Surf Pop: Apple’s Stylistic Return to California

Why Apple is re-aligning itself with its contemporaries and the subcultures it helped create

A Return to Design

Apple’s redesign of iOS7 isn’t particularly “flat”, which is great. When you hear Jony Ive speak about design, you get a sense that he knows exactly what he’s talking about.

Not really ‘flat’. The gloss and letterpress effects aren’t entirely gone from iOS7.

And of course he does. Non-designers have no clue what design really is, and when they borrow terms like “skeumorphism” and introduce terms like “flat design” to their discourse, it detracts from what Apple’s iOS design really needed in terms of an overhaul — going back to basics.

Designed in California

In many ways, Apple’s keynote yesterday had perfectly personified its culture and personality. In doing so, they have succeeded in not only creating the future, they’ve succeeded in becoming clearer at what they do, and who they are.

To paraphrase Ive, design is more than how it looks — it’s how everything works and plays together.

And so “Designed in California” is now a thing to shout out about. Apple is, after all, based in California and is very profoundly influenced by the Silicon Valley tech culture, the Los Angeles arts world, and the surf vibes of Orange County, and in turn influences those subcultures. Apple is now taking that interplay and baking it into its design, all thanks to Jony Ive, and it looks amazing.

It’s no coincidence that the new OS X is named after a popular surf spot in Northern California, nor is the TV ad with which they ended off the conference. Apple is telling us now who they are, and we are listening. We, the fans, the designers, the creative types, are taking notice.

But perhaps the one thing that was more Californian than anything they showed us yesterday was the new iOS. I’m glad, personally, that they made it more weird, more alienating to a mass culture that has increasingly grown weary of Apple. More gradients, more soft lighting, more Helvetica, more California.

Why? Because that‘s by essence Apple, and Apple is back on track now. The company that inspired generations of designers and photographers and filmmakers and DJs and musicians and writers is coming back to the fold.

West Coast is the Best Coast

Move over, skeuomorphism. Yesterday we had a look at what is definingly, Surf Pop. Not quite the music genre, but a new aesthetic that envelops the entirety of the new Apple, from the style of its ads to the music it chooses to play in its conferences, to the lifestyle symbols that are so carefully chosen at every turn to reflect Apple’s ideal user.

And it found a smart way to do it, an identity it’s always had.

Very subtly, Apple alienated the mass culture that it found so much success with in the past. The new Apple isn’t now about “everyone is doing it”. Facing a startling reality that Android is now very slowly creeping in to take over the masses, Apple is now renewing its alliance with the innovators of the world — the people who ‘think different’.

Not-so-subtle cameos of sites like Pitchfork and Dezeen shown alongside the new iOS. This is Apple’s way of telling us that they’re culturally relevant again.

We will not go any further than the new iOS7 video to see this change.

In it, you see a bearded man browsing the alt music review site Pitchfork on his phone. You also see a bunch of young, hip individuals inviting other young, hip individuals to a rock gig via Airdrop. A demo of the new music app features music from bands like Generationals, Hot Chip, Fitz and the Tantrums, and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes.

While iTunes Radio is shown to have pop songs from popular, mainstream artists like Rihanna and OneRepublic, they’re quickly dismissed for some Elle Varner, perhaps as a subtle jab to everyone else that Apple is cool again and you’re not invited. This is intentional.

Surf culture is a big deal in the West Coast, where Apple is from. Meanwhile, surf pop is a bigger deal everywhere else.Apple is asking us: Do you like listening to The Drums? Beach Fossils? Fancy yourself some Orange County? Do you surf recreationally? iOS7 and Mavericks is for you.

Apple is now saying: if you don’t read Pitchfork or go to art galleries or hang out at surf rock gigs, you’re not someone who uses an iPhone, and certainly not someone who would use the new OS X Mavericks, which comes chock-full of power-user features.

That’s a 180°-turn from Apple’s iPhone ads circa 2011, which have become more inclusive rather than exclusive — but it’s actually not so different from the company that aired the famous 1984 TV ad, or the company that not very long ago was helmed by a staunch proponent of hippie culture.

The ideal Mac user’s top sites. This is, again, intentional. Apple understands the zeitgeist, that’s what!

And it’s all tied together by a very consistent aesthetic style that isn’t so much flat as it pops out at you, with a color palette reminiscent of the sun, sea and sands of the California coast. In other words, Surf Pop.

iOS7: Love it or Merely Like It

Apple is turning back, but it’s also careful not to alienate the audience it now has, and subtly posturing a new style is a way to nudge everything back to where it belongs.

The stark, minimalist style of iOS7 isn’t for everybody, and it’s more polarizing than even green felt and faux-leather, and Apple knows that. It wants people — a select group of people — to love it.

Now that everyone and their grandma knows about the iPad and the iPhone, it’s a little difficult for Apple to backpedal. The new look helps change that. It helps create a schism between the people who love Apple, and the people who only merely like it. It’s polarizing — but not too much — and that’s what makes it successful. The standing ovation they received at WWDC is no small feat.

Apple has come to a fork in the road where, in order to continue to pioneer the future of the tech world, it needs to make peace with its fans. It has to rekindle the fire, so to speak — to make its fans fall in love with it once again.

Let’s look deeper at the aesthetic of iOS7 to better understand how it achieves this cultural polarization. At first glance, it looks like a graphical extension of a Beach Boys record, but more importantly, it looks like a unicorn shat rainbows on it — which is, of course, an intentional aesthetic decision.

Soft, stark, colorful, and radically-detailed.

As a result, it’s cohesive enough to be taken seriously by everyone else — but lacking enough to be loved by only a select few.

Not everyone likes flat gradients. Yes, flat gradients: the purely ornamental gradient — reminiscent only of the evening sky and not much else. iOS7 uses it quite very liberally. The gradients aren’t there to simulate lighting, they’re there as a design decision. It intuitively reminds us of a kind of mental image we might have of California.

iOS7 also boasts stark lines and geometric shapes. Everything aligns to a perfect grid, the result of Jony Ive’s obsessive detailing. Such is also intentional. It speaks to a certain class of people who would appreciate it, the same kind of people who visits contemporary art museums, reads It’s Nice That, and likely lives in a major metropolitan area.

The entire design is pared back in a way that is also polarizing. The result is a surf pop look, a slice of modernist Americana that screams Apple. If not quite purely Californian, it’s American through and through. Just like the new Mac Pro, which is “Assembled in America”, a decision that will go a long way to cement Apple’s identity.

Alas, for the rest of us, iOS7 is simply friendly, intuitive, and familiar — if not necessarily beautiful — and that’s okay. Most of us will only merely like it. And that’s much better, in a way, than the earlier style of iOS, which was a like-it-or-hate-it affair. After all, design is how it works, not how it looks.

Further Reading

Skeuomorphism’s Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated” by :

[Skeuomorphism] hasn’t changed in his software design: iOS 7 is made of materials. The frosted glass of the notification center, the dock, and the new Control Center. The way the wallpaper on the home screen is set behind everything else – the phone’s gyroscope and accelerometer working to make it seem recessed beneath the icons.
Jony Ive would never make a laptop out of leather or a phone out of felt, but layered glass and plastic are his wheelhouse. Refraction, depth, contrast.These are the building blocks of this new design.
In hindsight, it’s kind of ridiculous to expect a man who’s earned a freaking knighthood by creating three-dimensional objects to create a flat design.