The release of iOS 7 was the tipping point in bringing about the dominance of flat modern minimalism. In the wake of iOS 7’s radical redesign, without stopping to consider whether there may have been any genuine grievances being aired, many major industry figures decried the uproar of users who were uninterested in flat design.
Frank Chimero, the author of The Shape of Design, asked both users and designers to "give it a second" in his iOS 7 reaction piece called "Generosity of Perspective." Jim Dalrymple of The Loop explained to his audience how they should have reacted to iOS 7: "Here is my advice to you—sit back, take a deep breath and relax." The Design Director of Facebook, Julie Zhuo, warned us of the dangerous "Shark-Infested Waters of Design." In his article "Given Time," Chris Clark of Square and Fitbit described criticism of iOS 7 as "a kind of xenophobia." This is a particularly ironic observation, given both how alienating modern minimalism has been in art history and how it continues to be in user interfaces.
Apologists have argued that iOS 7 can be explained away because designers at Apple are "only human." As if speaking to kindergarteners, Jason Santa Maria, Co-founder of A Book Apart and Creative Director of Typekit, took to the stage after the launch of iOS 7 to echo Dalrymple and make a heart-felt speech. Santa Maria implored the community to "take a breath,":
Take a breath. Think about what it is that you’re doing. Think about what it is that you want to say. The world can wait at least that long for you to consider your thoughts and your feelings in the words you say to someone else. Take the chance to consider, maybe even reconsider what it is that you’re saying to someone else that might be negative to that person. Insightful and sometimes witty critiques can wait.
And wait, we have. In the meantime, modern minimalism has become the undisputed status quo. For Mike Monteiro of Mule Design and Fuck You, Pay Me fame, what matters most is that iOS is “a breath of fresh air…This opens up all manner of possibilities. I’m excited because it’s new. And fresh…The new stuff is a fresh start…as a designer, that excites me. As a consumer? I dunno.” What is important in this producer-centric analysis is that it is easier for him to produce flat designs. It only briefly enters his mind whether or not the iOS 7 redesign is useful or pleasurable to the consumer.
Following the release of iOS 7 beta, there were many attempts by outside designers to provide suggestions to Apple in the form of redesigned interface elements from Apple’s operating system. Designers also went about redesigning the icons and interfaces of those companies who followed in Apple’s footsteps. The truth of the matter was immediately clear: an incredible number of designers proved they could execute in a matter of hours what were, relative to Apple's, decently tasteful designs.
Apple, on the other hand, had months and still felt it unnecessary to produce tasteful or well-crafted designs. Nevertheless, apologists like Rene Ritchie of iMore felt the need to point out that "the brutal deadline for iOS 7 meant we got only as much of it as his [Jony Ive] design team could sprint across the finish line by its September 2013 launch." This argument entirely ignores the fact that this so-called "brutal" deadline was entirely self-imposed.
What should have been most concerning to the community, aside from Apple’s design decisions themselves, was that just about every redesign accepted Apple’s premise for making the harsh designs that they did. Almost without exception, the designers of these public redesigns took Apple at their word that it is best to use oddly matched, over-saturated colors, with an emphasis on bright white whenever possible. Palettes that draw the eye and distract, rather than remain muted and calm. Thin fonts and elements that predictably struggle to scale legibly without jagged, aliased edges. These designers made every effort to disguise the now criminal presence of dimensional representation. In sum, these designers reduced anything that might arbitrarily be deemed ornamental, and exhibited excess in all the worst places.
Despite these designers supplicating to Apple at their every move in public redesigns, Monteiro was incensed by the very arrogance of the designers to think they deserved to have a voice in the conversation. Monteiro felt it necessary to authoritatively enforce limits on the community criticism of iOS 7. His belief is that "You don't EVER throw another designer under the bus by redoing their work. EVER. Total lack of class."
The irony is that in Monteiro's own book published in April of 2012, entitled "Design is a Job", he had this to say about criticism (6):
A designer requires honest feedback and real criticism, and that’s not going to happen in a realm where colleagues or clients are worried about crushing the spirit of a magical being.
What a difference a year makes in a man. Still, Monteiro is not alone. It is a quite common in the industry to believe that there are designers who have reached a status at which they should be above criticism. For many, providing constructive criticism in the form of a redesign must be forbidden because it calls into question the perfection of prominent design firms and designers, and from there it is only a slippery slope before anyone might have their work criticized.
