How did the movie Alien inspire iOS7

Do you ever pay attention to the design of those icons that you click on daily as you use your computer programs or mobile apps? Naturally, what matters most to the majority of us is how functional the programs and apps are, and what we can use them for. However, the design of the interface is also an important part of user experience, and so is the appearance of the icons themselves, as they represent the first step of doing actual work on a computer.

At the dawn of the computer era icons were simple and minimalist, but as the technological revolution got more and more frenzied, their designs underwent radical changes. From generic versions with a limited color palette, the icons have in the past years transformed into sophisticated and detailed pictures, often with three-dimensional and realistic features. The technological giant that is Apple has had a lot to do with it, with its carefully and meticulously developed operative OSX systems for Mac computers, the iOS, the iPhone and the iPad. However, the iOS7, launched in September this year, has brought about a dramatic change. The richly illustrated icons have disappeared, replaced by the minimalist, ‘flat’ design, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the designer circles.

On the occasion of the launch, Apple announced that the idea behind the new iOS and its graphic interface was to make it more simple and user-friendly, because ‘good design is design that’s in service of the experience’. Whether Apple will start a new trend of minimalism in icon design, we’re sure to see soon, and in the meantime, a story has surfaced as to the origin of the inspiration behind it. David Brassgal, a designer at Iconfactory, has drawn a completely unexpected parallel between it and the movie world.

In his blog post Brassgal compares the design of the icon and the iOS7 interface with the visual iconography of none other than the cult movie Alien from 1979! A lot of people must be wondering what Apple and the modern world of apps have to do with Riddley Scott’s movie, but Brassgal makes a pretty good case of connecting the two in his article.

Namely, the interiors of the starship Nostromo, where the main part of the SF classic takes place, was designed in great detail that’s hard to ‘catch’ at first viewing. That’s down to Rob Cobb, the production designer who, among other things, put in a series of pictograms that gave the ship’s crew basic information about the ship’s quarters and systems, and gave them guidelines on how to use them. Cobb’s goal was to give Nostromo’s scenography a greater sense of reality and otherworldliness, and his pictograms coincidentally turned out to look very much like the icons of the new iOS7.

Picking up on the resemblance, Brassgal decided to have a little fun with the designer tools, bringing Cobb’s icons up to date based on the model of design of the iOS. The end result might easily pass for the background screen of the new iPhone.

By comparing Cobb’s design with that of Apple, one could base the conclusion that they do resemble each other on the following three features:

1. Minimalism

The visual image of the symbols on Nostromo is simple, flat and functional, with short descriptions that give a somewhat clearer idea about what their use is. It’s similar in the case of iOS icons, which are composed of basic graphic elements, with no shadows or three-dimensional effects.

2. Colorization

Cobb’s icons use a subtle, basic colorization dominated by red, white and grey, without complex nuances and flashy colors. The iOS icons are definitely more vivid, but they’ve lost the details and the rich nuances from the previous versions of the mobile system.

3. The shape of the icons

The icons on iPhone have had smooth, rounded corners ever since the first version of iOS, but with the turn towards flat design, they’ve become even more close to Ron Cobb’s designer philosophy, which also avoids sharp corners.

Rob Cobb’s design for Scott’s movie, made over three decades ago, has therefore proven to be relevant even in our own time. Brasgall claims that it’s easy to be tempted into saying that Cobb’s design was ahead of its time, but the real point is actually that good design is simply – timeless. Perhaps that might make you look at your iPhone icons a little bit differently from now on.

And since we’re talking about interesting coincidences and pop culture trivia, we should mention another (albeit very indirect) connection between Apple and Alien. Namely, it was Riddley Scott who directed the legendary ‘1984’ Apple ad, which announced the arrival of Macintosh and new trends in the marketing industry. That, however, is a completely different tale.