July 24, 2024

Apple Dictates the World’s Visual Design

Every time Apple redesigns their software, specifically iOS, the entire design industry landscape changes. Basically, everyone follows them.

This phenomenon actually makes a lot of sense. What’s confusing, though, is that Apple typically isn’t the first to create new design patterns or usability trends, and Apple isn’t necessarily the most capable leader when it comes to software design.

They are, however, leaders in many others ways, and their software design is better than most. That’s exactly why they set trends.

Apple Dictates the World’s Visual DesignImage via Songquan Deng / Shutterstock

It Started With Me

I see this happen to me every time a major shift happens in iOS. It started on the day the iPhone was released in 2007. I was blown away by the device, the design, the usability, the touch screen, the gestures… it was all so new, so cool, and really unexpected.

I remember immediately applying the principles of their gestures and design patterns to my own trade, which was and is designing websites and web applications. I was literally so inspired, and I still believe that that day changed history and shaped every day that came after it. The way that everyone thought about design and user interactions was totally turned upside down.

Subsequent releases of new iOS versions and features evoked the same reaction. A lot of this has to do with Apple basing its design decisions on deep human principles, smart thinking and research. That means that when you get it (you see it after Apple’s done it), you realize that there are all kinds of ways to apply Apple’s thinking and usability to your own projects and ways of thinking about projects and users.

I Wasn’t Alone

Soon I noticed that others were taking the cue as well. When iOS first started innovating, it was long before responsive web design. In fact, it was largely the first time that full, beautiful websites were viewable on mobile phones. It makes sense, then, that when everyone started creating mobile versions of their websites, the obvious inspiration was Apple’s native apps.

It may be hard to remember, but the original native apps, before the App Store existed, were nowhere near what they are today. Still, they were like nothing anyone had seen previously.

So mobile websites, in the beginning of the “true” mobile web, looked a lot like Apple’s iOS apps. Frameworks started emerging, like jQuery Mobile and Sencha Touch, that featured simple “views” with back buttons in the upper left, nav bars across the bottom, bouncy scrolls and more. Forget loading new pages. We needed sliding and flipping transitions between views with no load time.

Briefly, and after Android was out, there was a push for “non Apple” mobile UIs, which translated basically to a platform agnostic, mobile-web-specific UI language. Even that looked and functioned an awful lot like Apple.

Then Came the App Store

Apple Dictates the World’s Visual DesignImage by Christophe Tauziet

Soon Apple opened up their App Store and created this whole new subset of the technology/development/design industry where anyone could create their own mobile apps. Here it really made sense to copy Apple’s interfaces and design styles, and this is probably what set the tone for the years to come.

Now, designers and UX people had good reason to base their decisions off of the functions that users were already used to. That’s usability 101. Especially because before the iPhone, there were no pre-existing user patterns for touch-based mobile apps.

The issue, if you want to call it that, is that now we have a whole slew of different use cases and usability patterns from all different mobile operating systems, mobile and responsive websites, and mobile applications. It seems, though, that everyone still wants to follow Apple.

I guess it’s safe…

The Flat Design Example

Recently, the most relevant example of how we’re all still being led by Apple is actually flat design.

Apple did not invent flat design, and in fact, you could argue that they don’t even practice true flat design. (I know there’s no formal definition of flat design to let us know they don’t… but they don’t.)

Apple Dictates the World’s Visual DesignImage by Leo Drapeau

Regardless of its popularity pre-iOS 7, all the sudden, with the release of iOS 7, everything in the world went flat.

I don’t mean that the Facebook, Instagram and Twitter apps updated their designs to match the new iOS 7 flat interface and best practices. That did happen, though.

I mean that websites became flatter to match their mobile app companions. In a lot of cases, Android apps got the flat treatment as well. Taking things a step further, some very large companies even updated their logos! Yahoo, Google and Bing all released new, flatter logos right around the time Apple updated to iOS 7.

The fact that Apple wasn’t nearly the first company to implement flat design helps to reinforce my point. Flat design was very popular amongst designers and trendy tech or design-focused companies. It was written about, debated and defined. But it took Apple to let everyone know that “OK, it’s safe to do this now. We did it.”

Back to Me

The thing is, even after all these years, I was insanely inspired by watching the Apple keynote where iOS 7 was revealed. Especially when they showed the new photos app.

And it’s crazy, because I dislike the new design of the “select” inputs, I dislike how the back arrow interacts with its label, and I dislike some other minor choices.

