The Devolution of UI Design

By Zhenyi Tan

Back when I got my first Mac, I was really into UI customization. I’d spend hours on websites like MacThemes and DeviantArt, looking for the next cool theme or icon for my Mac. My favorite theme was Milk by Max Rudberg.

There were all sorts of people making these themes and icons. Some were just doing it for fun, while others were professional designers. But where are those indie designers now? Design studios like Sofa got acquired by Facebook and stopped doing client work. Then a lot of designers got hired by FAANGs and stopped sharing their work publicly. It’s like the indie designer scene just disappeared.

Dribbble used to be great. People would post their work-in-progress designs and get feedback from other designers. With rebounds, designers would take an existing design and add their own spin to it. It was like an open-source community, but for design. I remember when Instagram’s ‘five tabs but the middle one is a button’ UI was invented there.

But now, it feels like a ghost town. What’s left are mostly design agencies and freelancers looking for work, and a few die-hard users who keep posting even though they don’t get much response.

Then there was iOS 7. I still think it was a mistake. At least, it felt rushed. If you look at the UI asset files, you’ll see what I mean. The folder structure and the file names were the same as in iOS 6, but the images were replaced by transparent ones. It didn’t feel like the thoughtful redesign that Jony Ive talked about.

I remember giving my non-tech-savvy aunt a used OG iPad when they got Wi-Fi at home. It was amazing how she just knew how to swipe to unlock it.

Fast forward a few years, after the Great UI Flattening, I gave my non-tech-savvy mom an Android phone (she wanted a big screen). I had to walk her through the whole UI, what she could press, what she couldn’t. It was like handing someone a tool without an instruction manual. And even now, she sometimes forgets that the white circle is the camera’s shutter button.

People often say that the design of iOS 1-6 was skeuomorphic, and iOS 7 was anti-skeuomorphic. But the design of iOS 1-6 was more about creating depth. They used gradients and shadows to make the UI elements feel real and easy to use. Then iOS 7 came along and killed the idea that a UI with depth is a good UI. After iOS 7, if you dared to use gradients, highlights, and shadows in your UI, your design was suddenly seen as outdated.

Around 2014-2015, we hit the low point of design. Famous brand logos were stripped down to basic, sans-serif versions. Windows 10 beta icons looked like they’re drawn in MS Paint. Bloomberg put out an issue with Tim Cook on the cover, with squiggly fonts that looked like they were made with WordArt. Websites started looking like clones of each other. Dribbble was now flooded with “flat UI kits” that were basically just a bunch of colored rectangles.

It seems like the original designers have disappeared. Now, we’ve got “UX designers.” But a lot of these “UX designers” seem more like marketers. They’re more focused on maximizing revenue rather than making a good product. It reminds me of a quote I read on the internet, “Walt Disney created user experiences, you create user interfaces.”

People like Cabel, Louie, and Neven have been talking about this for years. Then, they stopped. Why? Maybe they got tired. Or maybe they felt like no one was listening. No matter how much they talked, nothing really changed. It’s over. The utilitarians have won.

Follow-up: I’ve just realized that picking a UI design style is like picking a programming language.