The limits of uninformed concept designs: the iOS 7 case

2 minute read

A few days ago started appearing stronger rumours that Jonathan Ive is pushing for a redesigned look for the next version of the operating system, iOS 7.0. So it’s not suprising that a couple of excellent designers, Denes Farkas and Philip Joyce, tried to come up with a new concept design.

Concepts designs are a quite interesting thing: they are an open way of exploring alternatives and when well done trigger a huge surge in visibility for the authors. On top of this, they require relatively little time compared to the time required to actually produce a product with them.

However, they have one huge issue: they are uninformed and are rarely grounded in the existing company strategy. This redesign is a good case in point that’s worth a look. It’s an excellent one, very nice, bright and polished. However, let’s have a look at the new icons.

iOS 7 icons concept by @iamphilipjoyce and @FarkasDenes

This is one of the usual kind of issues that appear in concept designs. In their effort of breaking ground and being new and polished, they lose track of the key strategy elements.

In this case, they ignored what is likely the one and most important visual element of iOS and Apple’s brand strategy in general: the shape of the app icon.

That shape is not just a shape. Today, it screams “app” and “apple”. Do an image search on “app icon” and see by yourself. This element is also a really important lesson in branding in general, because shows how an element like a actually quite generic shape can be elevated as a key element of the brand image of a company, if played correctly, sustained over time and valorized… when nobody else does the same.

It shouldn’t sound strange then that the shape is the only visual elements that appears on the front side of iPhones and iPads. The home button has the app icon outline drawn in it.

Given all of this, no concept design should go away from that shape icon, unless motivated properly. Surely Apple might decide at some point that the app icon shape can go away, but it’s not a light decision. It’s not a “iOS7 visual refresh” decision, it’s a whole company change of communication strategy that impacts all levels (from product design to software to advertisement).

Now I don’t want to say that the visual refresh done here is bad. It’s an excellent one. Balanced, clear, crisp. But what says to me is “I have an iPhone but I would have preferred a Lumia”, because from a brand perspective that design says more “Windows Phone” than “iOS”.

This is why even if concept designs are interesting researches on what’s possible, they are rarely realistic and usable as they are.
This is also why we don’t have just graphic designers and art directors, but also interaction designers and brand designers, working together.
This is exactly why these are difficult things to design properly and require an holistic design approach.

This is also and unfortunately why often designers are seen as “superficial”. We keep damaging ourselves by doing things like these uninformed concept designs.