Surf's up: The rhythmic weirdness of iOS 7

On lazy surfer music, the vibrant orchestration of Brian Wilson, and the new iOS

June 12, 2013
Jonathan Libov

iOS 7 struck many of us as unrefined. Those icons! Those one-extreme-to-another gradients! On Twitter, in blog comments, and even on newly-minted Tumblr's, observers keep suggesting that iOS 7 looks like it was borne from the first day of an intro-level design course.

This metaphorical design course presumably takes place at a community college, not the Sorbonne. These "lazy" students finish up quickly because they're itching to get out of class to catch a few waves at the Mavericks before dusk. The teacher looks over a student's shoulder and asks him rhetorically if he really thinks the border radius on all those shapes actually looks good to him. But then the bell rings, and all the students shuffle out.

After their surf, as the bright pink and orange sky reflects over the blue and white ocean (bear with me here), the surfers strum lazy melodies on a ukelele and string together some lazy lyrics. It sounds like this:

Now forget this image because these are not the guys who designed iOS 7.

Surfin' USA

One of the things about iOS 7 that strikes us as weird is that it belies the image we have of Jony Ive. His London accent and eloquent manner of speaking impart blue-blooded refinement. The green felt and stitched leather - that stuff came from the crude Americans, Steve and Scott, who are no longer leading software design. We thought Jony would deliver the same sleek elegance to iOS 7 that he's always given us with the iPhone's industrial design.

We didn't think he'd strap on a wetsuit, get a band together, and play us "Surfin' USA".

What's funny about the Beach Boys is that only one of them is a "beach boy". Brian Wilson, their lyricist and the most genius musician in the group, is afraid of the water. The Beach Boys didn't even pick their band name - their label put it on the cover of their first album, when Brian and the other band members thought they were called the Pendletones.

What's also funny about the Beach Boys is that the light-hearted subject matter of their music belies the fact that their orchestration is as complex and sophisticated as any other rock band. Brian Wilson's Smile is as intricate and strange as any album I know.

If you've always thought of the Beach Boys as a group of fun-loving, come-what-may musicians, listen carefully to the thoughtful, resonant, complex harmonies in this live performance of "In My Room":

When it might make sense

Brian Wilson was as much a surfer as Jony Ive is, or at least as far as I know. Both placed bets on a theme they adopted, presumably because they saw what a bright future it had.

It would be cheeky of me to say that I already see the deep, complex harmonies of iOS 7 design. I don't understand the border radius on app icons and folders - every time I look at iOS 7 I want to grab the Photoshop file and fix it. The gradients still seem kind of silly; the font style looks meek; some of the action-oriented icons are still inscrutable, and the parallax motion in Multitasking seems like a few screws weren't screwed tight enough.

But I've only had iOS 7 on my device for one day. In fact, I'm not even sure iOS 7 will make a ton of sense to me even when it comes out of beta, because it's going to make a lot of my current favorite apps look old and out-of-place.

That's an important point, because the design of new iOS is as important as a design reference for third-party app creators as it is a new set of stock apps. I would imagine that much of Jony Ive's motivation here is to give designers and developers a swift kick in the ass that propels them in the direction that he thinks apps should be going in.

We know that Jony Ive is not making lazy, lightly-strummed surfer music. If it's a California-sunny-psychedelic brand of music, then there's a deep rhythmic structure behind it. Some seem to see the light already. I don't see it yet. But I sure as hell don't want to write off iOS 7 as I did the Beach Boys when I was 15 and thought Radiohead represented the only brand of peak musicianship.

In fact, I'd go as far to say that it if iOS 7 did look as this well-refined Dribbble design, that would be a problem. It would mean we've skated to where the puck is (or paddled to where the wave is!), rather than where it's going. And the latter is the Apple way we've loved to this point.