But I love how they push our whole industry forward. I love how they thought “outside the box” and threw all previous assumptions out the window. I love how Jonny Ive was able to take his genius and spill it into the software side of the product.

For now, and probably for a while into the future, I and everyone else will continue to copy Apple, whether consciously or subconsciously, through Apple directly or through someone else who copied Apple originally. We’ll continue to have “aha” moments when Apple rethinks a common user interface element. For better or worse, we’ll continue to base our aesthetic decisions on Apple’s mobile phone interface.

And, really, that’s not such a bad thing.


Drew Thomas is the Chief Creative Officer and an owner of Brolik. Brolik is a digital agency based out of Philadelphia, PA with global clients like Everlast and Comcast.


    1. Kieran Reply

      I agree, Google was practicing flat, I hate to say it.. Windows Phone OS was their starting point to flat and Windows 8 was the OS that everyone said ‘I sort of like it.. but it’s windows!!’ <- this was before anyone had a chance to use it.

      Apple are leaders in design and everyone aspires to be like them but I don't think flat is a good example of this mainly because flat was coming whether Apple liked it or not.

  1. rich Reply

    I think sometimes people who are totally immersed in the whole Apple thing forget the rest of the world can and does function pretty damn well without needing apple’s decisions to dictate anything. Sure they are good at what they do, but that is a huge stretch to claim they dictate the world’s design approach. This really isn’t the type of article WDL should be promoting as it doesn’t help advance our industry in the slightest.

    1. ben Reply

      The author forgot to mention that there is also a huge disdain for everything Apple among Android fanatics. Every-time they hear “Apple” they get animated and organized against Apple enthusiasts/apologists/fanatics. It’s the elitism thing; I know better than you type of mantra.

      If we look at Apple objectively, we can conclude with certainty that what Apple does in terms of visual design and function is being closely watched. Nobody is watching what Google does because Google watches you.

      1. rich Reply

        That is very true. I pretty much only use apple, so have no Android elitism thing going on. This article isn’t remotely objective though, that’s the problem.

  2. Ionut B. Reply

    Yup! You are dead wrong. Both Microsoft and Google were well ahead on the flat trend and website designers were already addopting one or the other’s style: Google’s subtle shadows and small rounded corners or Microsoft “Metro” style, with large tiles and beautiful typography.
    Apple joined the party very late and the only notable addition was their wireframe icons, which are actually a bad thing: https://medium.com/design-ux/a93647e5a44b

  3. Arianna Reply

    A bulk list of website design that is really enough to become a good designer. A beginner can learn a lot of the designing ideas and tips only on single this website.
    I also have learned a lot of things over here and will suggest to all designer to implement these tips on your designing work to become a good web and graphic designer.


  4. Kwiato Reply

    The beginnings of iOS were truly inspiring and inviting for user to mobile world. But putting iOS7 as a example of Apple being a trendsetter here is wrong on so many levels.

    Firstly, iOS7 is very poorly executed flat design, gradients and blurs show that they just can’t give up on their previous style. The whole UI contrast is very low too much white, light gray and pastel colors and that makes it harder to distinguish buttons from titles. Furthermore the re-styling in most apps can be compared to changing the CSS on the site. it didn’t actually change the way the applications interact, leaving skeuomorphic design allows you to make more abstract flow and more useful apps.

    Secondly, there’s to much hypocrisy in this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CW0DUg63lqU). Apple suing everybody about rounded corners and rubberband effect. Then copies the solutions made by others. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrM25jqhXdA)

    There are nice touches in iOS 7 I’m not saying it’s bad but a statement that “Apple Dictates the World’s Visual Design” with iOS 7 is simply ignorance. They followed the trend nothing more.

  5. Devon Reply

    Apple are not the first company to use any of the items you mentioned above. I cannot even begin to understand why you would think Apple led the world in flat design, it has been around for years. I have been designing with flat UIs long before iOS 7.

  6. Michal Reply

    I think, like Evan said, that Apple is now following, not leading the trend design regarding. I’m an android user and it’s funny how the design of Android ICS (4) what flat 1 year before apple and a lot of Apps too.

  7. Web Design Wolverhampton Reply

    Generally, I’d agree that the design world follows Apple’s styling. However, I disagree about the “Flat” style – I think Microsoft pioneered that with their “Metro” (or whatever they ended up calling it) style. I’d go so far as to say that iOS 7’s look wouldn’t be as it is today without Metro.

