Monday July 22, 2013

• Current Status

In the beginning, there were two status bars: grey and black. The grey version had a gradient on it, with highlight lines and inset text. It had structure and visual weight, and it was terrible. The other status bar was black. The items contained within were white. Nothing fancy, and in the days before the white iPhone, it was easy to make the argument that the black status bar truly disappeared into the hardware. As elegant a visual solution as you could ask for.

Then came the iPad, which has never offered anything but a black status bar. It’s not hard to see why: The structure of the grey bar is visually heavy. Every pixel on the screen that’s different from the pixel next to it needs to be processed in your brain, and these changes should happen with a sense of purpose. Before we had Retina screens, these gradients and lighting tricks helped to make the screen look more alive (or at least less awful). But the trick isn’t very effective on an iPad screen, where that visual weight suddenly becomes a liability when stretched several inches across the top of the screen. The iPad also marked a renewed focus on touch as interaction. Remember how excited Apple was about the spread-to-open-photo-albums thing in Photos? Now imagine that with a giant grey-gradient bar across the top of the screen.

The grey looks cheap, in the same way that the standard blue-and-white UI elements look cheap. Thoughtless. Generic. Tapping around today, it’s difficult to find an iPhone app I admire that uses a grey status bar. It seems like we’ve all agreed that it was a mistake and moved on. Enter iOS 7.

With iOS 7, Apple is ushering in a lot of changes. Most of them can be classified as either look or feel, and it’s interesting how separated those two concepts are in execution, despite being very closely linked in concept. The feel is great — the first time I held an iOS 7 device and discovered the tilt parallax, I was genuinely delighted. Things move and behave in a way that suggests the sort of playful confidence that comes with maturity.

But I want to talk about the look. At best, it takes some getting used to. I don’t mind a flat aesthetic (obviously), but Apple seems to be taking this to an extreme. Not in the look itself, but how it imposes the look. The single best example of this is also what I believe is the single largest design flaw in iOS 7: the status bar.

iOS 7 unifies the status bar and navigation bar, with mixed results. There are no longer any lines or markings of any kind between the status bar (carrier, time, battery status), and an app’s navigation control buttons. This new area is a collection of unrelated items occupying a single space. A jumbled, confusing mess that will lead to third-party apps looking terrible and users wondering what the hell is going on.

What makes this so infuriating is that the status bar was a solved problem. The black bar at the top is hardware at best, and OS information at worst. Now Apple has taken an OS-level design problem and made it an app-level design problem. As a designer, I now need to account for the visual weight of these items, and they’re completely beyond my control. I could throw a 20pt black bar behind the text and glyphs and revert to separating the bar, but with Apple’s stock apps following the unified trend, I run the risk of my app seeming out of place or, worse, old.

But there’s hope. iOS 7 is still in beta, and Apple has already proven it’s willing to listen by adjusting the weight of Helvetica Neue to something sane. If we speak loudly enough, maybe Apple will listen. I’ve already filed a radar.

Unless Apple makes a change, I worry that we’re going to see third-party developers take one of two paths: Lazily carry over their colored navigation bars and look terrible, or fall back to Apple’s example of white navigation bars and end up looking generic. One of the great things about the app ecosystem is the incredibly wide variety of designs created by very talented and thoughtful people. Apple seems to be discouraging unique designs in a strange way, with no real benefits, and the end result might be a lot apps that all look the same. Designers and developers look to Apple for tempo and inspiration. The hardware should become the software, not the other way around.