July 15, 2024

The Smartphone Face Lift: Is Apple’s Design Too Trendy?

A quick glance between the iPhone’s new iOS 7 and its predecessor will show you two troubling trends in graphic design:

  1. Flat and simple is hot.
  2. Dimension and dynamic is not.

The Smartphone Face Lift: Is Apple's Design Too Trendy?

Flat Design and iOS 7: A Tale of Misuse

The flat and bright icons of iOS 7 are a harbinger of a new trend in graphic design called “Flat Design.” Flat Design focuses on simplicity and high contrast colors in two dimensions. The problem with iOS 7 isn’t that it uses flat design; it’s that it uses it poorly. One example of great flat icons appears in the iOS 6 “Game Center” icon:

The Smartphone Face Lift: Is Apple's Design Too Trendy?

The iOS 6 version is elegant and it gives you a real sense of the variety of games you can play inside the app: board (intelligent and quiet), sports (loud and fun), fantasy (space and beyond) and classic (fun and easy to learn). But in iOS 7, you get multi-colored bubbles. The icon is obscure and says absolutely nothing about what you may expect to find in the “Game Center.” Its only purpose is to look young and trendy.

The Smartphone Face Lift: Is Apple's Design Too Trendy?Photo courtesy of vaccinesandevolution.blogspot.com

So What’s the Problem?

I think the underlying problem with iOS 7 is that it misunderstands why Flat Design is trending in 2013, and it’s something I mentioned about the “Game Center” icon. Flat Design is trendy because it’s well done, and it’s well done because it’s elegant. Trendy doesn’t mean childish as Apple seems to think, and elegance combines what’s hot with what’s professional.

Creative Market: Icons for the Win

The Smartphone Face Lift: Is Apple's Design Too Trendy?

This icon set from Creative Market is a great example of Flat Design done well. These icons are fun; they are drawn in the style of children’s illustrations that keeps them trendy, but they pack an informational punch that keeps them professional.

Parting Thoughts

While smart gadgets and internet culture are clearly injecting fun and “what’s hot” into the professional market, I have to question if it’s a good thing. Maybe it’s just my nostalgia for the class of business suits and briefcases, but I think the trends need to stay separate from the business world. In the middle of this article, I inserted a meme — the trademark humor of popular internet culture. Does the trendy joke make me seem less or more professional? Is it okay to mix business with pleasure? Is trending graphic design getting too hip for the working world? What do you think?

Like a true San Franciscan, Maryam Taheri has a passion for dogs and the Giants. She heads up Content Marketing at creativemarket.com where she writes about all things creative.


  1. Andre Reply

    Each as he likes. I’m a fan of clear and factual style. However, I think the new design is less successful. I don’t know why but it looks like a kind of unprofessional. For example take the ‘Notice Icon’. Now it looks like a rolling shutter. What i mean is sometimes less is more but it can also go in the wrong direction.

  2. Sindigo Reply

    “The flat and bright icons of iOS 7 are a harbinger of a new trend ”

    Harbinger? A “person or thing that foreshadows or foretells the coming of someone or something.” No, sorry. Windows 8 was a harbinger of flat design and doubtless someone will correct me with much earlier examples. iOS7 is behind the curve on this one.

    I would also take issue with the assertion that there was anything elegant about iOS 6 by the end but especially the Game centre icon. Presented here in all its nasty, skeuomorphic glory.

    For the record, I much prefer most aspects of iOS7 and think a re-design was long overdue. Why we can’t pick from a selection of icons designed by different industry leaders I don’t know but I digress.

    People need to pull their heads out of the Apple bubble. They’re not innovating as hard as others in the arena anymore.

    1. Ivanov Karmazov Reply

      I agree. Apple was at one point an industry leader. They have resorted to copying other technologies (I wont name any), yet every time that they copy… everyone looses their mind! I don’t understand this Apple culture.

      Now, I am a Samsung fan but I must say that I prefer Apple products. You just cant build the design of the devices. The ONLY reason why I switched boats was because Apple’s proprietary fetishes made their devices less than ideal. IF Apple was more open on technologies… I would’t look back. Apple would be my device of choice.


    2. Rhys L Reply

      Yeah Windows 8 and Windows Mobile have been flat for ages. I quite like the way Windows Mobile arranges its flat tiles. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure Microsoft had an agreement with Apple to not copy their iOS design – which I believe was the best thing as it forced Microsoft to be innovative. It did also mean they tried to create an OS suitable for both touch and pointer devices, but I guess someone had to give it a crack, and kudos for Microsoft of taking the leap.

  3. Michael Meininger Reply

    I agree with the above poster. Windows 8 brought flat to the American mainstream. I also agree that Apple’s sense of “innovation” is pure marketing, and people eat it like candy.

    However, in regards to IOS7- it is too flat. Your icon examples above add a basic skeuomorphic principal- shadows. Those shadows(which are flat & basic) allow a proper paper-on-paper layered effect, which adds some sense of depth.

  4. STLDM Reply

    I do agree that some of the icons do not really make sense, but other than that I really like the iOS7 design. I think most do as well.

    Plus I would not really call it a flat design. Yes it is flatter, but not really flat… Which IMO I am glad that didn’t go with the completely overused flat design. Becoming the norm.

  5. Derek Reply

    This article belongs in the Editorial section – it’s based entirely around the author’s personal opinion; there are no actual references to back it up – which, as it happens, cannot be had in the first place because it boils down to opinions.

