design is one without textures and effects that mimic real world objects or materials. I would argue that they are observing design decisions in one craft, industrial design, thinking that it applies to UI design as well. But industrial design and UI design have very different characteristics, just like print has different characteristics compared to screen design.
The hardware and UI also have different roles to play. The hardware is constant, not changing, and should take as little of your attention as possible. This goes perfectly in line with what Apple are doing; reducing the hardware to a minimum with clean lines and invisible seams. As technology gets better, the hardware gets out of the way even more. The hardware sets the stage for the user interface, and its content, to shine.
When you launch an app on your mobile device, the device essentially becomes that app. Screens are great at drawing fine details and subtle gradients. Its part of a UI designers toolbox to make use of textures, shadows, light effects, etched or embossed elements and so on to make the UI tangible and understandable. I don’t see them going away.
With Jony Ive now heading up Apple’s human interface group, in charge of both hardware and software, we will see some changes. But I think they will not be as drastic as some make them out to be. It will rather be a slight correction of trajectory that will steer clear of extremities such as Find My Friends in the future.
On a system level I hope to see more of the fine and subtle improvements we saw in iOS 6, where default elements with a glossy look was replaced with matte gradients, the pinstripes background was refined and subtle drop shadows were added to give more depth to navigation bars, making it clear that they are sitting above scrolling lists and that the list will move underneath the navigation bar. Sounds obvious, but it’s a subtle improvement that makes you understand behavior from looking at a static screen.
Jony Ive talks about being true to the characteristics of a material, such as the ability to make a sturdy unibody out of a single piece of aluminum. I wonder what that approach is when it comes to user interfaces? Some would say a “flat” look is “truly digital”, but I think the flat style is just that; a stylistic choice. There isn’t really anything to be true to, except the user and helping them understand the device and its apps as easily as possible. If you can use textures and UI effects to help you with that goal, I think you should.