Does OS X 10.10 need a facelift? The case for a flatter interface

Does OS X 10.10 need a facelift? The case for a flatter interface

Critics against "flattening" OS X say it takes iOSification a step too far. But does it?

There's been some talk about OS X 10.10 code-named "Syrah," getting a "flatter" look. System icons would edge more towards how they look in iOS 7, losing some of their three-dimensional quality, and certain interface elements like buttons and window interfaces might be reworked.

That raises the hackles of some long-time Mac users who fear what they see as an inexorable unification of OS X and iOS; one that began almost as soon as iOS became the operating system for Apple's dominant product lines.

I don't think iOS and OS X are headed for a singularity any time soon. But I would welcome more visual consistency between iOS and OS X. Ready to burn me at the stake? Hold your torch for just a minute and hear me out.

iOS feeds Apple a lot of OS X's new users. Every day people wander into Apple retail stores to buy a Mac who have never had one before, but have experiences with iOS products like the iPhone and iPad. That experience informs them. So does their experience with other platforms like Android and Windows.

So new Mac users are already trained to use a flatter interface than what they currently get with OS X. And flattening OS X would certainly enforce a more consistent visual interface with iOS 7.

New Mac users benefit, old Mac users have to adapt. Is it worth the pain? Year in and year out, Apple says that about half of the people walking in to Apple retail stores to buy a Mac are first-time Mac owners. That's a lot of users coming to the platform who aren't carrying the baggage of past Mac operating systems.

So there's a case to be made in favor of unifying that experience. But it also seemingly flies in the face of what Apple's own senior vice president of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, has said. When asked about a singular interface for tablets, phones and computers, Schiller said, "What a waste of energy that would be."

Schiller made the comment to Macworld back in January, on the occasion of the Macintosh's 30th anniversary. But in context, Schiller's comments were a criticism of Microsoft, which employs a singular "Metro" interface across its product lines. Clearly "one interface to rule them all" is not the direction Apple wants to move in.

A move towards a flatter OS X interface wouldn't necessarily be contrary to what Schiller and company have discussed. OS X has evolved many times in its life. Anyone remember OS X's "lickable" Aqua interface? For that matter, OS X itself was a major user interface transition from "Classic" Mac OS.

Apple's very happy to blur the lines between iOS and OS X when it makes sense. Mavericks introduced Maps and iBooks, for example, two apps that had been up to then exclusive to iOS. Apple's worked very hard to simplify the exchange of data between platforms so it's as seamless as possible.

Mavericks' updated iWork applications — Pages, Keynote and Numbers — were rebuilt around their iOS counterparts to help facilitate an easier workflow. That move has met criticism and resistance from longtime Mac iWork users who have lost features and functionality, but Apple's philosophy is clear: the longterm benefits of a uniform workflow outweigh the short term discomfort from users who are set in their ways.

So don't be surprised if Mavericks' successor looks a bit different than you're accustomed to. But change, in this case, can be good, and could help facilitate the transition of even more new users to OS X. A healthier OS X ecosystem is a good thing for anyone who cares about the Mac.

Does the idea of a more iOS 7-like visual interface for OS X thrill or frighten you? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Peter Cohen

Mac Managing Editor of iMore and weekend Apple Product Professional at a local independent Apple reseller. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Reader comments

Does OS X 10.10 need a facelift? The case for a flatter interface


I agree .. I am a new mac user and bought a mac after spending years with iphone n ipad .. Would like some design elements from ios on os x. I also feel they should be strongly connected too like Airdrop between them ... Do understand the old users would feel cheated and not like the design change though...

I strongly suspect cross platform Airdrop will work in the next OS X release. Airdrop in OS X is Airdrop in name only — it's an entirely different technology under the hood. But it's a pain point in Mavericks right now that Apple's sure to smooth out.

I'm all for having a fresh look and design in OSX. Styles change. I doubt Apple would change the functionality of their desktop operating system and replace it with a mobile OS.

For sure - that part doesn't make any sense at all. People use Macs very differently than they use iOS devices. But visual consistency has its benefits.

And to be fair to Phil Schiller, I think that was the point he was making too.

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I hope it goes in the direction of the apps on I find myself using the mail app on there more than the built in app purely as it's design is much aesthetically pleasing. Really looking forward to see what apple is doing here and best of all no leaks yet

OMG the new Mail on is so beautiful it nearly made me weep with happiness. The colours and clarity are so perfect!

I really would love a new look for OS X, if it doesn't remove functionality. Apple does change things a lot (pages as you mentioned), but when they do, they almost always remove features and functionality, and then add the, back later. That can't happen too much with OS X or they'll have a revolt on their hands.

A newish interface would be cool though, since I love new and shiny things.

I was just thinking about this earlier today. It would be awesome to see a new design change in the Mac OS. Knowing Apple, it won't be change for the sake of change, either.