    And for some commenters: Apple isn’t behind the curve on this one – losing the skeuomorphic elements is the logical next step to come along. Android and Windows never had utilize skeuomorphism because they arrived late to the game after Apple had made things like Pinch To Zoom every day things. In this day & age, an interface doesn’t have to liken anything to a real-world object to visually tell the user what it does because that user already knows. Funny how the same people that bash Apple for copying others (which is also absurd) are the same one who bashed them for not changing.

  6. Marilyn Reply

    I agree the Game Center (and photos) icons don’t make sense & I’m hoping they’ll be updated. It would have been nice to see you do more comparisons of old & new icons. As someone recently getting into design, so I could understand your perspective. I also prefer the new keyboard because the type is slightly thinner (I don’t know if that’s the right word). Would be interesting to see a comparison & thoughts on that as well.

    In the icon set you show, the calendar is a round version of the ios6 design. How is that more or less elegant?

    While I can’t argue that the new iOS icons aren’t flat, the dimension comes with the parallax – You tilt your phone and you can see the icons move against the background. Doesn’t serve a purpose really but it’s pretty!

  7. Bianca Board Reply

    There seems to be a LOT of backlash on the recent design move to IOS7, though I wonder how much of it is from us designers looking at with rose tinted glasses. Mind you, I’ve seen some great “IOS7 inspired” designs… but I’ve also seen some shockers 🙁

  8. Erwin Reply

    This is not an article, but an add. Please come with more examples of flat design done bad and it might be interesting to read. Now it’s just bashing Apple by ONE icon. Thank you bye.

  9. Victoria Mudaraya Reply

    I think that it fully depends on designer if the new iOS7 app looks better or worse than the previous version, because some professional iOS7 designs are really astonishing, but it often takes more professionalism to create simple design and make it look beautiful

  10. Jay Reply

    First and foremost, Apple is a marketing company with an interest in technology. Apple rarely if ever comes out with an innovation. What Apple is and has always been good at is recognizing a market and “perfecting” a device/os/product for that market.

    The iPhone was not the first touch screen phone but it was the best example of what a touch screen phone could be. The iPhone 5s fingerprint reader is miles away from the first reader on a phone, but again it works beautifully and conveniently. Apple takes time and much thought into “perfecting” old technology. For example look at the HTC One fingerprint reader, what a failure of a device.

    The new IOS7 flat design is again an example of what Apple does best. They created a polished flat design that appeals as much to the younger crowd (potential new customers) as the older (already fanboy) crowd. They took google’s flat design direction and turned the contrast to the max resulting in a very neon ui.

    You cannot argue that IOS7 doesn’t look pretty and polished. It might not be grown up enough for everyone but they cant release an “old fart” version of IOS7.

    Really the only thing that was terrible from a user interface point of view is the new flat design got rid of call to action buttons and replaced them with text in the same location. So new users who aren’t familiar with phone ui’s or IOS6 could get lost in trying to do simple navigation. Google does this much better while still maintaining a very tasteful flat design.

  11. Tim Reply

    There is no doubt that iOS 7 disappointed many users. The design style is a subjective issue. What is less subjective is usability (when you actually run the app). Things like the new calendar app are very poorly designed from a usability point of view. Maybe their testing process was rushed, or they ignored feedback from older test subjects. Either way, many aspecst of iOS are less intuitive and less easy to read than iOS 6.

  12. Luis Castillo Reply

    I think this new trend is base on start ups new amazing dynamic projects or ideas trying to catch the eye.
    For me suits can go to hell, it doesn’t have bring any good to us. Instead a more relaxed approach to people is always a better way.
    But I agree with IOS design, it lacks the perfectionism Jobs used demand, the transparencies are so “blured” that are almost white layers, the icons are not that minimal, not yet well developed and the grid oh my… the grid!

    J. Ive is not a graphic designer and I think he is starting to become to lazy to try new things.

    Ive design a camera for Leica with the same round angles same aluminum…

  13. Sentiva Reply

    Thanks for getting to the root of the problem – I felt there was something not quite right about the new Apple designs, but couldn’t put my finger on it!
    I couldn’t agree more that design should be all about usability as well as beauty – if you’re sacrificing intuitiveness for ‘prettiness’ then you’re losing the plot.
    Unfortunately Apple seem to have had a view that the user should change to suit them rather than the other way round for quite some time now.

  14. Rob Reply

    I’m not the kind of person who normally leaves comments on articles like this, but I feel compelled to do so now. To be frank, as a reader, I find this article insulting. It offers a flimsy point, then offers what I can only call half-assed backup. It’s three “paragraphs of flat design is bad, look at this skeuomorphic icon, it’s soooo much better than this flat one” (it’s not, by the way). Then after this, it’s, “oh look I’m so clever, here’s a TERRIBLE meme.” Finally, we get “oh. hey, look at this crappy icon set you can buy! It’s soooo awesome.” Pay no mind to the fact that the company that offers this icon set PAYS the writer of the article.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I really don’t mind people using a platform like this to give a subtle nod to their own interests. I just find it insulting as a reader and a designer to see it being done in an article that’s supposed to be about design, but is written by a marketing professional, whose just trying to hawk something. It’s clear from the laughable arguments presented and the use of a hot-button issue to get click throughs, that this article was never intended to tell a real story or make a legitimate point. It’s just “oh look at my clever meme and buy my company’s product” and here’s some other drivel I overheard someone saying about iOS7, and that, as I’ve said, is insulting to everyone.


  15. ola Reply

    I loved Apple and I’ve been faithful for all my life as a designer (2 MacBooks and 2 iMacs). Smart devices as well. Now that I have to make a professional choice I believe there’s no longer any reason to look up to Apple UI. So sorry to say that but they lost the leader.
    take care

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