How Design Standards Got So HighAnd

And How to Uphold Them

Learning About Design Standards… by Going Underground

It’s hard to predict exactly how mobile design ideals will change and become even more defined, but the London Underground (LU) might provide a hint. The LU recently developed a 225 page document on design standard called the London Underground Station Design Idiom. The Underground is the world’s first subway, and has been growing since 1863, without a single unifying stylistic plan or set of rules.

The London Underground Station Design Idiom was launched in 2015 — more than 150 years after the subway opened.

The Evolution of Architectural Design

The LU is a great example of changing design standards, because it’s a place where the past lives with the present — literally connected by a massive network of tracks. It’s easy to see different styles, and the way they expressed different concerns. The early Underground used steam locomotives and gas lighting, so early Tube stations were big, airy designs incorporating a lot of natural light, and plenty of ventilation to allow the smoke to disperse.

In the 1990s, London Underground design standards changed to cope with increased traffic and incorporate modern safety features.

The Development of Software Design

Apps have undergone a similar transformation. The first computer with something that started to resemble a graphical user interface was the Xerox Alto, created in 1973. It had simple black and white graphics, and a resolution of only 606 x 808, and wasn’t really fully graphical. The file manager organized files in two horizontal boxes, but they weren’t movable windows, like in a modern computer. However, the Alto did have some of the basic characteristics that defined the PC era, such as an arrow-shaped mouse pointer that could change shapes when it performed different tasks. As with the early Tube stations, it was limited by technology more than a design philosophy.

With the addition of Smalltalk, it got one step closer to resembling a modern desktop. Smalltalk was an object-oriented programming language, as well as a development environment and graphical UI. It had windows with title bars that could be moved around against a grey background. It didn’t offer the modern range of textures and shading (or even color), but you could tell which window was on top, because it would physically cover the window below it.

Early graphical interfaces were limited by technology, not design philosophy.
Increased processing power and screen resolution enabled a UX design revolution.

Modern Design — the Difference Between “Can Do” and “Should Do”

As we discussed in A Brief History of Mobile App Design, the 2007 release of the iPhone started a design revolution. The iPhone combined the first fully modern, multi-touch smartphone with rich, naturalistic skeuomorphic design. Objects had shadow and texture, which users could physically interact with in a way that hadn’t been possible before. Many app developers played with the realism, simulating actual objects in playful ways. But it wasn’t just for fun — there was a logic to it all: by combining simulated natural textures with GUI design standards, Apple created an immersive and intuitive experience. But was it the best way to interact with digital objects?

Microsoft said no, and opted for simplified, flat design with the Windows Phone. Icons didn’t have to shimmer and glow, they had to be readable, attractive and easy to access. The Windows Phone didn’t do well, but it did help start a debate that led to something a little like the Idiom: Material Design.

Material design standards focus on user experience, not aesthetic style.

Upholding Modern Standards in Design

Like the London Underground, the app world still has room for different styles. Skeuomorphism still has its place in apps designed to emulate real-world objects, such as the Moog Model 15 App, which meticulously recreates a vintage Moog synthesizer.

Other designers opt for extremely clean, simple design to emphasize ease of use or particular color palettes or flow to give the app a recognizable feel. The important thing is to think about your users — what will they use the app for? What behaviors are they expecting? What design features will they find convenient? What visual style will they find charming and attractive? Now that our computers are powerful enough to enable any user interaction we can imagine, we can go beyond what is possible, and focus on what our users need.



Build high-fidelity fully interactive mobile app prototypes quickly. No coding required. Get a 15-day free trial at:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store

Build high-fidelity fully interactive mobile app prototypes quickly. No coding required. Get a 15-day free trial at: