‘This Is Our Signature’: iOS 7

No one has questioned whether Jony Ive can lead a hardware design team. Whether he could lead a software design team, however, has been the biggest question facing Apple over the last eight months. In fact, it might be the biggest question facing Apple, ever, because it’s another way of asking whether the company could produce innovative software without you-know-who at the helm of the ship.

Today, we have our answer, and it is a resounding yes. Jony Ive can lead a software team.

The key, I think, is that his approach, and Apple’s as a whole under its post-Forstall organizational structure, is not to view this as two different things, hardware and software, but rather as a single thing: design.

There is a deep intellectual rigor to the design of iOS 7, and it’s hard not to see it as being profoundly informed by Ive’s background in hardware. In hardware, design is limited by physics: weight, density, size, connections, seams. Software doesn’t face those design limits. The old design of iOS 6 took advantage of that lack of limits, to its detriment. In iOS 6, you open a folder on the home screen, and linen is something you see underneath. You pull down Notification Center, and linen is something you see over. It’s both over and under. Hardware doesn’t work like that, but software can, because software can show you anything, conceptual logic be damned.

The design of iOS 7 is based on rules. There’s an intricate system at work, a Z-axis of layers organized in a logical way. There is a profound reduction in the use of faux-3D visual effects and textures, but iOS 7 is anything but flat. It is three dimensional not just visually but logically. It uses translucency not to show off, but to provide you with a sense of place. When you pull the new Control Center panel up from the bottom of the screen, its translucency lets you know that you haven’t gone somewhere new, you’re just looking at something over where you were.

There’s a sense of place, depth, and spatiality in iOS 7 that makes it feel like hardware. A real thing, not pixels rendered on glass. It’s as though Ive has brought the same design goals that have always informed Apple’s hardware to software. And here, his team isn’t limited by physics. Planes can have zero thickness. But it’s a system, in the truest sense of the word.

iOS 7 is not perfect; this new design framework will evolve and improve over time, just like iOS’s original aesthetic did. But it’s a conceptual foundation that corrects all of the excesses of the original iOS aesthetic. It’s radically different but not disorienting. Less flashy, less bling, more subtle, more refined.

This is the first product of the post-Jobs Apple. The result shows that in some ways Apple’s software design has gotten better, because it was Jobs (and Forstall) who had a penchant for exuberant textures and gimmickry. Jobs’s taste in hardware was nearly perfect, but his taste in software had a weakness for the saccharine. Wood grain, linen, Rich Corinthian leather, etc. It was all just sugar for the eyes. This is a weakness Jony Ive’s software taste clearly does not suffer.

The software is now of a piece with the hardware. Two sides of the same coin. Not hardware design and software design. Just design.