Design comparison: macOS Catalina vs. Big Sur

You may have read complaints on social media written by opinionated users who think that Apple pretty much phoned in the work for the icons in macOS Big Sur, but what about the rest of the interface? Thanks to app designer Andrew Denty, we now have a great visual comparison of the user interface changes between macOS Catalina and macOS Big Sur.

Dramatic interface changes

All of the screenshots you see in Andrew’s blog post are taken from a default install of macOS, with the Catalina version on the left and its Big Sur counterpart on the right. You can clearly see that the interface changes between macOS Catalina and Big Sur are pretty dramatic.

App icon in Launchpad on macOS Catalina (left) and Big Sur (right)

Andrew noted:

Why did I end up doing this? Well, this week I installed the developer beta of macOS Big Sur as I was curious what impact the new user interface would have on the app I currently design. I wanted to make sure my team was ahead of any coming changes as we were burned by changes in last year’s release of Catalina.

I found myself taking lots of screenshots to try and track the changes and thought this might be worth sharing. I decided to carry out a quick catalogue of the user interface changes as this may be helpful to other people getting ready for macOS Big Sur.

He made a bunch of user interface comparison screenshots of Apple’s stock apps in macOS Catalina and Big Sur, including the Finder, System Preferences, Preview, Safari, Calendar, Contacts, Reminders, Notes, Photos, Podcasts, Music and more.

The Startup Disk preferences in macOS Catalina (left) and Big Sur (right)

Be sure to check out Andrew’s blog post for all the comparison screenshots.

The “problem” with Big Sur’s design

From what I could gather by reading complaints online, some of the people who dislike the major visual changes in Big Sur are basically afraid that Apple is ruining the Mac experience by incorporating the ever-growing number of the user interface elements from iOS into the Mac.

The Energy Saver preferences in macOS Catalina (left) and Big Sur (right). That battery icon needs more work, Apple!

Yours truly is not in that camp. I maintain a position there’ll always be people who like and dislike any particular design (proving the way people experience design is very subjective). I also think we really do need the visual unification between iOS and macOS, not by imposing platform-specific philosophies from iOS onto users but by creating visual consistency.

The Dock preferences in macOS Catalina (left) and Big Sur (right)

Muscle memory can be hard to change — and even sophisticated individuals tend to resist change — but consistency is everything when moving between our screens. Visual consistency is going to really start mattering after first Macs built on Apple Silicon arrive because you’ll be able to run native iPhone and iPad apps on these systems, in addition to the apps ported from iOS via Catalyst, native Mac apps and Intel-only apps running in emulation via Rosetta 2.

TUTORIAL: How to create a bootable USB installer for macOS Big Sur

I do expect things to work the same way in, say, Apple Podcasts for iOS and macOS. I don’t want to struggle navigating apps when jumping from one platform to another and I most certainly don’t want to spend time looking for a button that should be in the same place.

Control Center in MacOS Big Sur in Light (left) and Dark (right) mode

How do you like Big Sur’s design

Assuming you’ve spent some quality time with Big Sur and are familiar with its overhauled design, do you like the new iOS-ified icons and other user interface elements? And do you agree with Andrew’s opinion that the visual differences in Big Sur are nothing more than a
“largely incremental set of changes to make macOS feel more coherent with iOS and iPadOS”?

Chime in with your thoughts in the commenting section down below.