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Computers

Design Changes in OS X Yosemite

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Yosemite, the latest release of Apple’s OS X operating system, introduces some radical design changes. What iOS 7 did for the iPhone, OS X Yosemite will do for Mac. Fortunately for users, many of the changes are merely visual with the underlying functions remaining the same.

Some changes, such as the new system font and flatter user interface, change how OS X feels but are not immediately obvious if you don’t know what to look for. Others like the brighter, bolder folder and Dock icons are impossible to miss.

In this tutorial, I’ll show you the design changes that Apple has made and flag any accompanying functional changes.

Apple’s Evolving Design Philosophy

Under Steve Jobs, Apple’s design was characterised by skeumorphismthe idea that digital objects should resemble their physical counterparts. For example, the Notes app resembled a textured notepad and, most famously, the iCal app had a faux-leather design inspired by Jobs’ private jet. 

Skeumorphism has the benefit of familiarity. Someone familiar with the physical object, but not with the digital alternative, can still recognise its form and function. Apple under Jobs, however, took it to extremes and was justifiably criticised for it.

After Jobs’ death, Scott Forstall was, amongst other things, responsible for software design. For a few years he continued Apple’s skeumorphic philosophy. In 2012, Forstall left Apple following the controversy surrounding the release of Apple Maps with iOS 6. Rather than being directly replaced, his duties were divided with the head of hardware design, Jony Ive, assuming responsibility for software design as well.

Ive was largely responsible for the sleek and minimalist hardware design associated with Apple. With the assumption of software design duties as well, he set about introducing the same philosophies to iOS and OS X. The release of iOS 7 was the first iteration of this new philosophy. iOS 7 removed many of the criticised skeumorphic elements. The introduction of elements like transparency, layering and bright bold colours were some of the more obvious changes.

OS X Yosemite does for OS X what iOS 7 did for iOS; it’s Jony Ive trying to align Apple’s hardware and software design philosophies.

The New System Font: Helvetica Neue

Until Yosemite the system font on OS X was Lucida Grande. iOS on the other hand used Helvetica or, more recently, Helvetica Neue. With Yosemite, Apple is unifying the system font across the two platforms. Yosemite now uses Helvetica Neue.

The difference between the Lucida Grande and Helvetica Neue is subtle. Primarily, Helvetica Neue uses lighter line weights and tighter kerning—the spacing between the characters—which makes it appear smaller at the same font size.

lucida grande helvetica neue comparison
Lucida Grande and Helvetica Neue at the same font size.

Transparent Everything

While previous versions of OS X favoured textured backgrounds, Yosemite features lots of transparency. Everything from the menubar to application sidebars now have some measure of transparency. Rather than using single coloured backgrounds, the transparent backgrounds favoured by Apple use the colours from whatever is behind the active window and blur it so that it is as if it is being viewed through an unfocused lens.

While many of the changes in Yosemite represent Apple moving towards a flatter design, the introduction of transparency maintains the concept of depth that runs throughout the operating system—it is still possible for a window to be above another.

yosemite desktop
The default desktop in Yosemite showing the transparency in the menus and Dock.

Bold Colours

Yosemite also represents a move towards bolder colours. Nowhere is this clearer than the new Folder icons. The shade of aqua is significantly more vibrant than that in previous versions of OS X. The move towards bolder colours is consistent throughout the operating system; all the highlight colours and selections on the user interface are brighter and bolder too.

bold colours yosemite
The more vibrant folder icons are the most obvious signs of Apple's move to brighter colours. Note the old Dropbox folder icon.

New Dock Icons

As with iOS 7, one of Yosemite’s more obvious changes is the introduction of completely redesigned Dock icons. All the icons showcase the brighter and bolder colour palate and overall flatter design philosophy.

dock yosemite
Some of the new Dock icons in Yosemite.

A Flatter User Interface

Apple has also flattened the user interface. While not totally removed, there are fewer shadows and gradients throughout the operating system. Things like buttons and checkboxes no longer have the same stylised depth they did.

Traffic Lights

Like all the other user interface elements, Apple’s distinctive traffic lights have under gone a revision. While the majority of changes are just visual, the traffic lights also have a functional change. 

I’ve written before about the inconsistent behaviour of the green traffic light and Apple has been listening. The green traffic light now opens an app in fullscreen by default. While not exactly the same behaviour, it is at least consistent.

Notification Centre

Another area where there is both a visual and a functional change is Notification Centre. Like everything else, the Notification Centre is now transparent. Rather than moving the main interface to the left, it slides out over the top.

The Notification Centre will now also be home to widgets from Apple, and third-party, apps; they are visually and functionally similar to those available in iOS 8.

notification centre yosemite
The Notification Centre has had both visual and functional changes.

Built-in Apps

Most of Apple’s built in apps have also been given an interface overhaul. The worst remaining skeumorphism in apps like Notes and Reminders has been removed and they’ve been given a full visual update. 

Even apps that were relatively modern to begin with, like Maps and Messages, have had some interface elements changed. Safari has also been given an updated interface.

notes reminders yosemite
The non-skeumorphic Notes and Reminders apps.

New Spotlight

Spotlight has been completely overhauled, both visually and functionally. As well as searching the Mac, it can now search external sites like Google and Wikipedia. While not as fully featured as a task manager like Launchbar it is a welcome addition to OS X.

yosemite spotlight
The new Spotlight app in Yosemite can search third-party sites.

Conclusion

In this article I’ve taken you through some of the major design changes that come to OS X with the release of Yosemite. They represent a unification of the hardware and software design philosophies, and also, the increasing convergence of the OS X and iOS design philosophies.

Most of the changes are purely visual so the learning curve for most OS X users should not be steep. Personally, I quite like the changes but would love to hear other people’s opinions in the comments.

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