For those who would have criticism censored, the leaders of the design community should not, as one would expect, take critical feedback in stride, as a valid source of useful information, complementary to their own efforts. Neither should they take it as evidence that their work matters to their users or proof that they make an impact on the world. Instead, critical feedback apparently must only be seen as a personal insult and a threat to one's reputation.
Writer Kenan Malik put the dangers of censorship in perspective when he said, “‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.” Similarly, Salman Rushdie argued:
The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.
In creating Humanist Interface, I have received protestations telling me to stop critical writing and instead “redirect your trivial disdain for flat design at something useful like human rights.” This detractor of course suffers from the fallacy of relative privation, or the ‘the appeal to worse problems.’
Further, I have been told verbatim by another prominent community member that “In order to come from a place of authority, absent significant work experience, eg. Being Matias Duarte, you need to communicate why you are enough of an expert to be criticizing some of the largest and most adopted trends.” Apparently, unless one is the director of design for Google, their arguments cannot hold sway on the usability of the devices and interfaces they are surrounded by.
This detractor continued his appeal to authority: “Your critiques seem aesthetically driven with less emphasis on usability implications—Material Design is done by the usability kings at Google–this is where your argument becomes implausible.” On the contrary, I embrace the fact that my argument is an aesthetic one. Yet this does not mean I do not emphasize usability. Quite the opposite, my central thrust is to expose the intimate relationship between aesthetics and usability.
For many in the design community, criticism of corporate redesigns is written off as mere snarky negativity. But as critic Rick Poynor expressed, “‘Negative’ can be a misleading word: just because you oppose something it doesn’t mean you are negative. To maintain a consistent critique against the prevailing view requires an extremely positive outlook.” While criticism may not seem constructive, the very fact that it discourages bad practices makes it ultimately a proactive and optimistic strategy.
Others have argued that one needs to have the full context of a design process to effectively criticize it—that we need to know what went on in the design studios from which iOS, Windows Modern and Google Material emerged. This is a ludicrous requirement. It certainly helps to have a thorough understanding of the basis for design decisions, and a diligent critic does research to the best of their ability. But once one has enough variables covered from which to have a basic understanding, they can pass judgement in a meaningful way. More than that, purely visceral judgement tells us plenty about the effect that a design has on its audience. Furthermore, for one’s criticism to be grounded, they need not have much intelligence. Only common sense is needed to see the pretension and vacuity core to so many corporate redesigns.
For a rebrand to be successful, it must substantially justify itself to its audience. These modern minimalist redesigns fail because they attempt to be taken seriously by the public while only providing frustratingly impenetrable experiences. But in part, this is deliberate. Their ultimate audience is not the public, but the design elite. The only requirement for profitably producing such offensive designs is that one must accompany them with pretentious and obscurantist artspeak. Said designs and artspeak are not meant to resonate with anyone but the design elite—the unwashed masses are left to quietly suffer both.
Kicking a Hornet’s Nest
Another prominent community member expressed his “worry that this reads as a very negative portrayal of the design world–while calling out some pretty big design names.” He explained that I am “kicking a hornet’s nest” and that it might be “better to make many of the points without calling anyone out specifically.” It is true that each individual I cite may not agree with everything that has occurred in the shift towards minimalist dominance, but few have mounted a worthy defense of what we have lost. And more than that, the majority appear optimistic about the way things are moving. As it happens, I have the utmost respect for many of the figures I reference. Most, if not all, are incredibly skilled practitioners. But having embraced flat design, they place significant constraints on their ability to use those talents. The reason I include quotes by these leaders is to expose the consensus in the design community with regard to modern minimalism. More than that, I aim to show that it is a meme which continues to pass on largely unquestioned.
I write because the furthest extent of criticism today amounts to expressing a vague sense of nostalgia for the loss of dimensional interfaces. We see an expression of this sentiment in the video short featuring Neven Mrgan for the App Documentary. Mrgan’s thesis is as follows:
Part of Apple’s reasoning for going totally flat is ‘oh, well people don’t need any of that anymore.’ And that’s true in some sense…but you end up with designs which are stunning in their minimalism, but they’re not as friendly anymore.
Mrgan is right that OS X is no longer “friendly,” but this barely scratches the surface of what we have lost.
There is something incredibly wrong when the most outspoken critique of the shift toward modern minimalism is one which uses the very vocabulary of the minimalists themselves and is entirely sympathetic to their narrative. We do not need more lamentation. What we need is strong criticism.