The Feather-Light OS
The major, quarter-long project of my INFO 498 - Mobile App Design class was to split into teams and design a mobile operating system and its suite of fundamental mobile applications. We designed Airus OS, an operating system heavily inspired by the spacious and soothing sight of the sky.
Our very first assignment was to invent a design language upon which to build our mobile platforms and present it to the entire class the following week.
It was a given that the various teams in our class would extoll their language's 'minimalism.' Nowadays, minimalism has become so culturally obligatory that it's the designer's equivalent of being a nice person.
With that in mind, we needed a way to differentiate ourselves beyond minimalism and spartan interfaces; we needed visual branding so distinct that it would be undeniable that any given application we created was ours. Rather hyperfocus on a color scheme or baubles, we chose a metaphor; we wanted our platform to be as powerful, as pleasurably familiar, and as effortless as the atmosphere itself.
I wrote this vision statement to encapsulate our design language:
Airus Design is heavily focused around a metaphor for the sky: Its vast and endless potential, the soothing sight of the weightless white clouds and gliding birds, the silent whirling of pinwheels and the songs of wind chimes, the cool nourishment of oxygen filling your lungs. Our vision is to capture these connotations of the therapeutic tranquility, space, and effortlessness of the sky by emphasizing objects as feather-light and responsive as clouds, minimizing cognitive overload and visual noise with negative space as pleasing as pinwheels, and peacefully depriving the competition of the oxygen necessary to persist.
It's deliberately over-the-top. We even discussed playing some wind chimes and having members of our team meditating in the periphery while we presented the concept. As much as we mercilessly poked fun at our own metaphor, the team was entirely sold on it.
The Airus Phone
The Airus Phone would be a 6 x 3.375 inch, 1920px x 1080px, bezeless device with impact impervious glass and haptic (non-physical) buttons on its sides. On the topic of bezeless design; essentially, if the phone were facing you, it would appear as a completely flat, glass screen with zero plastic or metal framing the horizontal surface, thus affording the phone greater screen real estate than modern devices. I suspect that this trend will come to prominence very soon; there are rumors that the iPhone 8 will have zero bezel as well. This generous screen space allows elements that appear to be small relative to the elements of Android and iOS (for example, the Air Bar and buttons) actually of somewhat equivalent size. For example, though the Air Bar may appear small relative to the rest of the screen, it's actually 35px tall. The extra screen space also allows for multitasking, one of the primary features of our operating system.
The Multitasking Mobile OS
On first glance, it appears that we designed this OS to compromise usability for style, because each application "floats" over the user's background. These floating applications are integral to one of the primary selling points of Airus OS: The ability to multitask by having many applications open at once, similar to a desktop.
The floating applications are 'cards;' a metaphor borrowed from card-based mobile platforms of the past such as Palm's WebOS. Essentially, a user can have multiple cards open on one screen. That is to say, you could have your browser open on top, and your IDE or media player open on the bottom. Unlike the movable windows you use on your computer, these cards will automatically align and resize themselves relative to other cards. On a device as small as a phone, you'd likely only want two cards open at most, but the system shines when used with, say, a tablet or desktop monitor.
Ah, but it's a phone operating system! What's with this talk of using it with a monitor or tablet?
Consider this: Mobile phones rapidly progress in power and capability, and they've already progressed to such an extent that they're on par with fully fledged desktop computers from, say, ten years ago. That's a lot of power to be wasted on a single application running at a time—a limitation imposed primarily by the diminutive size of your mobile device! Though our users may prefer to run two cards on a single screen at a time, they could feasibly plug their phone into their monitor or load the operating system on a tablet, and be able to multitask with many cards at a time, effectively using their device to its fullest extent, unbounded by its screen size.
We had a large team relative to that of the others in our class. With this comes the benefit of being able to disperse a lot of work across many teammates, which is offset with the potential pitfall of "design-by-committee" resulting in an incoherently inconsistent product. In order to prevent this, we would form consensus on the aesthetics of the UI, and then I would deliver a UI kit of reusable elements and figures for us to create our individual applications.
In the earlier stages of creating a design language, we were leaning towards a pastel color palette, but ultimately decided against this due to its harshness on the eyes and poor readability. That said, while we didn't use the colors of the moodboard, we maintained our dedication to creating an operating system that mimicked the feelings of weightlessness and approachability that our moodboard evokes. Here's an earlier iteration of the UI kit exhibiting the pastel-based design:
At times, we pursued the sky metaphor a little too doggedly. For example, here's a concept I sketched up of a propeller-based application menu:
The propeller gimmick lasted quite awhile, but we ultimately decided that it was a campy and unnecessary. Functionally, the user could spin the propeller round and set the blades to applications they commonly use. If they ever wanted to use other installed applications, they would tap the center, opening an application drawer with the rest of their apps.