An aesthete's take on iOS 7: Blinded by the white

An aesthete's take on iOS 7: Blinded by the white

Summary: Apple's new iOS7 was meant to be a revolution in design — but someone forgot to do some continuity checking. The result is an aesthetic nightmare that, regardless of the underlying features, is difficult and frustrating to use.


Since the iPhone 5s/5c launch last month, the web has been flooded with sycophantic "reviews" of iOS 7 that either describe in gushing terms how beautiful its redesign is, or how Apple's design saviour Jony Ive has delivered a mobile operating system that has redefined contemporary standards of beauty for the 21st century.

This is all rubbish. After a few weeks with the new platform, I've realised that Apple's new mobile operating system is a half-baked, confused mess that mixes beautiful innovation with how-could-they-do-that face palming. iOS 7 is the technology equivalent of going home with a supermodel — and then spending the night on the couch because she's made a Dutch oven of the bed.

iOS 7 can't decide whether it's black or white, or both.
(Image: Screenshots by David Braue/ZDNet)

I'm sorry, I really am. I know we're supposed to accept every little gesture Apple makes, every little point-point upgrade as some sort of amazing revelation. I am a big fan, and I'm not change-averse. But while there are many features that finally work the way they should — sending multiple photos, for example, or easier access to settings, or more easily switching between and closing apps — others seem to have followed the change-for-change's-sake mentality in all the wrong ways.

The lock and home screens are a great example. While the iOS 7 lock screen is minimalist and slick, it's too much so, with a large, crisp clock hovering above a new-message list that is far too large and has margins that are far too large to be helpful. This is one case where less is definitely not more.

It may work well on the iPhone 5/5c/5s, which has more vertical real estate to display messages. However, on my smaller iPhone 4S screen, I can only see one message at a time because the clock and margins are so very, very large. Forget updates at a glance; if you want to see your new emails and alerts, iOS 7 demands your full attention and interaction. iOS 6 had this process working much more usefully, with several messages available for perusal.

Once you've unlocked the home screen, the cognitive dissonance is jarring. And I'm not just talking about the pointless and distracting way the icons drop into place on the home screen — pointless because it's a motif that does not appear anywhere else in the iOS 7 interface, and distracting because it serves no purpose whatsoever.

The slick white-on-black aesthetics of the lock screen are compromised with a completely different style of interface that simply does not flow from one screen to the next.

The slick white-on-black aesthetics of the lock screen are compromised with a completely different style of interface that simply does not flow from one screen to the next.

The PIN screen, for example, is a gorgeous, translucent, black-ish motif with buttons that seemingly glow when you press them. Start up the Phone app, and suddenly everything's black-on-white. Contacts are displayed as white screens with black text, as is the dialling keypad.

Yet, once you type a number and hit Call, you get a white-on-black screen that has the same aesthetic feel as the PIN-entry screen. Finish your call and it's back to black-on-white.

White, black. White, black. By the time you're finished with your phone call, your brain doesn't know what in the world is going on.

Then there's the home screen, which has replaced Apple's comfortable icons with minimalist alternatives that are not only unfamiliar, but ugly and counterintuitive. Had they been suggested for a DesignCrowd brief, I would have rejected them out of hand — but this, apparently, is the future of Apple design.

Voice Memos, in particular — an app that I use extremely regularly for work — has changed from being an intuitive microphone-style app to something that I think is supposed to represent an audio waveform, but looks more like the 1980s-era Defender spaceship. The app itself — black, on the whole — has been transformed from an intuitive, feature-limited, but very useful tool into something that looks like the illegitimate offspring of GarageBand and an electrocardiograph machine.

Seriously, what was wrong with a microphone motif? The problem with Apple's old skeuomorphic design wasn't its iconography or visual look; it was the selection and layout of features in the apps. And while Voice Memos seems to have a few more features, the need to completely relearn all of iOS 7's apps has created an unnecessarily and annoyingly steep learning curve.

