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Where Apple design is headed in 2014

Dave Wiskus | March 6, 2014
2013 was an interesting year for Apple. Jony Ive's move to the head of software design bore its first fruit with the launch of iOS 7, shaking up some established Apple design conventions and breaking a long-held pattern of focused iteration in a company not known for its wild mood swings. So what do Apple design developments from 2013 tell us about what to expect for iOS and the Mac this year?

iOS 7 was a rare large leap forward all at once. To me, the most exciting thing about iOS 7 has always been iOS 8. I think we should expect iOS 8's changes to come in Apple's traditional flavor: slow, steady, and incremental.

Back to the Mac

So how would this hardware-meets-software approach to human interface design work on the Mac? OS X is a very different platform from iOS, visually. Not just in terms of screen real estate, but the way applications coexist. On iOS, only one app is open and in use at a time, whereas the Mac not only allows for but encourages multiple apps sharing the same visual space. An argument could be made that designing for the desktop is a trickier proposition than for mobile, where the device becomes the app. Perhaps full-screen mode is still waiting for its moment, but as it stands today the Mac is still visually a multitasking environment.

Another sticking point with the desktop is file hierarchy. On iOS, individual apps more or less own their documents, while OS X has a long history of files being organized into folders, with a separate file-manager app. And where iOS was prone to literal visual representations of concepts, the desktop has always been a collection of conceptual metaphors: files, folders, windows, and the desktop itself. That legacy can't be swept away cleanly in one step, and that's okay. The purpose of having iPhones and iPads and Macs isn't to provide the same experience in different shapes, but to contour the experience to the device. In that respect, Mac OS has a very long lead on iOS.

So how do you apply the lessons learned in iOS 7 to the Mac? For one possibility, look at the interesting facelift iCloud.com's Web apps have undergone. The animations, curves, and layout feel like a desktop-friendly reimagining of iOS 7. It's not hard to imagine this as a testbed or preview of how iOS 7's design ethos could apply to the Mac — and it's a good-looking translation.

However, iCloud.com needs to serve a single group of apps, one at a time. How would this look translate to multiple windows on the same screen? Borderless text buttons — which already feel like hyperlinks and therefore right at home on a Web app — may not translate as well to a desktop OS. But the spirit is there, and it's not hard to imagine a clean, minimalist interface that could provide the right amount of visual separation to make it work.

The Mac has had years to iterate through changes in Apple's traditional style. Yet the biggest changes in iOS 7 were also primarily visual. Nobody can deny that iOS 7 looks dramatically different than the versions that came before it. But underneath the sparse new visuals, things still more or less work the same way. Retina screens aren't yet ubiquitous on the Mac (and may not be for some time), but as display technology marches forward, typography will play a larger and larger role. Given OS X's history and the lessons learned from the iOS 7 reveal, perhaps the changes will be addressed with more subtlety.

 

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