MacOS Big Sur is Flat Design Gone Crazy
Flat design is being taken to extremes causing loss of usability. Being trendy has become more important than being functional.
I have many issues with macOS Big Sur but in this story I will focus on the UI design choices which have been made. In short, I am disappointed. This is not the Apple I know and love.
Years ago, I wrote this guide on Icon Design: The No Bullshit Guide to Icon Design and Usage.
It was a result of frustrations from bad icon design at one of my former workplaces heavily inspired by Microsoft’s poor understanding of what constitutes good icon design. Born out of seeing Microsoft icons looking like this:
My story was in many ways an ode to Apple’s ability to carefully think through UI design. Yet today it almost feels as if they read that article and decided that they should do everything opposite of what I commended them for doing. These are what Apple’s keynote toolbar icons used to look like:
I contrasted these icons with Microsoft icons where there was clearly no thought that had gone into color choices or shapes, because every icon is basically blue, gray and white.
You can see that the Microsoft icons at a glance all look like boxes. That means distinguishing them from each other is not easy. Apple also had icons that were similar looking in shape such as Table, Shape and Guides. However, Apple gave each of them a clearly distinct color, making it easier to distinguish them. Table is yellow, Shape is green and Guides is blue. Here is a challenge for you. See if you can distinguish the Table and Guides icon in macOS Big Sur.
While I was trying to identify previous icons on this grid, I had to move my face closer to the screen and squint really hard. Why? Not only were all the colors that helped me pick out icons gone. The contrast is crap and the icons are made smaller!? What gives!?
I will add more on this later, but that is the overall story of Big Sur. Usability and design have taken a nose dive. Why is that, you ask?
What has led to this Malady?
Oh, I have a pretty good idea of why. When Steve Jobs was around, he had a pretty clear vision. Each device should have a UI tailored to its size and interaction. That is why iPhone UI was different from iPad, which was different from macOS. Okay, iPad and iPhone had a lot in common but the iPad utilized its larger screen real estate.
Compare this to the competition. Android lost out big time to iPad for years, because they simply inflated a phone UI. It worked poorly for a tablet form factor. Microsoft did similar horrors trying to bridge a desktop and touch interface. Bean counters and MBA guys don’t get this. Their favorite word is “synergy” and they always think “more is more.”
Those were the kinds of guys who constantly pushed to merge platforms. “Oh, if we do this then we get more apps, and more apps are better than few apps…” These kind of MBA guys ran the show at Microsoft.
Much respect for Tim Cook — he seems like a nicer human being than Steve Jobs ever was, and he knows how to run supply chains, cut costs, etc. But let’s face reality: he is one of those MBA guys. He is not a product guy. He does not have design instincts. Thus his inclinations will be “more is more.” And we have seen that across the board. Apple has gotten a lot more products under Tim Cook. Both iOS and macOS have just kept adding frivolous features with little restraint.
MBA guys don’t get the most important rule about good design:
Perfection in design is not achieved when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944)
Steve Jobs understood this well. The reason the design has gotten so horrible in my humble opinion is due to a relentless drive to merge iOS and macOS. We are seeing an iPhonification of macOS. This means small icons that were designed for a Phone screen have been transplanted to an OS functioning with much larger screens.
Why does this work so poorly? iOS icons could get away with not having as clear color distinctions, because there was simply only a few icons on the screen at once. You could see that when there were more icons such as the home screen, they would be far more active in using colors.
Thus a lot of iOS design makes sense for the iOS applications and the form factor they are on. The problem is when you try to move design elements made for an entirely different form factor to the desktop. Productivity apps such as Keynote, Numbers and Pages use far more icons than tiny iOS applications. We have far bigger screens. Those tiny iOS toolbar icons get lost.
Of course, this has partly been a trend for some time. Designers who care more about their minimalist aesthetic and being in with the new fads have slowly drained macOS of color, where color made sense.
Have We Forgotten Classic UI Design?
I am glad we got rid of Skeuomorphism madness, but that was a blip in time. GUI designers made quite good UI design that worked early on, but a lot of designers are not really UX designers; they are more like style designers. Making something cool matters more than making something user-friendly. Why this angry rant? Because I experienced this a lot when I did iOS development. When I objected to a design choice, I was frequently told that my preference was simply not cool or trendy enough.
The example below is from Haiku, which was a continuation of the BeOS operating system that came out in the mid 1990s. This isn’t the same as current minimalist flat design. It may not be cool or fresh, but it looked clean and it worked.
Before the crazy Skeuomorphism phase with fake leather and wood, GUI design used a cartoon style. Cartoon style works well because it is exaggerated. It is partly why kids like it. They can clearly identify different elements.
Minimalism certainly improved on these former design, but now we have gotten minimalism from hell. We simplified the shapes of icons so they got more distinct. That was good. We reduced the number of dominant colors used in icons to 2–3. That was a good thing. But now they have gone further and done away with the colors entirely. Often, they don’t seem to want you to see icons at all.
What does it always have to be between two extremes? Skeuomorphic design was bad in my opinion, although it works well in games. Flat design is going too far. Computers are not road signs. We interact with the elements. Buttons ought to look like buttons. Icons ought to be clearly distinguishable etc.
Let us look at another victim of the iOSification of macOS.
Proxy Icon Missing in Action
Today’s UI hipsters seem to have decided that the the proxy icon beloved by many long term Mac users is no longer cool. It is an awesome feature that I find that most people I point it out to really like it.
If you don’t know it, here is where you found it recently in, for example, Apple Numbers.
It has a long history on the Mac. Here you can see proxy icon in old MacOS 9.
So what can you do with it? Here is an example of accessing the folder containing the file. You can use this to open the containing folder in Finder (macOS filemanager).
Alternatively, you can just grab the proxy icon like any other file and move it to a different location. That has the effect of moving the document to another location on your hard drive.
This is one of the things that make macOS very drag and drop friendly. Unfortunately the proxy icon is increasingly going out of fashion. Part of the reason for this is that the title bar is going out of fashion.