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As a Mac user since 1993. I'm most definitely looking forward to a more flatter OS X. It's gonna look very sexy as some designers have made their own concepts and its a change I will definitely welcome. Change in this meaning will be a positive thing and I trust apple to do a good job, as they have always done. Especially when it comes to design.

I'm looking forward to this a lot. Bring it.

I dont pretend to know what's going to happen but i think we may already see the direction Apple will take by looking at iCloud (I think this has been mentioned by analysts before on iMore and some other sites).
If that's what they are aiming for, it would look great. Look at iWork beta: not candy-like, but nice and crisp, there are buttons when needed. My only complaint is with the fonts: some are too thin for a computer screen, even at close range with a Macbook.
But if there is one app that could do with a complete iOSification, it would be!! Those greys and reds, especially in the titles, are just awful! And the app ignores the color coding we give it on iOS (sigh).
Other apps could stay the way they are, perhaps with a flatter look and feel. However I think Apple should make the transition smoother than with iOS, they would not want a Windows 8 type of mutiny on their hands.
Hopefully they will not have to recode entire apps like they did for iWork, so that no functionality is lost in the process. Imagine if would lose the already-limited set of features it has?!

I like the looks of iOS 7, so I would like OS X going in the same direction. But - as weberm13 - has said: it must not come with a loss of functionality.

Microsoft has been doing some beautiful things with their flat Metro Design Language. It looks so clean and crisp.
I'd love to see more graphic designers follow this route.

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I agree; when I first looked at Metro on WP 7, the first thought that came to mind is "Wow! They out-Appled Apple!" The interface is cleaner, more customizable, more personal, less "noisy" and cluttered," and far more organized because of the right-swipe page, which lists applications alphabetically.

By comparison, Metro (which they now call "Modern") looks like the future, while Springboard is quite long in the tooth and looks outdated.

I am one of those. Got an iMac after spending a year and half using iOS. A flatter UI for OS X giving users more uniformity makes sense. I'm no developer but I would imagine a flatter two dimensional 'canvass' when giving apps they appearance would be simpler. But maybe with code doesn't make a difference. I wasn't all for it in iOS 7 but definitely has grown on me. Seems like it was always flat. Folk hate change anyways, so people will complain.

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I like some of the flatness of ios. The general background of things. Some of the icons are ok. And some are too simple. I don't like the little outline icons in safari.

Some icons are better with more complexity.

I would love to see a less-textured OSX. However, I worry about a less "designed" OSX.

I think that some of the language around content being king makes intuitive sense on a smaller screen device (though one could argue the iPad Air and 11" MBA are approaching each other). On OSX, however, I want an interface that takes advantage of screen size, pointer-precision, and power of a full-fledged PC.

There's a lot to be done to "clean up" the textured, older look around OSX. I just hope they don't move as far toward non-ornamental on larger screens. Whimsy is still worth it, just as it has been since the genie minimization debuted.

I'm much less concerned with look and feel and much more concerned about the recent decline in OS X quality. Snow Leopard was the last amazingly stable OS release - each subsequent release has been less and less stable. Mavericks, from my perspective, is pretty much a disaster. Mail still beachballs as does Safari (web content processes I think) - bad enough that the only real option is to reboot. Though, from the UX perspective the disaster that is scroll bars (started in Lion) is still an anchor around the necks of those of us who don't use trackpads.

I'm worried - as I've not been since 1998 - that Apple is sliding backwards into the quality mess that was System 8. For those that have migrated from Windows, it's likely that they don't really see these issues since a lot of them are a bit par for the course over there. But for us die-hard Mac people, the signs are very disquieting if you're paying attention.

I've been an iOS user for years. I bought a Mac for the hardware and hated the software. Personally I'd much rather see Mac OS X behave more like Windows (i.e. windowed Windows) sooner than I'd see it look and feel like iOS. Both OS X and Windows have their little idiosyncrasies, but OS X's strike me as a stubborn refusal to change what no longer makes sense, whereas what's left in desktop Windows tends to be just what they didn't get to in Vista or 7 or 8 yet.

Well -- and I say this genuinely -- thanks to the hardware, you can always install boot camp, make the OS X as small as possible, install your favorite version of Windows, and set Windows to be the default boot OS. That way, you get the hardware you wanted, plus the OS you wanted.

That's exactly what I did. There's a lot of aspects of OS X I do like, though (just not enough to balance what I don't), so I would like to see it learn a few lessons from Windows to the benefit of all.

I would love to see a flatter look for OS X, but as far as iOS goes, it's time for a complete overhaul. Springboard is almost 10 years old, and it shows. iOS 7, interface-wise, was just a face-lift, there was nothing really new in the interface itself other than some cosmetics, and a new way to access some of the same old features.

What iOS needs is a whole new paradigm for Springboard, something that is the future of interface design like Microsoft's Metro, rather than being stuck in the past alongside it's much-crappier copycat, Android. I was hoping iOS 8 would be that paradigm shift; but from what I've read so far, it doesn't look that way.

