While flat design has become universal over the past 5 years, it wasn’t so common before iOS 7. It was the shift that shaped the design landscape. But to say that it hasn’t evolved would be inaccurate. iOS design has adapted to the bigger screens. What started as the ultimate opposite of hyper realistic designs that preceded it, flat design is now much more nuanced, giving way to gradients, drop shadows and cards.
The Evolution of iOS
Let’s start from the beginning and look at the image below. On the left, a hyper realistic design, also known as Skeuomorphic. It was effective to introduce strong metaphors because in 2007, few were familiar with having a super computer in your pocket. In the middle, we got rid of all ornaments in favor of flat colors, beautiful typography and high-resolution content. Since most of us got increasingly comfortable with technology, it was no longer necessary to adorn our designs with heavy decorations. On the right, a screen from iOS 11. Titles are much bolder, and as a result more readable. Because of the taller screens, it is now much more common to see the bottom navigation (known as Tab bar). Designers today have to adapt their layouts against multiple resolutions and pixel densities. The good news is that we have better tools, like Sketch and Xcode, to prepare us for these modern techniques.
More than ever, iOS 11 is going back to its roots. Bold fonts are everywhere. Titles are big and black. Since screens are now about twice as tall as they were, it only makes sense to have large titles. Another reason for large fonts is accessibility. With billions of people using their phone daily from all age groups, it is important to make the content as clear and readable as possible. Accessibility lets users set very large fonts for apps that support it. In iOS 11, all of Apple’s stock apps support that option. Because of that reason, you’ll find that users are now expecting it.
Bigger screens mean more space for content. Before the bigger iPhones, it made sense to rid of any container and give maximum space to content. But with the iPhone X and 8, that is no longer the case. We can make navigation easier by including the status, navigation and tab bars, and use cards as a way to better organize sections. Cards with rounded corners are a good way to make the content seem more tactile and approachable. You can use blurred backgrounds and drop shadows to add depth and context to your design.
The State of iOS Design
Design is now much simpler, allowing us to focus on animation and function, rather than intricate visual details. Before iOS 7, I spent a big part of my day designing intricate textures like wood, leather and chrome. Today, I spend that same amount of time on animation and code. It is no longer about the static design, but how to make it come alive, engaging our users on a deeper level. It is also the reason why I wrote this book to be more than merely about visual design. Animations and code has never been this important, or feasible from a technical standpoint. That’s why we can witness a new prototyping tool and coding framework almost every single week. Design has become extremely broad, but at the same time, interconnected with many disciplines at once. A single designer can grow to be independent in their execution while being a better collaborator with engineers as they understand better the craft of each discipline.
I’ve been asked many times how to get started in design and what the shortcuts are to becoming a better designer. While there is no silver bullet, there are, however, a number of tips and rules on designing for iOS that will affect the way you design universally.
Even if you’re designing for a totally different platform, the same design notions remain, and you can apply the same techniques that you’ve learned on the Web and Print. iOS is a platform where design goes back to its roots. It reads like a modern magazine, with beautiful typography and simple layouts. The things you’ll learn in this book will serve you tremendously well on your journey to design the best products anywhere.
Let’s review the basics. iOS is driven by 3 core philosophies: deference, clarity and depth. Inspired by those design principles, I’ve broken down their meanings into actionable items that are much simpler and more visual than those explained in the guidelines.
Your content should be the hero, everything else is secondary. Use elements that complement it and avoid distracting visuals that compete with your content. For example, use beautiful animations that gracefully transition from one screen to another, thus ensuring that the users don’t get lost. Blurred backgrounds keep context of where the user is while allowing focus on the front content. If in doubt, start from a provided template and work from there.
Your user interface should be stripped down to the core aesthetic. Every time you add an element, ask yourself: is this necessary? Unless your app is a game or a specific theme, temper your use of heavy textures, 3D effects and multiple shadows. Instead, focus on functional colors, harmonious gradients, and beautiful typography.
The content should fill the whole screen, giving maximum space to its inner elements. Avoid nested containers and maximize the scrolling areas to allow more room for interactions.
Use a prominent color to show that an element is tappable or that it’s highlighted. Picking the right colors and neutral tones can make or break your design. Blue is a safe choice for buttons and states. Also, a white or extra light gray background against black texts is recommended as a starting point. This provides excellent contrast, which is perfect for readability.
TYPOGRAPHY IS CONTENT
Because of the simplification of the user interface and the focus on the content, your typography will occupy from 50-90% of the screen. Therefore, it is paramount to pick a beautiful font and set its weight, line-height, and color to be visually pleasing and optimal for reading at any size. The default San Francisco font is the recommended option as it was designed for legibility. Apple uses it in all their apps.
Use negative space to bring focus to the content. The less you see, the more you can focus on a few things at once. Negative spacing gives breathing room. Don’t overwhelm your screen with too much structure or unneeded visual elements. If in doubt, make use of the default margins in Xcode. Apple typically uses between 8 pt to 16 pt for their margins.
Make things obvious. Buttons should be self-explanatory and typography should be big and readable at a comfortable distance. Your content should clearly indicate what your app is about. For example, if it’s a coffee app, then you should be reminded of the coffee beans, espresso, and brown colors of coffee.
MAKE THE TEXT READABLE
Titles should be big and well-contrasted. Captions should be short and easy to glance. The body texts should be well-spaced and not too long per line to avoid reading fatigue.
Body texts should also have a minimum size of 11pt. The optimal size for reading is 17pt to 19 pt. Screen titles should be sized to 34 pt or more while body titles should be set at 20 pt to 30 pt. Align texts with other elements to make them easy to scan. Finally, use black or dark gray against a light background for the best contrast.
USE OBVIOUS ICONS
Icons should not be ambiguous; they should clearly indicate what the symbol means. Whenever possible, use text to accompany the icon. Once you use an icon, don’t reuse another variation of the same icon elsewhere as that will confuse your users. Likewise, don’t use generic texts such as “Back” or “Submit”, instead be specific: “Back to Home” or “Sign up a new account”. Design sharp, vectorized icons to make it easy to adapt to different screen densities. Make sure that your assets work for 1x, 2x (retina) and 3x (super retina) screens.
Each page should clearly explain what it does. There should be minimal branding that is replaced by a clear screen title and highlighted state from the tab bar. Be thoughtful with the selection of images to best represent the sections.
MEANING IN COLORS
Colors have [meaning]. Use red, green, blue and neutral tones wisely to indicate destructive actions, affirmative actions, links and inactive states, respectively. Avoid confusing your users by using these colors for different purposes. For example, don’t use green on a button that indicates “Delete”.
DESIGN FOR TOUCH
Buttons should be easily tappable. Their sizes should be between 30-60pt wide. The optimal size is 44pt. On rare occasions, set to 22pt for links inside texts, but use cautiously as they become hard to tap. Even text buttons have a tappable zone of at least 30pt. When opening pictures, make sure to include the ability to pinch to zoom and take advantage of the swipe gestures to easily navigate to previous screens one-handed.
Users often use the iPads and larger iPhones in landscape. In that mode, apps will appear without the status bar and with smaller navigation and tab bars. Sometimes, it will show an extra menu on the left, similar to what you’d find on the iPad. Adaptive layouts, a way to resize your layout based on screen size, is now common practice. Thanks to Auto Layout and Size Classes in Xcode, modifying the layout based on device orientation is fairly easy. So don’t be afraid to support this in your designs.
Perhaps the hardest part to understand is depth. It’s a very abstract concept, but at the same time very powerful and unique. Depth is the idea that everything should be contextual and transitional. In real life, when you walk from a room to another, you get a sense of progression and distance. That way you don’t get lost. That same concept should be applied to user interface.
Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design. – Dieter Rams
One of the most exciting and unique aspects of iOS is the animation. Every screen transitions from one to another. The home screen zooms into a folder, then zooms into an app. Animations used to be hard to execute, but thanks to Xcode 9, they are made more accessible than ever. In fact, you will learn exactly these techniques in the Swift chapter.
Keeping context of the background UI shouldn’t compromise the clarity of your content. Blurring the background not only allows you to keep its natural colors, but also brings focus to the foreground. Blurring isn’t an invention, it’s something that already exists in real life; as you focus on something, everything else become blurry.
What you think people want, multiplied by ten is what you should create. Anything less won’t last longer than a day in people’s mind. Do it right and it’ll last a lifetime.
Animation not only serves to transition from one screen to another, it also adds playfulness and delight to your design. It brings importance to an element that would otherwise be ignored. Notifications are more noticeable and the weather is better understood when there is rain pouring in the background.
Although animations are encouraged, they should not be overdone. They should not distract your users from the content or give them motion sickness. Gratuitous, forceful animations can become overwhelming to your users. Instead, make them discoverable when users manipulate the content, or use them to gracefully direct attention to an on boarding process.
Finally, be realistic in the way animations are demonstrated. A modal that slides from the bottom should be dismissed back to the bottom of the screen. That way, users can appreciate the physicality of the elements, even if they’re digital.
With the introduction of bigger screens, the back button is now too high for the thumb to easily reach. So, while less obvious than a visible button, a gesture can be an extension to an already visible interaction. It makes it easier for power users. We’re all becoming power users, that’s why we require less visual cues and more useful functions.
3D Touch allows people to quickly access options inside and outside of your app. Think of 3D Touch like the keyboard shortcuts on your Mac – they enable people to do repeated tasks quicker. You have to design shortcuts that make power users more productive. But just like Keyboard shortcuts, essential features shouldn’t be exclusive to 3D Touch. Your users must be able to operate your app normally without it.
For example, users can force-press your App Icon to find frequently used items. Inside an app, mails can be peeked and links can be peeked before entering full-screen.
Sounds are minimally used in apps, but when they’re played, they can transform a mundane task into a truly rewarding experience. People can recognize your app without even seeing it in meaningful places such as the push notifications. When the sound gives the right impression, you win a lot with a minimal amount of effort.
Good design is universal. You don’t need to explain or overcompensate it with big words. People just get it.
A high level and essential read written by Apple. It’s always kept up-to-date and is pretty exhaustive with its list of features. I would suggest to at least skim through it and only read the portions that you need, as it gets very detailed.