Forget iOS 7, it's Hollywood Super suits that need a texture intervention

While many people are no doubt ecstatic that newly appointed head of all human interface at Apple, Jon Ive, is reportedly walking through iOS 7 with a sandblaster, stripping out overly heavy skins and skeuomorphic design elements, one look at the just-released Man of Steel publicity photo above makes me think it's really Hollywood that needs its texture fetish dialed way down.

I don't know what their point is in making the Man of Steel look like the Man of Rich Texas Snake Skin. I do know that, in iOS, an argument can be made that textures serve a purpose.

Even if you're rushed, tired, or drunk -- real use cases that need to be considered in a system design -- and you turn on your iPhone while racing or stumbling around, you'll never mistake the rather mundane contacts page in Phone for the leather appointed one in Find my Friends, or the green felt one in Game Center. When your screen lights up, there's a good chance any app you get dumped into will be immediately recognizable, even under the most extreme conditions. An iOS stripped completely bare would not be as usable.

Moreover, even if a screen represents something potentially quite boring -- ugly lists of mostly data -- good visual design can not only overcome that, but transcend it. Letterpress, however flat it might look, jumps and bounces and pops around delightfully, skeuomorphically, with almost every interaction.

The idea of the iPhone and iPad being totally minimalist when it comes to industrial design is so that the hardware doesn't compete with or distract from the display. Filling that display with awesome is the whole point. Balancing that awesome is the key.

Nature abhors flat surfaces. Most organic things in our world are textured, and for many different reasons. Completely flat surfaces are monotonous, just as completely textured surfaces are tiresome. Our eyes crave areas of interest counterpointed by areas of rest. Good designers use both to lead us.

A good Super Suit design, for example, could tightly texture the main blue body so light always catches it in interesting ways, but leave the red and yellow emblem with a far simpler treatment, letting our gaze come naturally to rest right where it's meant to.

The same holds true for iOS. Subtle textures in the background can help flatter elements in the foreground leap out, and be even more usable, even when stressed. Sure, some Apple apps may have gone too far in the past, and dialing them back could make them even better, but making them flat would be just as bad. Personal taste plays some part, but usability is always king. Too much design or too little are both a bad thing.