Everything's turning to white

The main problem with Ive's minimalist redesign is the absolute dominance of white. This may have played out well in minimalist-design group meetings, but on an actual iPhone screen, it is overwhelming. I cannot use iOS 7 in an even moderately dark room because it hurts my eyes. Turning down the brightness does little except muddy the interface screen so everything is a difficult shade of grey.

White is everywhere: Unbalancing the Voice Memos, Safari, Calendar, and Notes icons; dominating the interface screens of Notes, Safari, Mail, and other apps. Photos are displayed, inexplicably, on a field of white — which distracts from the content of the photos — rather than black, which emphasises the photos and is much easier on the eye.

The top-of-screen command bar is also white, meaning there's no visually intuitive way to discern what's user information and what's the command bar. Indeed, in the camera app, the white and transparent control bars across top and bottom of the phone screens are so big, and so intrusive, that it has become impossible to see a significant portion of the photo you're taking.

It's like that old joke about the polar bear in the snowstorm — but in this case, it's no joke. Someone, somewhere, gave old Jony Ive a blank cheque to change iOS 7 in whatever way he saw fit — and he has proceeded to immolate the iOS 7 user experience that, while dated, was at least familiar and beautiful.

Worse still, while there is no way to change the design aesthetic, which has already driven me to repeatedly wish out loud that there was some way to downgrade back to iOS 6 until Sir Ive stops playing this cruel joke on all of us. At the very least, Apple could give us the option to have a white-on-black aesthetic instead of black-on-white. Black-on-white may play well on paper, but on a backlit smartphone screen, it's a disaster.

In the short term, I am telling anyone who asks me about iOS 7 to hold off upgrading until Apple comes to its senses in a subsequent upgrade. Family members who see it in action have actually banned me from upgrading their devices. I have expressed out loud that I wish I could get rid of it. Sure, some of the new features are great, and there are some nice touches — but when the overall user experience is so fundamentally irritating, it's hard to recommend iOS 7 yet, simply because of its frustrating, inconsistent user interface.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh on iOS 7? Or have you had the same issues with it? What else drives you crazy about it?

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Topics: Apple, iOS, iPhone, iPad, Mobile OS, Smartphones


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  • I don't think the ranger is going to like this, Dave.

    Commence fanboy attack comments in 5... 4... 3...
    • iOS 7

      It's not Apple, it's the users fault they get motion sickness from using iOS 7
      Dreyer Smit
      • a good iOS, imHO

        iOS 7 motion sickness :)) that was funny

        i have found a good review about the
        Klax Iulian
        • a good iOS, imHO

          about the iphone voice control here
          Klax Iulian
    • David, exactly right

      iOS7, like the iPhone 5c, is perfect for the teenage girl market: very eye-popping just for the sake of being that way. While trying to copy Windows Phone 8 and some of Android Jelly Bean, Apple has completely messed up the minimalist approach.

      Just trying to figure out how to operate the various pages because of the lack of consistency can be maddening. It's hard to tell what to press on, swipe, or just read without interaction.

      The absolutely worst part is the dreadful iconography. It is worse than clip art in an old version of MS Office.

      Jony Ive might know how to design minimalist hardware, but he's no master of interface design.
      • You're having problems?

        "Just trying to figure out how to operate the various pages because of the lack of consistency can be maddening. It's hard to tell what to press on, swipe, or just read without interaction."

        Really? My friends 12 year old kid picked up the iPhone 5 with the new iOS7 and after a few minutes figured out how to use it.
        Todd Jacobs2
        • Awesome for the 12 year old

          Please know that people who say what kids do demonstrate an inability to make rational arguments.

          I know several kids who couldn't figure out how to close apps in the multi-task screen until I showed them. So what?

