So I was home, having taken a few days off work to celebrate my 40th birthday, when I remembered the Apple WWDC Keynote was about to begin. I grabbed my iPad, and while the kids played around or sat on my lap, I watched the whole thing.
I must say I liked most of it, although I’m always expecting one of those “oh, and one more thing” moments, which, I know, will never happen again.
I was most interested in the iOS 7 portion of the show and when it came I was immediately struck with a mix of excitement and awkwardness. It seemed to me Apple was confusing a redesign with a restyling and as hard as I looked I only saw the same iOS design, wearing a different style. And that could be just a matter of semantics for almost everyone (unless you’re a designer), but if I disregarded the fact that Apple should’ve announced this as “the biggest restyling since iPhone”, there was still a basic problem: it looked very inconsistent in many aspects and some stuff was downright ugly to me.
I’ve since tried iOS 7 beta and I must say I’ve changed my mind a little bit about the redesign part: there are new design options all around the system, and although most aren’t really revolutionary they are very good and improve the interaction.
I have not, as yet, changed my mind in what comes to the visual aspect, though. The most blatant problem is in the iconography, which seems to have been designed by marketing and project management people who are, in my very personal experience, utterly useless at this job. They think they can do it, but they can’t, because icons and other visual aspects of the interface are not brand assets, they are interaction assets that can, at times, convey a sense of brand.
However, you need designers to achieve this, not market experts or brand managers.
Being on vacation, I jumped on my Mac and starting drawing some icons – I didn’t really design any, I kept the design standard to what everyone’s used to: a rounded corner rectangle with an image on top to indicate functionality – I focused on visual style and tried to incorporate some aspects of iOS 7, while making an effort to keep better consitency between them and trying very hard to not produce anything remotely as ugly as that horrifying Safari icon.
In the last few days, some people did the same exercise and there are already some published examples of how the home screen can look better. I took longer, because I didn’t want to fall prey to haste. I reworked some of the icons several times until I was happy with them. I’m still not completely happy with all of them, to be honest, but I think I have some good ideas and a better general sense of unity and style.
Here’s my reworked homescreen and I’ll move on to explaining each icon next.
I kept the same order as seen in the iOS 7 screenshots, but to be honest, I think that deserves work too: some apps makes better sense next to others, instead of where they are today.
For the base of the icons, I used a square with rounded corners, using roughly the same corner radius as iOS 7: I tried some other stuff, but that wasn’t my point anyway, so I kept them the same shape. I added a simple gradient to most icons (which is just a black to white gradient overlay at 20%) and I assumed top to bottom lighting, creating a very thin highlight and shadow, just to add the slightest sense of volume. I prefer icons I feel like touching, and honestly grow very quickly tired of flat squares.
Each icon also produces a subtle dropshadow as I found that really helps with distinguishing the icons well independently of the wallpaper you might put on your phone.
For typography, I used Helvetica Neue for the first studies, but then I thought that too could be changed and I went with Din Text, a typeface I really like but am not yet sure works well here. Still, I kept it for now.
I did very little to the Messages icon, except put the speech balloon on top of the new base I created and gracing it with a tiny dropshadow, again, trying to just hint at some volume to keep things interesting. I think you can’t underestimate how much people love to play with their phones, scrolling through their icons, just idly looking at things. If you oversimplify, you’ll end up with a vertical list of application names you can tap to run. Why use icons? There’s no need and no advantage – if you keep apps alphabetically ordered and use big text, whilst providing a search feature, you’re set.
But we don’t do that, because we like pictures and we relate to them better, faster and with more pleasure – cool looking icons are fun and I believe that delight is important in the interface.
The Calendar icon on iOS 7 is one of my favorites. It’s dead simple, looks great and conveys information with its great live update feature. I went for a mix between the old and the new here – not one of my favorites, I must say, but I’m sure I can improve it easily enough.
For the light background icons, I went with a light grey, instead of pure white.
I struggled with the photos icon for quite a while, mostly because I think Photos could easily be inside Camera and you’d save an icon. Sure, you may want to quickly jump to your photos and save a tap (Camera > Photos), but you could have the app save state, which I guess would save you 50% of second taps.
Anyway, I ended up maintaining the sunflower idea, since users are used to it, but I simplified the flower and put it inside a photo frame, which was what kept coming to mind when I thought of “photos”. It may have helped that I did this project while sitting in front of our family’s photo wall, which bears a dozen or so photo frames of several generations up to our kids.
Camera was easier to create. Firstly because the iOS 7 icon is hideous. It looks like something out of my first 1.5 Android phone, and that’s saying a lot (not bashing Android here, but it did look awful in the begining).
