Why your favorite iOS apps may look different six months from now

If Apple(s AAPL) is “de-glitzing” iOS to make way for a flatter look with fewer real-life textures later this year, as has been reported, it’s likely to inspire an App Store-wide re-evaluation of what makes an app look good. After Apple shows off a new-look iOS at WWDC, it’s a good bet third-party app makers are going to want to make sure their apps look more in tune with the new overall look and feel of the operating system.

Since the beginning, Apple has set the bar for good design, which is reflected in the majority of what you find in its iOS App Store. But as the iOS platform has aged, new design trends have emerged. The faux-leather texture on the Contacts app, or the wooden bookshelves on iBooks and Newsstand were welcoming and familiar six years ago. But like smartphones, they are no longer new. And as a design philosophy, the overly textured look that incorporates real-world objects is becoming less necessary in a world where mobile computers are more familiar than ever.

That’s why we’ve already seen some of the best and most adventurous third-party designers on Apple’s platform already embracing new design techniques on their own, incorporating flatter design elements as seen in places like Microsoft’s Metro design for Windows UI and elsewhere.

But if Apple embraces a new look that’s flatter and tones down the stylized textures, more will probably follow what we’ve seen in Letterpress, Clear, Embark and others: apps with a flatter look that still incorporate what we’ve come to understand as the standard iOS user experience.

Good design practice

Major design tweaks will ripple out into custom-designed apps, Phill Ryu, co-founder of mobile design shop Impending and a designer behind Clear, told me.

“Apps with custom UI benefit from, and in a way rely on, incorporating design features from the OS that its users would already be familiar with, as stepping stones to guide them through a new unexplored experience,” he said. “The stepping stones may need to be swapped out or tweaked if iOS 7 changes significantly.”

Michael Simmons of Flexibits, maker of Mac and iOS app Fantastical, pointed out that the most important aspect of app design isn’t following trends, it’s that they’re easily understandable to users.

“The point of native apps is the user is familiar with that — give them an app with that same user interface so they don’t have to learn something new,” he said.

“If Apple changes the user interface … we would have to adapt at some point to make our app more OS-like. We have a red header [in Fantastical, which stands out from Apple’s usual neutral blue] but we still use standard [iOS] controls,” Simmons said. “It still fits into the ecosystem. And that’s the key: you do want to follow what Apple’s doing because you want your experience to be as close to the native experience as possible.”

Still, if there are changes to iOS 7, he isn’t anticipating them to be so startingly different that it will require app makers to retrain iPhone and iPad users.

“Apple doesn’t make drastic changes — they evolve,” Simmons points out. “It’s never been Apple’s thing to make a massive change.”

A good bet as to the kinds of changes we’ll see? Apple’s own Podcasts app offers a good example. The recent redesign didn’t alter the overall user experience, but they did nix the old-school reel-to-reel tapedeck. It still kept the basic functionality, but freshened up the look and feel with less gimmicky elements.

Design philosophy is just one aspect of the changes afoot at Apple. The competitive field in mobile is vastly different than it was when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone and iOS. As we’ve seen already, the company no longer can market the iPhone the same way it used to six years ago or even two years ago, so it’s adapting with new tactics to match a more realistic understanding of that market. The same is true for mobile OSes: a redesigned iOS 7 would be another example of how the company is looking toward the future by breaking with the past. The key will be to help third-party app makers and their users navigate these changes as painlessly as possible.