For all of the discussion of the new colors in iOS 7, the new features and the fingerprint sensors on the iPhone 5, many users are missing two of the biggest innovations in iOS 7. Apple has significantly changed the way that the iOS user experience is designed, and they’ve done it by moving backwards. The move to the Helvetica font and the change in the nature of skeuomorphism change the feel of iOS 7 in ways that are throwbacks to the past, but ultra modern.
In some ways, Helvetica is the anti-font font. While many typefaces distinguish themselves by their weight or their ornateness, Helvetica is thin, light and straighforward. Made famous in counter culture ads like the 1960’s Volkswagen Beetle advertising, Helvetica was both corporate and hippy at the same time. On the one hand, it is modern and clean, but on the other, it’s also not a formal and stodgy font with serifs, which are the little tails at the bottom of an “m.”
Over the years, Helvetica has gotten to the point where using it has become a comment on Helvetica, itself. When a brand uses it as its identity, it can be an anti-corporate message due to all of the corporate use of the font.
When Apple integrated a version of Helvetica — technically Helvetica Neue Ultra Light — into iOS 7, it made the interface cleaner. Also, since Apple doesn’t have to be ironic, it also ushered in a reintroduction of Helvetica as a tool for clean design, rather than Helvetica as a pop-cultural reference.
Skeuomorphism is a term that refers to using a representation of another item. When you open Notes in a previous version of iOS, you are greeted with what looks like a spiral notebook. Having a device that isn’t a spiral notebook show an image of one is an example of skeuomorphism. In earlier versions of the iPhone and iPad operating system, this feature helped to make these advanced devices feel more familiar.
With iOS 7, the skeuomorphism is largely gone based on the orders of Apple design chief, and former skeumorphism proponent, Jony Ive. Earlier computing devices didn’t use it simply because they didn’t have the power or the advanced displays to come up with renderings of “real world” analogs. On new iPads and iPhones, though, the design team decided that the end user was comfortable enough with using a touch-based computer interface that they didn’t need to have representations of physical world objects. The user interface itself was comfortable.
This more minimal interpretation of modern user design has the same effect as the 1980’s computing aesthetic — it’s not rooted in anything but the device. However, iOS 7 does it from a position of strength and user focus, rather than out of necessity.
With this in mind, iOS 7 has taken two very old concepts and made them new. While these changes are controversial among many in the design and computing community, they should actually be reassuring. Apple has looked into the future and found some of the best ideas from the past.