Time moves fast. It’s been almost 20 years now since Apple turned away from building colorful computers, and embraced the minimalist white, black, and gray look. Through the mid-aughts, we still had occasional pops of color from the iPod mini line and the short-lived iPhone 5c, but the Apple of the 2000s and 2010s has largely been defined by glass and machined aluminum. Premium? Yes. Timeless? Certainly. Expressive? No.
Suddenly, Apple is presenting consumers with a slew of color options again—and in its flagship products. The new iPhone 11, announced this week at the company’s annual launch event, is available in a whopping six colors, from a bold red to a trio of pastels including a light lavender, yellow, and teal. Even the super-premium new iPhone 11 Pro introduces an intriguing green alongside a more typical warm gold and two grays. And this news comes in the wake of Apple’s newly announced New York store, which will no longer be a transparent cube of glass but an iridescent, rainbow-hued one. When I asked Laurie Pressman, VP of the Pantone Color Institute, about the change in design direction, she seemed to feel like it was about dang time Apple moved on from the mausoleum and adopted color again.
“When you think about this company, it started in color and was always known for color,” says Pressman of Apple.
So why is Apple embracing its past now? Because as Pressman points out, Apple is thinking about its iPhones as accessories, not technologies. And color is currently on trend—perhaps no surprise for a time when many of us need something to feel better about the world.
At Pantone, Pressman has worked for multiple consumer electronics companies like LG and Huawei, though not Apple. While she was working with Huawei, picking colors for phones that would be sold in China, one insight in particular stuck with her. “Huawei told us, people keep their phones for a year, then trade them in,” she says, “because people [in China] were treating their phones as an accessory.” Today, phones are a critical piece of personal expression. “I found it fascinating, because I don’t think that had been the case in the U.S., that people were trading in their phones to get a new accessory for the next year. Maybe we were treating them as technology.” Indeed, Apple’s sluggish iPhone sales seem evidence of consumer apathy. For some consumers, a piece of technology that hasn’t changed radically in years just isn’t worth upgrading.
But Pressman points to all sorts of precedents that make now a good time for a consumer electronics company to adopt color, beyond fashion appeal. Social media, she says, is driving millennials and generation Z to be more normalized to color across the board. “Think how much time people spend on social media. What am I doing to get people’s attention? Color,” says Pressman. “If you’re just using grays and beiges, you’re just going to meld into the background and get lost.” On these platforms, life is becoming larger than life. Restaurants, for instance, are being designed with neon signs and patterned backdrops to be Instagrammable.
While Pressman and I talk, she looks at the iPhone 11 Pro colors for the first time. What immediately catches her eye is the green metallic, what she describes as a teal on her monitor. “This makes me want a new phone,” she says, pointing out that a similar color was in a recent Pantone color forecast. Repeatedly, she calls the color “handsome.” As for the rest of the line, its metallic finishes imply sophistication, she says. “I think there’s something automatic. We see metallic as more premium or expensive,” she says. “It always engages the eye.” Which makes sense, since the iPhone 11 Pro is the premium iPhone line.
The more nuanced story, however, is in the less expensive iPhone 11 line. Pressman explains that white, black, and red are “basic shades,” and pretty safe as far as colors go. “Red is your most accepted bright,” says Pressman. “People easily pick a red phone and it can go with anything—it’s not objectionable like maybe a bright orange could be.” The other iPhone colors she describes as “sherberty pastels.”
These pastels are part of another trend—that color is losing its associations with gender, she argues. And you can see that particularly in the sherberts that would have been relegated to Easter eggs and spring dresses in decades passed. “Maybe it started with millennial pink then made its way across other pastel shades,” says Pressman. But across all aspects of design, she says, these pastels are in, from home decor to product packaging. And as she points out, when you have consumers picking out a pastel couch, you know that color family has gone mainstream because people feel secure enough displaying that color in their home for a long time to come.
Finally, the pastels offer us something else, Pressman argues. In a time of political upheaval, and a world where our gadgets are seen more like drugs than salves, “they’re the antithesis of technology,” says Pressman. “These colors are calming. They’re optimistic. They’re gentle.”
She laughs for a moment at the certain irony at play, that technology, which is “making us crazy,” could also be calming us down. “But I applaud Apple for this,” she concludes with a chuckle.