Apple will hold its annual developer conference in June 2021, where the company is expected to reveal major software upgrades for its best-selling gadgets, including the iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, and iPhone. While little is known about these new operating systems, we’ve started to see some clues that whatever Apple has planned next for the iPhone could dramatically change the visuals on your smartphone.
If Apple follows the same naming convention it’s used for more than a decade, we can expect the follow-up to iOS 14 to be called iOS 15. As well as the usual stability and performance tweaks, we’re starting to see some clues that Apple could be planning a more substantial visual redesign.
In recent days, Apple has reworked the icons for two of its apps, Apple Music For Artists – used by recording artists to manage their profile and view listening stats from music streaming service Apple Music, as well as App Store Connect – used by producers to distribute music, movies, and TV shows to customers on the iTunes Store. Since both of these industry apps are a little niche, the changes went under the radar.
Both app icons have moved to a white background, with a thin border around the iconic rounded-circle shape. While the logos themselves – a music note and the letter “A” – remain unchanged, Apple has added some new shading effects to create the impression of depth. Rather than a colourful digital logo, these new icons look like depressions in a real, physical surface.
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The fact that both changes happened very recently and both use the exact same look suggests this is more than a whimsical tweak from the design team at Apple. It suggests this is a new design philosophy inside the company that will be everywhere when iOS 15 rolls around.
And if you think that’s a bit of a stretch given that we’ve only seen two (pretty obscure) iPhone app icons adopt this style so far …remember that when Apple redesigned the visuals of macOS last year, every app icon used this exact same style. While a number of the shared applications between macOS and iOS have similar icons, Apple has included a sense of depth in the icons on macOS Big Sur, which was announced during the developer conference last year and shipped in the autumn.
Thanks to its new custom-designed M1 processors, the latest range of Apple’s MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini computers can all run iOS application on the desktop. And with more M1-powered computers on the way, this is something that’s only going to become more common. Are we really expecting iOS to have such a dramatically different approach to its design than macOS going forward – even though the two will appear side-by-side on some Apple laptops and desktops?
That doesn’t seem like a very Apple-like approach.
When Sir Jony Ive, the man behind the iMac, iPhone and a dizzying number of other iconic designs from Apple, was put in charge of iOS design, he famously pushed the team to make everything appear as flat and minimalist as possible. Gone was the imitation yellow lined paper in the Notes app, replaced with stark whiteness. Gone was the Casino-like green felt in the Game Centre app, replaced with a grey menu.
With the recent macOS redesign and these new iOS app icons, it seems Apple is pushing into a new design era. While we’re not heading back into imitation fabric and paper in our digital apps, it does seem like the company wants to add some sense of depth to its operating system again.
This is something we’ve seen from Microsoft too, which is slowly moving away from the sharp, angular and flat software design that dominated Windows 8 and the early iterations of Windows 10. With its upcoming redesign, set to debut on all existing Windows 10 machines this autumn, it will use translucency and softer corners to give the impression of windows actually layering on top of one another and other tricks to give a sense of depth.
Some tipsters have suggested that moving to white backgrounds on all iOS app icons could allow Apple to swap this background for a dark shade of black when the system-wide Dark Mode is activated – making the operating system softer on the eyes in the gloom and saving more battery life too.
Apple’s WWDC developer conference kicks off June 7, so there’s not long left to wait before we get some answers to these questions.