89: Does Apple need a branded design language?

Picomac is back! I never intended to stay away from it forever, and there's just way too much good stuff from WWDC 2017 to talk about.

Rumors swirled before the WWDC keynote about whether Apple would bring major design changes to iOS 11. The answer is that Apple took the middle path: there's nothing like the major shift from iOS 6 to 7, nor will this year's iOS look exactly like last year's. There's also a clear direction of change. Nearly every new piece of interface is taking its cues from the 2016 edition of the iOS Music app. The theme of iOS's design is quickly moving to unify around the theme of bold header typography, rounded cards, and gentle translucency effects.

The App Store has gotten the Apple Music treatment in iOS 11.

The App Store has gotten the Apple Music treatment in iOS 11.

But those are the terms we have to talk about it in: directions, themes, specific interface elements. Apple hasn't decided to craft a brand around its software design or give it a name. (Though perhaps that's for the best, given the dubious names that came out of this keynote.) As of earlier this spring, Apple is the only major operating system provider who doesn't have a branded design language. Google has been refining its Material Design since 2014, and Microsoft unveiled the Fluent Design System with Windows 10 in May. Beyond providing a quick way to describe these interfaces, they offer connotations, just like a good brand should. "Material" indicates touch and a tactile experience; "Fluent" shares a root with "fluid" and "fluency", getting at both smoothness and ease of use.

So the question is: does Apple need a branded design language to go up against Google and Microsoft? Need is a strong word, of course; iOS's interface can certainly match and surpass its competitors without a catchy name. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, design isn't what it's called; it's how it works. And what would Apple call what we can only call "the Apple Music look" or "iOS 11's design"?

The closest they've come to coining an interface term recently is "vibrancy" (and it's confusing evil twin, "dark vibrancy"). In truth, this effect is a major part of the Mac and iOS aesthetic, so Vibrant Design would be an apt name; it also fits with the splashy color and heavy font choices that are in favor now.

Another option would be to go abstract. A "California" design language would evoke the phrase "Designed by Apple in California" present on all their hardware and packaging. It would also offer more flexibility than a descriptive name. After all, interface design evolves at a rapid pace and is subject to trends in fashion. Today's fresh and vibrant design could easily be as passé as skeuomorphism and linen in a few years. A rebrand would always be possible, but that takes extra effort. So perhaps the best approach is for Apple to push its interface design along as they see fit…and to let the rest of us worry about what to call it.