Daniel Eden, Designer

Heart and The Future of Design

In the most recent episode of Happy Monday Podcast, Josh and Sarah get into talking about iOS 7 and its implications for us as designers. Sarah said something that really hit me (emphasis mine):

It worries me that we have such a change in aesthetic right now. We’re expecting everyone to suddenly lend themselves to this new aesthetic in order to smooth the transition to iOS 7. […] The truth is, you can have great design with bits from both worlds; you can have a flat container with a gradiented button […] whereas if everything’s flat, you’ll have a tougher time establishing any kind of hierarchy. What I’m finding hard is almost everyone saying “Everything has to be flat”. What happened to legible typography? Accessible colors? We need to ask where we’re going to go next. I feel like we’ve gotten everything we can from Photoshop.

Photoshop is a limited tool. I’ve spoken on the matter before, and have long been practicing “Design in the Browser” as an alternative. More recently, Photoshop has been a supplementary tool working alongside the browser.

But Sarah has an excellent point here. As the software design industry leaders — Apple, Google, and Microsoft — begin to push the boundaries of interfaces, and we all follow suit (and do some exploring of our own), Photoshop is quickly becoming an archaic tool. Facebook has already demonstrated the power of alternative tools like Quartz Composer for UI design. Unlike Photoshop, Quartz Composer (along with HTML & CSS, Adobe After Effects, and other tools) can show not just the various screens in a UI flow, but the transitions between one another, and the extreme cases of real usage. Stretched elastic animations, change of depth, animated error states. The fun stuff. The stuff with heart.

I also have it on good authority that at Blendconf this year, Wren Lanier gave a talk about designing on the z-axis. More of the stuff with heart. We’re starting to talk about this sort of design in a more serious dialogue, even though the movies have been doing this for some time. Flying cars might not be just around the corner, but immersive, fully three-dimensional interfaces certainly are.

Meanwhile, it feels very much like designers came to the limits of Photoshop, turned around, and went back to square one. Reset button. Clear all layer styles.

This kind of mental hard reboot isn’t all bad. In fact, I think it’s caused a lot of designers to revisit the theory that a lot of them skipped bothering to learn in the first place. Designers are favoring considered typography and color more than overly-attentive gloss and lacquer. But it’s also made us stagnant. It’s caused us to rethink Photoshop as a tool, rather than digital design as a craft.

The moment iOS 7 was announced, I felt a pit in my stomach. Visually, it was a trainwreck. But all that changed once I had it in my hand. We tend to look at pictures of design and make judgements based on our gut reactions, but the truth is, we stopped designing pictures the moment we could move something on a screen. We design experiences. Apple knew that, and that’s where the focus of Apple’s design team has landed on iOS 7. The experience. The stuff with heart.

My go-to answer whenever I join a “Flat vs. Skeuo” discussion used to be that the pendulum is just swinging the opposite way, just as it did in the design world when grunge fought against the restraints of Swiss/European design — but now I’m realising that the pendulum is starting to wobble along a z-axis. Those of us still entrenched in the two-dimensional tools of yesterday ought to buckle up; there’s a revolution coming.