Secondly: the camera is right there on the phone! Just flip it around and voilá! So I did just that: I reproduced the camera on my iPhone trying to balance a simplification of form with a few hints of realism, such as the reflection on the outter aluminum ring and on the lens.
I really like this one, as I think it hits all three points: it reminds me of the iOS 6 one, it relates to a real physical object while being a simplified geometric version of it and it quickly conveys what the app is: a camera!
And yes, I’m aware that if you meld Photos with Camera, then this icon would not represent both features in one, but you do keep your digital photos in your camera so camera can say photos as much as a photo album or picture frame do.
This was one of the first icons I made. I used a cloud off of Font Awesome (which is awesome), and put it on a blue background. The main idea here, though, is to have an icon which changes according to weather, just like Calendar shows the date. You don’t really need to have 500 different states for all sorts of weather, but if you offer someting for clear, cloudy, rainy, snow and a couple of others, then you’d be set and have a very cool little feature. Again: delighting the users with little details can make a lot of difference.
I don’t know about you, but I’d sure love to see a dynamic weather icon.
I changed the background from dark to light and I’m not sure that’s a good idea, since people are used to the clock icon being dark. But I did keep the overall look of the clock, with the dark border and the seconds hand. It would also be nice if this icon could display the current time, although I suppose it would have to lose the seconds hand, since updating that every second might prove a useless waste of processing and battery.
I really went to town on this one (pardon the pun). I think the Maps icon had a lot of stuff that could be simplified, so I started with losing that road marker that makes sense only in the US, making the road a simple intersection and focusing on the navigation aspect by giving the location marker and route elements a center position.
Someone commented that there should be a turn in the route, otherwise you wouldn’t need navigation, but I thought about it and decided that was unnecessary complexity: sure there will be turns in the road, but we’re looking at a bit that simply tells you to keep going and cross the intersection.
I added two tones to the background as I found that a single color made the icon boring. So, again, I tried to make it simpler but still keep some superfulous elements that simply add to te visual experience.
This is another slightly confusing app. These aren’t the videos you made with your camera, they’re the videos you might have transfered to your device to watch or bought on iTunes. So I struggled with this for a while, trying a play sign (like the one on YouTube), or a film frame and not really finding anything I liked.
Then, I remembered the countdown sequence that’s used in film and video alike to cue, well, a video. I thought that would be immediately recognizable by anyone who’s been around long enough to have seen tv or movies a few times and would convey the idea very nicely. I really like this icon also because I think it’s quite original; I’m sure someone has had the same idea before, but I’ve never seen it which at least means it’s not that common.
Was it so hard for Apple to update the Notes icon like I did? Isn’t it the obivous choice? Seemed like a no brainer to me, really! It echoes the previous icon, it’s completely clear and it almost invites you to grab a pencil and scribble something on the lines.
For a while I thought it would be cool to see a bit of the last note you took, right on the icon, but then I thought you might be taking notes that you don’t really want to see splattered on your home screen. That’s the same reason that having the last photo taken as the icon for Photos is a bad idea.
Again, I tried to simplify the iOS 6 idea, rather that go for something that looks like it came out of the Windows 3.1 Program Manager. I think this icon could live with live updates of your last three reminders. Maybe not your last three completed reminders, like I show here (again, using a checkbox icon borrowed from Font Awesome), but maybe your last three incomplete items, or your highest priority ones.
I had other ideas, namely, having a trend for your portfolio or maybe simply an up green arrow if your stocks were going up on average and a red down arrow if they were falling. But I figured that sort of broad information is mostly useless for actual investors, so I stuck to a line graph.
Well, I really can’t describe the new Game Center icon. While most icons are simple and, clean, the Game Center icon (and the app, by the way), is made up of overlapping colorful spheres. It’s one of the worst, in my opinion and to be honest, it makes me miss green felt.
I went with the simplest piece of a game I could think of: a dice. There’s also a little playfulness to this icon: if you shake your device, the dice will “roll” and you get a different number. It’s nothing much but it’s fun, makes the icon change, while leaving the simple ivory background and dark dots take care of the familiarity issue and, well, it could actually come in handy!
The new News Stand icon is graphically cool, but it looks more like a splash screen than an icon. I went with an open “magazine” and added the glasses, which are already used in Safari for “reading list”. I thought the whole thing said “reading”, to me, which is, I think, reasonably accurate for the News Stand app.
I like how it turned out, although it’s the least consistent of all my icons.
I left this icon looking like the Music icon for a long time until I thought the play symbol fit it like a glove: the play triangle is very recognizable and is used both to start music and video. I drew the triangle to be the same proportion as the actual play symbol on the iTunes app, just to make things a little more proper.