          Useless comments about children operating a phone are useless.
          • And people that claim apple copied WP 8

            Never had a rational argument to begin with. Nowhere in iOS 7 are there ugly squares, that are all maddeningly the same. Nowhere in iOS 7 is there the same amount of "Phone home" spyware. Those are logical arguments.
            I hate trolls also
          • Finally!! Apple losing its stance!

            Apple isn't copying WP8, rather it is doing that deliberately, and quiet out of frustration.

            iOS 7 : New UI (atleast for Apple) but with drastically annoying pain in the eyes.

            Moreover, Apple just has a premium price tag, it was never worth the price it comes at (as the recent reports about iPhone prices suggest). It's just making a BIG FOOL out of the people who think they've paid more, got into Apple community, so they're a notch above.
          • circles instead of squares

            This is your argument?! Of course circles are so much more aesthetic than squares.
          • Microsoft has gone in this same direction...

            I'm not going to make the same argument as the author of the article, but...Office 2013 (particularly Outlook) and Visual Studio 2012 moved to this idea of a more black-and-white look that is rather minimalist and without much color. I find that I absolutely hate it (so much so that I uninstalled it on my main work computer and went back to Office 2010)! If that's the direction Apple has gone with IOS, (and if so I understand where the author is coming from) I won't be upgrading my iPod touch anytime soon! I usually like new stuff, but this time around it just doesn't work for me.
          • I did the same thing

            Windows 8 was the last copy of Windows I touched, and after the minimalist approach with Office, I looked elsewhere. I'm quite happy with Pages and Numbers at the moment, but I am fearing iOS 7 may be a frightening preview of what's to come for Mavericks and the few of Apple Software.

            I've never been so appalled by the looks of software and Operating Systems coming out lately. It's like they were thrown into a blender of multiple realities and eras, and then presented to us for our pleasure in trying to figure out what the hell universe and era is this app as opposed to the last one I just used. Bi-polar systems are the systems of the future.
          • Let me see if I have this right?

            Squares are ugly, and anything the same is maddening?

            Ok... I think you need to see a psychiatrist, though I do feel empathy for you having to drive down the maddeningly same streets, past the maddeningly same buildings, while looking at the maddeningly same signs, to get to the maddeningly same office, with the maddeningly same receptionist... I also understand your absolute torture as you try not to throw up with the ugly square building, going through the ugly square doors, to the ugly square receiptionists desk and on into the doctors office where you are forced to look at the ugly square degree certificates on his wall while he is writing in his ugly square note book.

            Your life must be sheer torture!
        • The interesting thing about 12 year olds

          is that some can actually drive a car, believe it or not.

          The downside is that a great many can't, and would just crash the car, or run over people.

          Do you think that might also work with something like the iPhone?
      • no, even teenage girls don't like it

        my 15 year old daughter don't like it, my 35 year girlfriend don't like it, I don't now any regular user who likes it ... I like it, but then I'm not everyday user of iOS ...
        • RE: no, even teenage girls don't like it

          < I like it, but then I'm not everyday user of iOS >

          This is probably why you are OK with it :)
      • Spot on. I wouldn't buy Apple shares!

        Spot on! I moved from Blackberry to iPhone 2 months ago, liked IOS6, then migrated to IOS 7 because I couldn't see the point of becoming too familiar with the last generation interface. Ouch. Big mistake. Feels like Apple is reaching the top of the parabola. Usually we read about hubris in the history books; with Johnny Ive we can watch it play out in real time.
  • Better than 6 but I agree it's a bit messed up.

    I think ios7 has saved the iPhone/ipad from total blandness - it is a refreshing change from some very dated skeumorphic icons and tired themes. But I think they got some of the detail wrong and I agree that it's a jumble.
  • Copying Windows Phone...

    "difficult and frustrating to use."... and costs a fortune
    • Windows Phone

      Please explain how Windows Phone is difficult to use? My 45 year old mother got her first smartphone (Lumia 620) and she got into it pretty quickly.
      Dreyer Smit