It's that balance that's missing from the Super suit above, and Hollywood's inability to let any flat surface go unmolested. And it's that balance, more than any arbitrary dislike of one treatment or another, that I hope Jony Ive is bringing to iOS 7.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Makes a change from putting every Superhero in leather, I guess.
  • Blame Raimi's Spider-Man for Supes' texture.
  • Come on, any change to the franchise is refreshing. Yeah he now looks more like a SM/fetish amateur than a drag queen on steroids, way better IMHO. You can alway argue that his costume should look more realistic, less this, more that. The fact is I think most of th people just don't care as long as it looks different from the older ones. After all, it's a(-nother) reboot. What bothers me the most is not his costume, it's how comics in general tranlsate into movies: it's already such a mess on the stories, why couldn't they just stick to one of the existing arcs/universes instead of creating another fork just for the Holywood industries. This makes me sick. Now to the metaphore: yeah you're right René, balance is everything and even if I start to get tired of the current iOS design, an all-flat design might not last very long until it produces the exact same effect: I'll be bored.
  • I'm not understanding why people are ecstatic about this, I like the ios take on skeuomorphic design, is it just because people want a change? I always felt that it was something that set apple apart.
  • You know who didn't need a textured suit? Christopher Reeve. That was all him. Boom!
  • +1 Nailed it!
  • Love the way this discussion stems from a superhero costume! "Personal taste plays some part, but usability is always king. Too much design or too little are both a bad thing." Agreed 100% there. I'm looking forward to seeing what changes come out to the UI with iOS7, but a part of me worries that if they do a bit too much, comfortability and usability might suffer. Sometimes flashy things just grab us, but that doesn't mean that you'll find 'em attractive after a few hours of looking at 'em. P.s. I personally love the new costume. Yeah, they could have done away with part of the texture in some areas. But overall, it is definitely better than what Superman Returns and the original Superman movies had. Ironically, it kinda reminds me of Spidey's textured red-and-blue costume from The Amazing Spiderman - kinda the same blue shade and more. Oh and no red undies, and thus no belt/buckle with the S on it - which makes me wonder what's up with that weird circular thingie where the buckle would have been, and nothing on it either..!
  • I don't agree with the idea of change for the sake of change. With that said I look forward to the new OS and the movie!!
  • Great article Rene and totally agree with the analogy. As a big Star Trek fan i was slightly bothered by the changes to the JJ Abrams uniforms. they weren’t textured per se' , just appeared as if they were. Rule of Thumb: Keep it tight, clean and classic.
  • We're living in a hi-def world now, so I think adding texture was appropriate. That kind of fine detail wouldn't have been visible on NTSC TV back in the day. (BTW, the biggest problem I have with the Abrams Trek movie is Ben Burtt's sound effects.)
  • Good point but those Remamstered TOS episodes look GREAT in this HDTV world.
  • Re: "The same holds true for iOS. Subtle textures in the background can help flatter elements in the foreground leap out..." Shadows make things "pop."
  • I think it's cool and something new a different.
  • Look at the difference in Batman's suit between Adam West and Christian Bale. Same applies here.
  • Superman has to be the worst comic to movie franchise made, just never liked 'em (this is coming from someone that still has multiple copies of the Death of Superman comics from back in the day, so it's not like I didn't like Superman at all). Maybe it was their choice of actors bc I only made it through the 1st 20 mins of the last 1 bc the actor was terrible & I just never liked Christopher Reeve.....I would rather watch the Clooney Batman than watch ANY of the Superman flicks.
    --Disdain for SM movies aside.....I really liked the comparison Rene, def a good read.
  • It's not texture per se that's the problem, it's the poor use of texture. To use another movie superhero costume as a counter-example, look at the movie version of Captain America. That costume has a bunch of different textures and additions that weren't in the original costume...but no one gets upset by it, because the makers went with additions that respected the original intent behind the hero. That movie costume said "How can we take this and make it even MORE like Captain America than it was before?" It was honoring the character. The new movie Superman costume says "Superman? Blech. So lame. We'll rescue his look by slapping lots of scaly detailing on it so it doesn't look comic bookish." By the same token, you can make an interface that says "people want their information, this is useful stuff, let's make the visuals enhance readability and clarity so people can understand it right away." Or you can say "information is boring, this app is dull, we have to hide it and trick people into thinking it's cool by slapping phony wood and leather textures over everything." In both cases, it's really about conviction and whether you think you've got a worthwhile product to share. If you don't, chrome and snakeskin won't help.
  • wait...whats this article about? ios7?? I'm far too distracted my henry cavil's muscles....
  • Good article Rene. I'll leave Superman's suit alone. Suffice to say the suit will really suck if the movie does. Just get past the origins movie and get to a Superman that kicks some serious nemesis butt. Well...back to iOS 7. I agree with you I hope Ives is shooting for balance. Personally I like the textured look on some icons. I imagine it must be tough to get it so pleases everyone. But like you said perhaps borrowing from the real world will help them along. Since I came to iOS only a year ago I'm not sure what they were aiming for with the original UI design. I've been on Android and while I liked widgets and the pane theme you always ended up filling them with more icons. IMO I've enjoyed the now extinct webOS look the most. Everything was clean and polish yet not overly done. Maybe iOS 7 might channel some of that. Just my two cents.
  • I don't watch kids films so I really couldn't care less how bad (or good I guess, depending on your preference) super man's suit is. As for iOS, and it's obsession with textures. Personally I can't wait to see them all gone. They make no sense, and to my eyes, look tacky and gaudy. Google's design (see their G+ app or GMail apps for example) look so much prettier, and are functionally superior too.