Why Apple’s Products Lost Their Color

With new, colorful iMacs about to come out, I thought I’d share my guess on why the Jony Ive era of Apple design, which started with the Bondi Blue iMac, came to be characterized by the all-white iPod and silver MacBook. I think a tremendous amount of the credit can be traced back to Dieter Rams.

Rams famously designed products for Braun, from kitchen appliances to record players, wristwatches, electric razors, and more. The influence of Braun—and Rams in particular—on Apple is undeniable. The original iPhone Calculator app was a direct homage to Braun’s handheld calculator. The first iPod app on the iPad had wood panelling like the SK55 record player.

People often look at Apple design and comment on the simplicity (often mistaking it for strict minimalism), but I wanted to focus on another aspect of it: unobtrusiveness. From Rams’s Ten Principles for Good Design:

Good design is unobtrusive. Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

From Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible by Sophie Lovell:

When talking about Braun design, Dieter Rams often likes to quote a simile that he says came from Erwin Braun: “Our electrical appliances should be humble servants, to be seen and heard as little as possible that one hardly noticed.”

A Rams-designed radio is a beautiful object, but his first goal was always to make something that does its job: to fill the room with sound. The radio itself should be unnoticed. While most famous for his work at Braun, Rams also designed a set of shelves, chairs, and other furniture for Vitsœ. His famous 606 Universal Shelving System embodies this “furniture as servant” ethos. The job of a set of shelves is to display the items you’ve put on it. The shelves, therefore, should not draw attention to themselves so that the books or framed photos or trinkets on the shelves can speak for themselves.

Regarding color:

A product that is dressed in bright colours to seduce buyers from shop windows might seem “young, jaunty and à la mode,” says Dieter Rams, “but when it stands gaudily in the kitchen, day after day, its colour is disturbing. It adds to the colour chaos that most people today wreak in their living environments.”

[…]

The rejection of colour as decoration and an antipathy to what he calls the “abuse of colour” is something that Rams has always felt strongly about. Colour, in his opinion, “has to fit the product: Some products, like things you put on a table are colour-capable, but tools and appliances—kitchen appliances—should not be coloured, they stay in the background… you have to think very carefully about where colour is important and where it can be dangerous.”

Jony Ive thinks of computers in very much this way. The iMac or MacBook, to him, is a tool. Its job is to display the software that’s on its screen. The computer itself, thus, should stay in the background. The iPad Pro is, I think, the apex of this philosophy. A thin border, no FaceID notch. When on, it is your app. There’s absolutely nothing in the way to distract you from whatever you’re doing with the device. Then, when it’s off, it fades away entirely.

Why am I so sure of the Rams influence on Ive? Well, he wrote foreword to the biography I quoted above.