  8. Ivanov Karmazov Reply

    I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with this post. (Although it’s a great post!). I think that, as the post mentioned, when iPhone launched back in the early 2ks, the industry DID change. In fact, you could say that where the mobile industry is now is largely in part because of Apple’s pioneering. BUT I will say that the Apple innovation streak stopped after a few years. What they seem to do now (my own opinion) is to look at emerging trends (such as flat design) and improve upon it. Not pioneer like before, but simply do the same thing, but BETTER. Many of their “new” features in iOS have been almost ripoffs of other product software (…android perhaps?) but they have managed to do it BETTER.

    As an Android user for example, I love my phone (Galaxy S4) but… at the end of the day I still dream of going back to Apple products… because.. well… they just work.

    Thanks for the post! 🙂

  9. Jim Silverman Reply

    No. Apple has little design influence outside of its own ecosystem.

    On the current digital landscape, I’d say that Microsoft’s Metro UI has been the most influential. While Windows itself has not been a success, its design ushered in the “flat” movement, tiled “card” design, and bold typography.

  10. Nigel Wade Reply

    TBH I think it is just a case of lazy uninventive designers who are Apple fanboys who don’t spend enough time lifting their heads up from their iPhones, iPads and MacBooks and thus never really get any proper design research done.

  11. Patrick Reply

    What is with the rash of articles professing Apple as the flat design trend setter? Not only were they nowhere close to the first, history shows us this move was reactionary and late to the party.

    The explosion of flat design begun well before Apple picked it up for iOS, and it would make a lot more factual sense to claim Apple moving that direction was the culmination of the explosion rather than the tipping point itself.

    It is getting really annoying for this Apple lover (I have a MBP, iPhone, etc) to see them get huge credit and praise for a design trend they played no role in establishing or setting, and simply followed.

  12. smover Reply

    This is the wrong example …or the right one to show that Apple is not a trend setter anymore but a follower instead.
    Between Apple, Google and Microsoft the flat design started with Windows Phone 7, three years ago. Then it went to all Microsoft products (Xbox 360 Dashboard, Outlook.com, Bing, Office, Visual Studio, Windows 8, etc.). Then Google reworked Android and adopted a flatter design.

    Then Apple did it.

    Same things with form-factors : Apple latest great innovation was the iPad in …2010. They completly lost the 7-8″ small tablets trends, same thing with phablets, and again they have no 2 in 1 / hybrid computer to offer. Instead they want you to buy a small screen equiped iPhone + iPad + MacBook which is a vision of the past. The crazy thing is that current 2 in 1 devices vision was a consequence of iDevices success, but they did not pushed the concept further enough. Wierd but true. And I’m pretty sure that in 2014 you will see 5″ iPhones and Touch enabled MacBook or bigger iPad with an official keyboard cover.

  13. Jesse Reply

    “Dictates” is the appropriate word. They remove your app from the App Store if it doesn’t fit whatever their style guides say today.

  14. David Reply

    Did I read a different article? I read an article that was not proclaiming that Apple created this design style, in fact it says they were late to the party. The article was emphasising the fact that once Apple had also got in on the act of flat design, the style in essence from a users point of view had gained a ‘stamp of approval’ and a much wider audience outside of the design world. With that greater exposure in-turn comes the subconscious influence on the work we create.

  15. Bianca Board Reply

    Very interesting read, thanks. I think no matter how much we like it, Apple are a major influence on our design work, regardless of whether they were the originators of those design.

  16. Web Design Hertfordshire Reply

    Up until a couple of years ago Apple had a unique ability to select mainstream products that needed reinventing (in fairness they invented some brand new stuff, too!) and in the process managed to create super-mainstream products.

    Sadly Apple’s perceived innovation seems to have stalled. Everything’s getting faster, smaller, lighter and brighter but where’s that je ne sais quoi?

    Your article suggests that Apple steers the design community. I’d say you’ve got it the wrong way round.

  17. Jason Reply

    Oh come on people. Give credit where credit is due. Apple leads simply by it’s clout in the industry. If apple says it’s time to go back to monochrome colour scheme everyone would laugh, balk at the audacity of the idea and then follow 6 months later after apple releases it’s monochrome platform. No different than any other industry leader and it’s competition.

    How new leaders are born is seen in the roots of apple… more to the point Jobs. Leaders are born when someone is willing to risk it all and be crazy/smart/lucky enough to zig while all the others are zagging and laughing at you. To dismiss apple as being a leader is ridiculous. You can pull out examples of others doing flat first and all the rest of the points you people are bringing up until you are blue in the face… until apple did it… it was just the way the “other guy” looked. Apple leads by power. Pure and simple. There was a time where it led with vision and I believe those days are lost.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *