The Apple Goes Mushy, Part I: OS X's
Interface Decline (Introduction)

July 20, 2016

Note...

As of the time I write this article, OS X El Capitan remains the current public release version of what Apple has since christened macOS, so all that follows pertains only to El Capitan and prior.

Wander into almost any online forum or article comment section about a controversial announcement from Apple Inc. and you will almost certainly hear a variation of this sentence: “Apple has gone downhill since Steve Jobs died.” The sentence slithers around vaguely; it never seems to specify how, or in what ways, Apple has gone downhill. I agree, nonetheless, that it has. Whether or not Steve Jobs’s absence caused the decline (though I suspect it did), I grow frustrated as I watch each software update further erode one pillar of Apple’s formerly astronomical greatness.

No: I am not referring to their software's stability, important and perhaps worsening with time as it may be. I walk a different tightrope. The design-community-approved articles pertaining to an "Apple software decline" focus on bugs (see Marco Arment, Glenn Fleishman, Russell Ivanovic) or even lunge for their shields to claim that Apple has no such software problems (see Jim Lynch), with the glaring exception of this thoughtful and much-needed lament by Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini. The article you are about to read will address the same unsung subject as Norman and Tognazzini's article: the design, not the engineering, of Apple's graphical user interfaces. But where their article is general, I have harvested specific example after specific example of the user interface decline of (the now-former) OS X.

Apple's History with the GUI

At the time of this ad, Apple still took ease-of-use seriously.

Once upon a time, Apple relentlessly and accurately championed the ease with which the common person could use their computers. Toward this goal, they incorporated unprecedented human-computer interaction research from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) into a computer that successfully pioneered the mouse, the desktop, folders, files, and windows: the original Macintosh.

Steve Jobs, and Apple’s designers, understood as well as their predecessors at Xerox PARC what makes computers easy and enjoyable to use:

  1. 1.
    Analogies to familiar real-world objects, such as folders, buttons, a desktop, or a trash can, so that you feel comfortable and can easily use these clues to infer any of the computer’s functions.
  2. 2.
    Style and grace, so that you want to use the computer.
  3. 3.
    Judicious use of hierarchy and color (though technological limitations prohibited color displays until later in computer history), to draw your eye to the proper places and differentiate design elements from each other.
  4. 4.
    Sufficiently readable fonts and bold iconography, so that you can see what you are doing.
  5. 5.
    Feedback (for instance, the way an icon goes dark while being clicked). Providing feedback reassures you that you are accomplishing what you think you are, and it communicates the state of the computer.
  6. 6.
    You need only glance at the interface to know what you can do and how to do it. According to this principle, the design should not include “hidden” elements (buttons, menus, and other choices should always stay visible) and should clearly communicate, using visual clues, what will happen when you interact with an element of the interface.

These lumps of wisdom arose from years of research. In some form, they have appeared in such tomes as Apple’s own previous Human Interface Guidelines (which has become less a tome and more a quick-tips guidebook with each passing year) and Mr. Don Norman’s well-known The Design of Everyday Things. Once the watchdog of these wise ideas, Apple has in the past several years forgotten them. In this article, I will demonstrate how they have fumbled the first three of these six principles (look for the next three in “The Apple Goes Mushy, Part II”), and how, as a result, the user interface of OS X is more difficult and less enjoyable to use than ever before.

1. Banishing Analogy to the Metaphorical Trash Bin

In Apple's view, an icon depicting a camera and a photo was too literal for an application that handles photos. Therefore, when iPhoto gave way to its replacement in 2015—Photos—the previous carefully-rendered icon gave way to this bland, meaningless rainbow abstraction.

People know how to deal with a desktop intuitively. If you walk into an office, there are papers on the desk. The one on the top is the most important. People know how to switch priority. Part of the reason we model our computers on metaphors like the desktop is that we can leverage this experience people already have.

- Steve Jobs (from Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs)

Do you remember the three-dimensional, shelf-like Dock that lived at the bottom of every Mac screen from Mac OS X Leopard in 2007 all the way through OS X Mavericks in 2013? The year after Mavericks's release, OS X Yosemite sponged out the realism and revived a tweaked and blurred version of the two-dimensional dock that had originally occupied OS X.

Or perhaps you recall the short-lived icon of the original Notes app, which perfectly resembled a real yellow legal pad. OS X Yosemite replaced it with a more abstract pad with white paper and a bright yellow top that imitates no real material.

Apple made the Notes icon a less literal reference to its physical origin (I, at least, have never laid eyes on a real notepad that looked like the one on the right), changing the colors, removing the text, and in the process flushing away its personality.

In the same way, and in step with its phone-bound sibling, iOS 7, Yosemite saw the transition from the metaphorical icon of the retired iPhoto to the unexpressive, meaningless abstraction that is the new Photos icon (see above image). Yosemite also borrowed the new Game Center icon from iOS 7, with its colored bubbles that have a dubious connection to anything. The Safari icon became an abstracted compass in place of the old literal depiction of one. Even the less literal of the previous icons saw more two-dimensional replacements.

A small selection of the numerous visual metaphors that have gone to their graves since 2014.

Buttons across the system now look much less like real buttons. Almost no life-imitating textures survive. OS X, in large part prior to Yosemite, used to crawl with visual metaphors; why has Apple banished so many of the analogies that helped people feel comfortable with the Macintosh in the first place?

Contrary to the ideas they express on this archival Mac Basics page (which, it must be observed, still features old icons), Apple nowadays prefers abstraction to metaphor, the less literal to the more literal, the two-dimensional glyph to the three-dimensional illustration. Allow me to explain how this ideological shift occurred in full-step with the design community at large.

At some point around 2013, a great many designers began a round-the-clock regurgitation of the previously obscure word “skeuomorphism” (pronounced “skew-o-morph-ism”). Oxford offers this computing-specific definition of “skeuomorph”:

  1. SKEUOMORPH
    An element of a graphical user interface that mimics a physical object: note-taking apps offer skeuomorphs of yellow legal pads, squared paper, ring binders, etc. | when you first load up the app, you'll be presented with a skeuomorph of a photo album.

A company called Layervault let loose their ideological disapproval of skeuomorphism in September 2012:

Well-loved products on the web share a similar design aesthetic, with roughly the same kinds of bevels, inset shadows, and drop shadows. For designers, achieving this level of “lickable” interface is a point of pride. For us, and for a minority of UI designers out there, it feels wrong … We interpret recent shots taken at skeumorphism [sic] as a sign of the coming of “Honest Design.”

I forgive you if you think that excerpt sounds both haughty and vague. You are right. In the grandly-titled article it comes from, “The Flat Design Era,” Layervault meant to discourage software designers from using dimension and visual analogies, or skeuomorphs. If the company did not hear resounding agreement at the time, they would hear it soon. By June 2013, when Apple released iOS 7, Layervault and other lovers of flat abstractions received an answer to their call: almost all software designers, including Apple’s, began rejecting metaphor and depth in their visual designs. Ever since then, the computer screens of the world have gradually gone minimalistic, abstract, flat, white, and less detailed.

OS X, while not quite as committed as Windows 8+ to purging all meaningful metaphors from the operating system, has chased the trend. The ideological roots of the redesigns are flimsy: thickly coated with bloated art theory language, so that no common person can detect their flimsiness, they throw aside genuinely good ideas such as ease-of-use, personality, and beauty in their obsessive quest to remove all references to the physical world from computer software.

Speaking of beauty, I would like to survey the damage OS X has endured on that front.

2. The Looks Department Takes a Permanent Lunch

The aesthetic decay of Time Machine.

Above, on the left, you can see the creative, dazzling, H.G.-Wells-spirited Time Machine interface and icon of yesteryear, receding into radiant oblivion (complete with animated stars that drift toward you). Well-crafted, they stirred the right mood. On the right, observe what Apple bulldozed the old Time Machine for: a low-effort cartoony icon in place of the hatch to hyperspace, and a blurred desktop background with flat grey controls in place of a fantastic portal to the past. To me, this "update" to Time Machine stands as one among many sad and uncaring obliterations of the heart Apple used to have.

OS X packaging, once very elegant and eccentric (and printed on a physical box), has become thoroughly unremarkable.

Nearly every aspect of OS X looks less inspiring, beautiful, and meticulously rendered than it used to: packaging and branding, icons, buttons, switches, windows, “loading” indicators, color choices, light and shadow, and the general sense of charm and wizardry. Apple has siphoned the personality from the operating system and left it a watery husk of its former glory. Why would anyone do such a thing?

If we were discussing a movie sequel, one could answer, “Because the people who created the sequel failed to put in the effort that went into the original.” But we are discussing an operating system; Apple has been building on a pre-existing product, not beginning anew in a sequel-like fashion with every version of OS X. No one threatened to storm Cupertino with weapons if Apple failed to revamp the look of their operating system. Nor, even, did the average users of OS X cry out for the changes. The people who cried out for the changes were designers.

Imagine the current Apple releasing an interface like this one.

Indeed, not only has Apple rejected metaphor and dimension; it has forsaken aesthetics. Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple's Chief Design Officer, industrial designer for most of Apple's iconic hardware, and prime architect of the design changes in Apple’s software since the end of 2012, had this to say upon the release of iOS 7:

I think there is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity; in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation. It's about bringing order to complexity.

For Sir Jonathan, the previous, less visually simplistic designs of Apple’s operating systems were rife with “clutter and ornamentation,” to the extent that both iOS and OS X needed sweeping redesigns. Before long, these redesigns came: iOS 7 and OS X Yosemite. From the time of these redesigns to the present day, Apple has concentrated on reductive, minimal, “simple” visual designs at the expense of those built on hard work, sincere striving for beauty, and heart.

One of the few remaining OS X icons with genuine artistry: the icon for the Grab utility.

For comparison, I will follow with a few quotes on aesthetics from Steve Jobs, along with anecdotes from his friends and colleagues. These come from Walter Isaacson’s book, Steve Jobs:

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood in the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

- Steve Jobs



Jobs kept insisting that the machine [the first Macintosh] should look friendly. As a result, it evolved to resemble a human face. With the disk drive built in below the screen, the unit was taller and narrower than most computers, suggesting a head. The recess near the base evoked a gentle chin, and Jobs narrowed the strip of plastic at the top so that it avoided the Neanderthal forehead that made the Lisa subtly unattractive.

- Walter Isaacson



Jobs lavished similar attention on the title bars atop windows and documents. He had Atkinson and Kare do them over and over again as he agonized over their look. He did not like the ones on the Lisa because they were too black and harsh. He wanted the ones on the Mac to be smoother, to have pinstripes. “We must have gone through twenty different title bar designs before he was happy,” Atkinson recalled. At one point Kare and Atkinson complained that he was making them spend too much time on tiny little tweaks to the title bar when they had bigger things to do. Jobs erupted. “Can you imagine looking at that every day?” he shouted. “It’s not just a little thing, it’s something we have to do right.”

- Walter Isaacson



His design sensibility is sleek but not slick, and it’s playful. He embraced minimalism, which came from his Zen devotion to simplicity, but he avoided allowing that to make his products cold. They stayed fun. He’s passionate and super-serious about design, but at the same time there’s a sense of play.

- Maya Lin

In 2009 and 2010, the years these images respectively come from, Apple had much higher standards for their illustrations than they do now.

In order to release operating system redesigns that swap good taste for no taste and sweep aside decades of research about what makes great user interfaces, one needs a very good justification. The post-Steve-Jobs Apple did not have one. Now, OS X has jettisoned its style and grace.

