Tag Archives: icon

The challenge of user interfaces simplification

iOS 7 is here. I’ve been using it since the first beta. As far as user interfaces are effective, I don’t care too much about aesthetic, also because it’s totally subjective. What is ugly for you is beautiful for someone else. In a previous post I shared a couple of screenshots showing the difference between icons in Xcode 3.2, 4.6 and 5.0. You can see a progressive simplification of the interface. First flatting colors then flatting depth. The challenge with this design is to avoid reaching the point of maximum simplification. Let’s look at the icons in detail:

simplify

Symbols don’t have any meaning by themselves, we give meaning to symbols and icons which simply are symbols, ideograms, pictograms. If we keep the design around the first icon on the left, it’s possible to change its look without changing its meaning. It’s not a practical need, but an aesthetic one, and I understand that’s more a marketing choice than a practical one. Even if nothing really changed inside the application, a new look gives you the idea that you have a new and fresh product.

The problem with the icon on the right is that simplification reached the limit. It’s so simple, so minimalist, that a change of its design means also changing the symbol and therefore removing the meaning. Symbols are powerful and that’s why many people over the years in history tried to steal symbols and change their original meaning, like the the Nazis did with the swastika. We should avoid changing symbols too often, because that removes semantic consistency in the interface and creates confusion.

Another example:

simplify02

The icon in 5.0 is a simplification of the correspondent in 3.2. The icon in 4.6 is a change in the previous symbol, creating confusion and inconsistency. Then they changed it back again to the original one. The new one has very little room to evolve or change without changing the symbol. It’s the extreme simplification of the original one.

I think that iOS 7 and the OSX interface and design are great. They are simple, effective, intuitive and fun but over simplifying hides the potential risk of reaching a point where simplification cannot be accomplished anymore and the only possible choice is changing the symbol, therefore breaking consistency.

I’m curios to see if, at this point, they will be able to update the design in the future without breaking the symbolic consistency.