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iPhone Black == Brushed Metal?

Yesterday I tweeted: “Sorry, but I still feel black iPhone UIs are the equivalent of brushed metal.” I was aware that people I know personally are writing applications that this would seem to disparage. I also knew that I should follow it up with more explanation than can fit in 140-character chunks.

Brushed Metal

When Apple introduced brushed metal, I was fine with it. I was fine with it for the QuickTime Player (partly because I rarely use it on its own); I was fine with it for iTunes and Calculator.

When other apps started using brushed metal (it was as simple as a checked setting in Interface Builder) and didn’t follow the guideline of “re-creat[ing] a familiar physical device,” I would actually try to find another app. I think many of these developers tried to use brushed metal to make their app stand out, but I agreed with Apple’s HIG that it made many apps look “too heavy” and, while I can’t recall specific examples, I remember it just not behaving as well for visual cues of backgrounded windows.

When brushed metal bled into Safari and iChat, I started hacking their nibs to disable the brushed metal; when it infected the Finder I discovered UNO and disabled it across the board (UNO also had the advantage of enabling the then-nascent “unified toolbar” interface look, which I really liked).

I rather like the idea of a “look” or “mode” which adds contextual information about the app itself, but when people use it with abandon, it loses its contextual purpose. In interior design, there is the concept of an accent wall: A wall (usually) painted a bolder color than the other walls to draw attention and break up the uniformity of the room without domination of the bold color. More than one accent wall in a room, and the room is split-color; all of the walls the accent color, and it’s no longer the accent color—it is the room color. This is what I feel happened with brushed metal.

iPhone Black

If you can remember back that far, think about a stock iPhone devoid of App Store purchases. Phone, Mail, Text, Calendar, Maps, Safari, Settings, and half the tabs in Clock—gray status bar, blue navigation and toolbars. Black is used in the tab bars, and indicates that the icons here behave differently from a toolbar (again, modes). Yes, there are a few “variants”—the Stopwatch and Timer tabs of Clock, Photos, and iPod while playing. These are all fullscreen uses, with the apparent intent to blend the controls into an unobtrusive background.

But notice how even the iPod application uses blue navigation bars when in table/list mode. I don’t believe there is a single Apple application with a black navigation or toolbar displaying a table view. Yet, that is exactly what many third-party applications are doing.

I must confess that when the App Store finally opened, I hadn’t really dived into the SDK very deeply. When I saw the first “black UI” app, I was amused at the work the developer must have done to override the standard color just to make it “sexy black.” Obviously, I didn’t know at the time that black was just another option in Interface Builder. Now I know, and it’s apparent by the large number of applications with the black UI.


As an iPhone user, I appreciate the consistency of interface among the applications. Gratuitous use of a black UI only serves to distance an application from this smooth interface flow—maybe not as bad as a yellow, green or pale blue background, or an application that doesn’t even use standard navigation, tool and tab bars—but distanced nonetheless. Ironically, as more applications use the black UI, any one app using it is no longer differentiated—it’s now just noticeably “not Apple.”

Maybe I’m just not good enough about developing bleeding edge user interface; I consider myself to be more in line with “WWAD?” than “WWPD?” I’m not going to call out any specific apps as looking bad because of this, but I will give one positive comment: I think Twitterrific is one app that has a really good all-black look although I appreciate and prefer the “light background” preference (which I’d still like to see go all the way to standard colors).

I certainly wish Apple’s HIG had more guidance on this topic, but until then whenever I see a black UI app that doesn’t exhibit a need to take the user into a different mental mode, I consider it just as gratuitous as brushed metal.