3. Vampiric Computer Screens

Apple has gradually drained the color from the Finder sidebar, removing helpful visual distinctions from a part of OS X that millions of people interact with every day.

When you wish to close a window, where does your mouse dart? The red “X” button. How can you tell which menu item your cursor floats over? It has a pronounced blue highlight. When you scramble for iTunes, which icon do you know to click? The one with the tie-dye musical note. iBooks? Orange. FaceTime? Green. Color guides the human eye cross the screen.

But Apple has steadily sapped color from OS X as the years have sailed by. That great visual aid has nearly disappeared into an ocean of black and white (except, curiously, in the icons for folders and some applications, which have succumbed to obnoxious saturation and brightness). I document the many noticeable Finder sidebar changes above. In addition to the lack of color beginning with OS X Lion, notice how the selected section is much more difficult to discern than it used to be (due to low contrast and lack of color), and the typographical hierarchy has vanished as Apple has changed the section headings from capitalized to lower-case. In an exception to today’s usual pattern, where an exclusive society of designers holds the proverbial megaphone when it comes to software design changes, users noticed the newly pale icons, complained, and even invented tools to bring color back to the sidebar.

Like hair, these icons have whitened with age.

Depending on where in the Dock one’s gaze falls, Apple has either removed color or injected an excess of it. Ignoring unpleasantly oversaturated icons such as iBooks and Finder, one finds a new abundance of the color white. Notes, iPhoto (now Photos), Pages, iTunes, and even the Trash can have traded their former tones for whistle-clean whiteness. In concert with the other already-mostly-white application icons, such as Calendar and Reminders, the new icons fail to distinguish themselves from each other as effectively as their old counterparts did.

The Dock and the Finder serve such crucial functions in OS X that losing helpful colors makes accomplishing a task just that smidgen slower. But Apple has not stopped there. They have greyscaled other, more obscure parts of OS X to harmful effect, and seemingly no one has mentioned these design changes. I intend to do so. Note the color removal on the delete button (which should probably depict a trash can and not a “cancel” symbol, but alas...) in the Image Capture utility:

Which delete button catches your eye more quickly?

I use Image Capture regularly and find myself fumbling for the delete button ever since Apple turned it from red to grey. Why did they suck the color away?

And I wonder again why the color vanished from almost every sidebar in the system: besides Finder, iTunes, iPhoto (before the new Photos application existed), Mail, and Contacts (back when Apple called it Address Book) have all succumbed to wan insanity. The Menu Bar selections in Final Cut Pro X highlight grey, not blue, when your cursor hovers over them. The majority of system applications greet you with vast canvases of nondescript white. Buttons are white. The Menu Bar is white. The Dock application labels are white. The cumulative effect is exactly the same as almost all popular interface designs today: everything is a stark, harsh, flat, alienating plane of white.

Apple has gone mushy on its entire vision. OS X is “simply” one stage on which that mushiness has played out. And we are just now entering the intermission: please rejoin me next week for “The Apple Goes Mushy, Part II.”



N.

Article Edit, 8/9/2016...

I have removed all reference to “What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG)” from number 6 on my list of interface design principles. Some of my readers corrected me on the meaning of this phrase. The common definition relates not to a user interface but to the appearance of a document when outputted to a print or web page.

When I mentioned WYSIWYG in this article, I was relying on a quote from this old version of Apple's Human Interface Guidelines. This document contains a section called “WYSIWYG.” After a bit about the publishing definition, the guideline states: “People should be able to find all the available features in your application. Don’t hide features by failing to make commands available in a menu. Menus present lists of commands so that people can see their choices rather than try to remember command names. Avoid providing access to features only in toolbars or contextual menus. Because toolbars and contextual menus may be hidden, the commands they contain should always be available in menu bar menus as well.” I took that quote as another definition of “WYSIWYG,” but perhaps I should have chosen my terminology more wisely.

Article Edit, 1/10/2017...

As a stylistic tweak, I have added a comma to this article's title.

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