How it works

I watched the WWDC keynote on Monday, and I’ve been reading and listening to the reactions to it since then. I’ve noticed that most of the commentary hasn’t used the word design very much. This is a big contrast to last year, when iOS 7 had everyone talking about design. But I’d say there were more design changes to both iOS and OS X this year than last.

Oh sure, iOS 7’s appearance was very different from that of iOS 6 or any of its predecessors. And there’s no question that some of those appearance changes affected how we used our iPhones and iPads. But once we figured out what was a button and which way sliders were supposed to be dragged, our devices behaved pretty much as they had before. The biggest change in behavior, I’d say, was the ability of apps to do background downloading.1

The infrastructure changes in iOS 8 and Yosemite, though, will make a significant difference in how we use our devices. It’ll take a while for us to get used to them—old dogs, new tricks—and it’ll take a while for the apps we use to adjust themselves to the new possibilities, But Continuity, Extensions, iCloud Drive, the new Spotlight, and the API updates will make how we use our Apple devices next year distinctly different from how we use them this year. This, more than flattening or translucency, is real design.

Steve Jobs’s “design is how it works” gets a lot of lip service, but when most Apple bloggers and pundits say design they still mean how it looks. Flat design, skeuomorphic design, “clean” design2—these generate millions of words of heated discussion, but they have little to do with how your computer operates.3 You could go to the Iconfactory and change every icon on your machine, but that wouldn’t change how you or it work.

As an engineer, I can’t forget that design is how it works. When I was in college, I took seven design courses: steel design, advanced steel design, reinforced concrete design, advanced reinforced concrete design, prestressed concrete design, timber design, and a “capstone” design course that was intended to pull together what I learned in all the others. Now, when I need to analyze a structure or a piece of equipment, I ask for the design drawings. In my world, design is what engineers do to make things work.

The software world, on the other hand, has this weird dichotomy between what it calls “engineers”4 and what it calls “designers.” Software engineers, for some reason, don’t get credit for designing, even though the structure of the code and the interaction of all its parts is absolutely design. Brent Simmons, for example is somehow not thought of as one of the designers of Vesper, despite all this. That’s just bizarre.

So although it may be couched in different terms, I look forward to enjoying the benefits of Apple’s new designs.

  1. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of background downloading. It’s made all the apps that take advantage of it work more smoothly. 

  2. Clean design = Helvetica + white space. 

  3. I’m not arguing that how something looks has no effect on how we use it. There’s no question that things like layout, shape, and color can have a profound influence on user interaction. But the features have to be there to interact with. 

  4. No, I don’t consider most programmers to be engineers, but that’s an argument for another day. It’s also one that I’ve long since lost; everyone calls programmers engineers.