I’m sure a lot of people will not agree with this icon, but then again, Apple could make things easier by creating a single Apple Store, where you could buy music, shows, movies and apps.
I never liked the silly App Store icon, with the objects forming an “A”. Why not simply use the Apple logo? Sure enough, by the time I reached that idea, someone else suggested the same, and I’ve seen the Apple logo be used for App Store elsewhere.
It would be even better if this was the Apple Store app and included everything Apple sells, like I suggested on the iTunes icon.
You may have noticed the previous couple of icons have a stronger gradient to them. That was meant to highlight the ‘store’ apps in the middle of the rest and to echo the OS X Mavericks wave. Not sure it makes all that much sense, but I felt these were the “Apple” icons, whereas the others were their own app icons.
I think it still needs a lot of worked, but to be honest, I got a bit bored with it and wanted to work on something else.
The iOS 7 version looks like something out of an airplane panel, which makes little sense when put together with the rest of the icons. I think it has way too much detail, so I focused on the simplest uses for a compass: finding North. I made the red needle have a light and a dark side, which gives it some volume, while it remains a simple triangle.
The new settings icon is terrifying. Seriously, it’s terrible! It’s too complicated, but not for the sake of making it look good, it just looks a mess. Which is a shame, because the iOS 6 Settings icon was pretty cool, especially when it rotated, indicating a system update was underway.
I went back to the interlocked cogs. I did simplify them, but I kept a little bit of realism; for example: I gave each cog a central axis they could rotate on, but I did not make them look like oiled metal.
I really like this one, especially because one of the cogs is partially hidden, making me feel like we’re looking at only a small portion of a large machine. It should be animated, just like the iOS 6 one.
Just like the messages icon, I kept the phone icon and simply made the receiver horizontal. I don’t like it, I think we should have a different imag for phone than an old phone headset my kids have never even seen in their lives.
I did toy around with some sort of pictogram for a keypad, but came up with nothing really good, so I kept this one and will try to improve it later.
Not much to say about the mail icon, except that I went back to a more realistic look to the envelope. This is another case in which we’re still using old metaphors for new things. They work, I guess, but they’re kind of boring by now.
Maybe I’ll have a better idea later.
The Safari icon is the culprit of all this exercise. When I first saw it on the keynote video I couldn’t believe how horrible it looked. The white background with the blue circle (I suppose it’s meant to indicate the Earth), the thin lines, everything in it looks like it was a rushed job by someone drawing their very first icon… on MS Paint.
Now, I don’t know who, at Apple, named their browser Safari and thought that a compass was a good icon. The two are vaguely related, I can admit, since you might need a compass to not get lost on a Safari, but, come on.
Anyway, the harm is done and the Safari icon is well known, so I wasn’t about to redesign it. I kept the design and changed the look, and it wasn’t very hard to come up with something simpler than the current iOS 6 version and better looking than the beta iOS 7 version. I really like it.
You may notice the Mail and Safari icons share the color. I thought it made sense, since both are the main “I’m going online” kind of apps in the system.
(Yes, it’s inset instead of dropping a shadow, like in the iTunes Store icon, see? They’re kind of related. Oh well, tiny details).
iOS 7 is still in beta. A lot can change and I’m sure some of it will. I’ve never been a huge fan of Apple icons, to be honest, although I always liked how well they were crafted. And I think therein lies the problem: they were really good at making realistic icons and even if you didn’t like them much, you had to admit they were very well made; but they seem to not be very good at making simplified icons.
Perhaps they are learning, as it is a huge change. And maybe when iOS 7 launches later this year, the icons will look better.
The good part here is that the icons are a small detail in this new version of the operating system and the rest feels great. And, to me, iOS is all about how it feels, how you touch stuff and something happens, how the device reacts to you through the visual interface in such a way that is efficient as well as pleasing.
That’s why I scroll around my screens, open and close folders or swipe my iPad screen with five fingers to reveal running apps, just because. Because it’s there, because it’s animated, it’s responsive, quick and it’s kind of fun.
I think iOS 7 lost none of that, on the contrary, it gained a lot of little details that will make sure the experience of using it remains cohesive and interesting.
Now, if only they remake those hideous icons and control center, then it would rock.
A bit of giving back
A couple of years after having designed these icons and written this post I got a comment, and later an e-mail, from user Travis who wanted to pick up the Safari icon and make a full set for Apple’s browser.
I think he did a really good job and is sharing it for anyone wanting to use it, so head on over to his Deviant Art page and download his Safari icon set. Thanks a lot, Travis!