How Apple is giving design a bad name

“Once upon a time, Apple was known for designing easy-to-use, easy-to-understand products,” Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini write for Fast Company. “It was a champion of the graphical user interface, where it is always possible to discover what actions are possible, clearly see how to select that action, receive unambiguous feedback as to the results of that action, and to have the power to reverse that action—to undo it—if the result is not what was intended.”

“No more. Now, although the products are indeed even more beautiful than before, that beauty has come at a great price,” Norman and Tognazzini write. “Gone are the fundamental principles of good design: discoverability, feedback, recovery, and so on. Instead, Apple has, in striving for beauty, created fonts that are so small or thin, coupled with low contrast, that they are difficult or impossible for many people with normal vision to read. We have obscure gestures that are beyond even the developer’s ability to remember. We have great features that most people don’t realize exist.”

“Apple’s design guidelines for developers for both iOS and the Mac OS X still pay token homage to the principles, but, inside Apple, many of the principles are no longer practiced at all. Apple has lost its way, driven by concern for style and appearance at the expense of understandability and usage,” Norman and Tognazzini write. “A woman told one of us that she had to use Apple’s assistive tool to make Apple’s undersize fonts large and contrasty enough to be readable. However, she complained that on many app screens, this option made normal fonts so large that the text wouldn’t fit on the screen. It’s important to note that she did not have defective vision. She just didn’t have the eyesight of a 17-year-old… What kind of design philosophy requires millions of its users to have to pretend they are disabled in order to be able to use the product?”

Read more in the full article – very highly recommendedhere.

MacDailyNews Take: Some might say this is what you get when you make an industrial designer the final arbiter of user interface design. If so, the fault lies not with Jony Ive, but with Tim Cook, the man who gave Ive a job for which is not well-suited. “This guy’s a really good designer and software design is design, too, so…” is something you might think an operations guy-cum-CEO might say to himself in late October 2012 amidst a rather existential crisis.

If you do say things like this, we concur that there is a modicum of truth somewhere in your statements, but that things of late are actually getting better. Let’s face it: Ive was forced to learn a new discipline after the Maps/Forstall fiasco blew up and the responsibilities for basically, oh, everything were plopped on his lap. (No one person could actually do Jony’s job as assigned by Tim Cook).

Now, with Ive moved up into the “Chief Design Officer” position, Richard Howarth becoming the new vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye becoming the new vice president of User Interface Design, we suspect usability to improve.

Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini each led projects in the early-1980s that resulted in their extracting and codifying the principles that underlay the then-new generation of user-centered visual design, as embodied in the Xerox Star, Apple Lisa, and Apple Macintosh computers, as well as the experimental systems that preceded them.

We hope the powers that be at Apple read Norman’s and Tog’s full article and takes what it says to heart.

Jony Ive promoted to ‘Chief Design Officer’ – May 25, 2015
Open letter to Tim Cook: Apple needs to do better – January 5, 2015
Usability, not ‘flat’ design, key to Monday’s iOS refresh – June 10, 2013
Tim Cook takes full control of Apple: John Browett and Scott Forstall out; Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi get expanded responsibilities – October 29, 2012

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “Tom R.” for the heads up.]


  1. The word “skeuomorphic” sounds bad, but all it means is “things look like what they are.” Making things look like what they are is the whole point of a GUI, so people don’t have to guess what things are. Now we have to do a lot of guessing.

    Jony Ive has replaced buttons with words in filled rectangles or circles, words in unfilled rectangles or circles, underlined text (which looks cheap) or just text with no indication that it does something. Some give visual feedback, others don’t.

    Everything is flat, circular, or rectangular, removing a lot of visual information, and sometimes the actual symbol is crudely drawn and too small. Jony Ive isn’t good at GUIS, but he can draw a mean circle! The GUI is also inconsistent. Apple used to base its GUI on research and testing, but now it is just Jony’s whim.

    In the past, Apple based its GUI on research and testing, not on the whims of someone who esteems himself an artist but isn’t one, giving us OS X Hanna Barbera. If it is not Jony Ive’s fault that he got this job duty, it is his fault that he didn’t pass it on to someone who knows what he’s doing.

  2. “Apple has, in striving for beauty, created fonts that are so small or thin, coupled with low contrast, that they are difficult or impossible for many people with normal vision to read.”

    Yea, okay . . . he has a point there. 😕

  3. This article makes some valid and foundational points about UI design.

    However, I find some people wanting to go back to cruder high contrast black and white interfaces (granted, the color blind may be thankful) because that’s what they’ve become used to over the last couple of decades. I’m left with the suspicion that many are simply uncomfortable with change. The graphic designers at Apple are well versed in how to display and separate information on a screen. They’re well versed in contrast and color (with apologies to the color blind). I’m 53 and I don’t have a problem with reading the displays. I suspect that younger generations are not going to have the same negative reactions as those who have been using computers for several decades.

  4. iOS 7 thru 9
    Light gray text on white. Just plain stupid. Takes longer to read.
    Thin wispy fonts. Again, takes longer to read.
    Words that are buttons. Is it a button? Is it a title? Is it a section head or paragraph lead?
    Notes App- Hey any number that is a phone number or address in the body of the text, lets change that to yellow text with a white background. What the fuck?
    Notes App- In a note, press left or right arrow to move to the next note. Can’t do that. Feature removed.
    Weather App- Partly cloudy days, put white clouds behind white text. What the fuck?
    Podcasts App- Please dear god, just shoot it and put it out of it’s misery. Cannot sync or keep track of anything reliably. The makers of Downcast should write a thank you letter to Apple for increasing their sales.
    Calendar App- It was so bad many of us switched to Fantastical and gladly paid.

    I have read articles where visually impaired older people were in tears after upgrading to iOS 7. They could no longer read their iPhones. Apple took too long to try and fix it.

    Back in the days of the Apple II computers, Apple had sets of manuals or books explaining their philosophy of the human interface and why they did stuff they way they did. It kicked ass for over 30 years. Why are they fucking with it now? Steve needs to come back as a ghost and scare the shit out of whoever is doing this.
    Rant over.

  5. Despite being an Apple user since the 90’s, I sadly have to agree with the article. Some of the UI changes they’ve made is OS X are simply baffling. More like change for change’s sake. Not to improve usability.

  6. Most people seem to agree with the article, as do I.

    But….. lets just step back and remember when people like me warned about this back when you ALL had your pitch forks and torched out for firing anyone who didn’t want “FLAT UI”. Well now you got it….flat as a pancake…..and as minimalist as you can possibly get….enjoy it!

  7. Apple is on a very slippery slope. Usability is rapidly going down and I have been documenting it. It used to be consistent, “Save” meant one thing, “Done” meant another, not now. Contrast has been done by “designers” so normal people cannot read things. I have a long list. I am a a Human Factors Ph.D. in vision and displays and Don and Tog are not only right, it is worse.

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