The curious design behind Apple innovation

Published: Monday, June 17, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 6:20 p.m.

Expectations were clear heading into Apple's big reveal at its annual developers conference last week. The world was hungry for some of the innovative brand of Apple “sauce” that's been missing since the passing of co-founder Steve Jobs. What Apple delivered was a new iPhone and iPad that would function like none have ever before. It just did it in a way nobody expected.

Before you run down to the gadget store looking to buy this fictitious device, let me clarify that Apple did not release any new phones or tablets but instead announced the first real overhaul of the operating system that drives it. It essentially made everyone's existing iDevice new in the process. Make sense?

Few would deny the iPhone 5 and iPad chassis to be anything short of mechanical works of art. Regardless, Apple could grow no further designing new devices without overhauling its outdated software. After all, we don't interact with the actual device but the interface within it. Chief rival Samsung still makes plastic phones, which are not all that pretty. Its unprecedented rise in innovation has come from I/O changes in software and not the nuts-and-bolts hardware that Apple is known for.

Heck, even Blackberry died and was resurrected with a redesigned operating system in the time Apple has taken to mount a comeback.

Why such a delay? When you're at the top, there is zero margin for error. A bad day on Wall Street might mean losing billions in market share. For Apple, revamping its flagship software is about as graceful a process as parallel parking a Greyhound.

This is such a deliberate process that Apple could only trust one designer, Sir Jonathan Ive, with the task. He is the design savant behind much of what has made Apple products stand out in the last decade. Some would argue he is the most important man at Apple because his vision and DNA best resemble that of the late Jobs.

With Ive, the cohesion of Apple design now carries over from the outside in. Ive is known for design purity and minimalism. This means design must give way to interface, and interface must give way to interaction. The true Apple signature is the unique manner in which we interact with these devices. Herein lies the monumental challenge for IOS 7.

Gone in the redesign is something known as “skeuormorphism,” which has defined IOS until now. Design curiosities like the green felt gaming table, leather-bound calendar and perforated note pad page might have helped early adopters relate digital function with real-world form but have since grown tiredsome.

Ive has replaced this approach with flat buttons in a near three-dimensional view. In other words, what we interact with becomes a forefront layer that allows you to vaguely see through it. This philosophy extends all the way down to a new font that has already been dubbed the “skinny jean” font. Its long lines and sharp edges might, at first glance, look like something you'd shave with, but it ultimately allows you to see through it and be immersed with features like a weather app with dancing snowflakes and ominous streaks of lightning. The same approach works across the board with a revamped multitasking mode, which allows you to swipe through panels of running programs along with the redesigned notification bar and freshly conceived command center.

The focus of IOS 7 is clearly in the interface. Most new functions revolve around existing technology that we interact with in new ways. Siri is smarter and has new voices; Safari appears bigger; Airplay stands out; Airdrop makes a debut; multitasking goes from afterthought to forefront; and the camera app and galleries actually behave in a cohesive and modern way.

Apple had a great deal of pressure to rekindle the art of innovation. The perception is that it has been on cruise control for far too long. Most will agree that — good or bad — the foot is back on the gas pedal. The results? They should come in the fall when iUsers get the prompt to update to IOS 7. The other side of that update should result in the innovative “new” device many have been clamoring for.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top