But for OS X, heck yeah, let's get a flatter interface, and lose LaunchPad altogether; it's too inefficient anyway after about three or four pages of icons.

Allow me to be the dissenting voice here and say that, as bad as iOS 7 looks on a smaller device, it would look hideous blown up to the size of my 27" iMac. I'm not a big fan of the flatness, but I guess I can live with it. What I can't stand is all the white, white, white. It doesn't even look designed. The rhetoric about letting content come to the fore would be more believable if they hadn't chosen a font that makes your content all but disappear. I can't share Irelandjnr's excitement about mail on iCloud. There's such a thing as oversimplified. But de gustibus non est disputandum.

"Flatter" doesn't bother me. What bothers me about iOS and the presumed reworking of the OS X interface is merely the thing that everyone always accuses Apple of but which they really don't do, which is putting visual design in front of utility. This is usually phrased as "form before function."

Any real designer, especially an industrial or product designer, knows that form and function have to be designed together. There is no separation, and the idea of "putting form before function" is indeed a horrible one. After following Apple and using their product since the very beginning of computers, and being (formerly) an industrial designer myself, with the diploma to prove it, I can say with great confidence that Apple historically doesn't actually do this, because it's "bad design."

But at the same time, I think it's quite clear that the redesign of iOS last year was one of the few and only times that they *did* in fact make this mistake (over and over again actually).

iOS 7 was full of situations where the "design dogma" of the visuals, trumped the utility of the Ui and the apps. Sure, they've walked it back and it's been cleaned up a lot, but there are still several examples of this kind of "bad design" that exist in iOS today IMO. Ive simply hasn't proven that he is up to this task of redesigning the UI. Mistakes were made. Big mistakes. Some of them still exist, and I just don't have the confidence that similar cases of putting some swishy design dogma in place of things that already function quite well won't happen.

A perfect example of this would be OS X's drop shadows. They are the main thing that "isn't flat" about OS X, but they are also supremely useful. If in fact they are taken away because of this abstract pursuit of "flatness" and not replaced by some other cue that works as well, this would be a "mistake" design wise.

We shall see ...

While I do love me some Mac OS X, I agree that we need to see a greater unification in terms of aesthetic. Obviously no one wants to see the same interface applied to both a Mac and iDevice, but they should share the same design principles.

I am inclined to think that an iOS7 themed OSX will be as warmly embraced by it's users as Windows 8 has been by the Windows community.
I look forward to the time when the whole "flat" fad will be as embarrassing a part of history as the polyester leisure suit or the beehive hairdo.
If Steve Jobs came back and saw what they'd done to his meticulously crafted interfaces, he'd never stop throwing up.

Windows 8 didn't go down well with Windows users because of the way it radically changed how the OS functioned. Nobody disliked how it looked, quite the contrary in fact, "metro" was the only thing people liked in Windows 8.

It's often said that Jobs had good taste, but I would say his taste was pretty patchy. He was the one who insisted the stitched leather from his boat was used in Find My Friends for example, which is a design choice which most found tacky, tasteless, and devoid of class.

I'm more sensitive to it because, as a web developer, I often have to endure the whole "flat" fetish that is currently popular. I certainly like clean and elegant design, but there's a point where minimalism becomes sterile and visual least to my tastes.
To me, they made iOS7 into a cartoon: 2 dimensional with garish colours.
Functionally, it's a superior experience to iOS 6, but aesthetically, it's like listening to a stereo with the treble all the way up and the bass all the way down...

Fully agree. It's a fad and i can't wait for it to pass. I updated to iOS 7 to get the functionality in spite of the UI.. The UI finally drove me to make my iPhone a secondary device and move back to my old phone.

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There were some beautiful mock ups of an iOS7 style Mac OSX doing the rounds last year. To my eyes, they were a huge improvement, and looked far more contemporary and in line with the stark, clean lines of Ive's hardware design.

I'm looking forward to seeing what Ive comes up with.

Flat sucks! Welcome back to the 1990's! The iOS 7 update made me regret finally buying an iPhone last year.

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I dont know whats the problem (for some people) with a flatter new interface? If they keep the functionality and by that I mean, still having resizable windows, applications dock, same commands and menu bar; if the mac still works the same way, whats the big deal on having flat looking interface? Its just how it looks like what changes, not how it works!

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The problem is that the flatter interface from iOS7 is just ugly. I like things that are beautiful, and so Steve did. I do understand it's not a difference for somebody, but me myself - I'm aesthetic, I like old vintage art, and art from ancient ages such as beautiful paintings from last centuries. The new look is just nothing, no art at all, it's functionality only. Colours are mixed as a colours of a vomit. Tell me what's the difference between crappy Windows theme and crappy OS X theme then and why I should stick to Apple if there's no difference?