California: Designing Freedom

Deyan Sudjic

1960s California was the birthplace of a new, more liberal worldview: hippy counter-culture, gay rights, anti-war protests and hedonistic pursuits. But how have these ideas about freedom, which have since spread across the world, been shaped by Californian design over the past half a century?

Director of the Design Museum in London, Deyan Sudjic, tracks the influence of Californian design on global culture, from early hippies toting the Whole Earth Catalogue (a kind of printed Wikipedia), to the advent of freeways, open data and modern mobile technology. Sudjic charts how the allure of the Californian dream has been siphoned into desirable products, like the now ubiquitous iPhone, that define and expand our everyday world.

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‘California’ is a remarkably alluring word. It sums up all sorts of ideas about the world.  It’s about the dream of freedom, about possibilities. And in the last 50 years or so, that idea of what freedom is has been transformed.

The 60s were certainly about pleasure, about people following hedonistic pursuits, which is certainly what California’s beach culture was like. It was about going to San Francisco but it was also about political self-expression. It was the years when the Vietnam war created a unified opposition, it was when music went through a revolutionary change, overturning old ideas about what popular music might be. And that was about freedom of self-expression, it was when gay liberation was first discussed.

Stuart Brand, the man who invented the Whole Earth Catalog, back in the 60s, ran a campaign, unimaginably, to persuade NASA to release photographs taken of the Earth from space, an image of which had never been seen before. It was finally released and suddenly changed the way people saw the world.

While Californian start-ups opening up in garages trying to make personal computers were in full swing, there was also a mood among a wider public, to find out how to build their own dome, how to hack the phone systems so they can get free phone calls, how to distill their own LSD. It was the kind of quest for open information which is what started Wikipedia.

America didn’t quite invent the freeway, Adolf Hitler had the Autobahn system, but Los Angeles was probably the first city to be completely reshaped and re-engineered by building massive freeways throughout, across and around the city. And the initial response from the outside world was utter horror. Then a rather interesting British critic, Reyner Banham went off an, in the way of urban critics, he suddenly reversed the captions. What was seen by conventional wisdom as being terrible, suddenly he presented as a positive.

[Reyner Banham] You see, I think freeway driving is interesting in itself. From up here you see the most weird, extraordinary places and things which you can hardly see from down below.

Memorably, Banham actually said he learnt to drive so he could ‘read Los Angeles in the original’. Those freeways shaped the city, they shaped behaviors, they shaped how far people could commute. And now, one sees them as being the past. The freeway is the analogue. Now communication is done digitally through the always-on smartphone.

For generations, California has seen itself as a place in which things can happen. Ground zero in Silicon Valley is Stanford University, which for more than 100 years, has been turning out extremely gifted physicists and scientists. That’s really where this research culture first came from. Northern California around San Francisco and Silicon Valley: it’s the place in which, within the space of about 50 miles, you will find the headquarters of three of the most powerful companies on the planet. Apple, Facebook, Google.

Apple weren’t the first people to make an MP3 music player but they were the ones that came up with the brilliant idea of the click wheel, which produced the iPod, which suddenly made it possible to find that record track you were looking for. They weren’t the first people to make a mobile telephone, but just 10 years ago, Steve Jobs launched a product which was like nothing anyone had seen before.

[Steve Jobs:] A wide-screen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device. These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it: iPhone.

Initially the response was: ‘that’s a bit strange, mobile phones are meant to be getting smaller and smaller, and there’s a rather curious absence of buttons’. And people shrugged. And then of course it made the whole world utterly different. It made Uber possible, it made Airbnb possible, it’s transformed the way that we navigate cities, it’s transformed the way that we meet people we might fall in love with. Everything is different. And it’s happened so fast. In ten years, Apple has sold 1.2 billion smartphones. That kind of speed, that kind of change, is unique.

Jonathan Ive, who led the team at Apple that gave the physical shape to the technology that the smartphone depends on, probably belongs to that last generation of designers who were trained in the analogue era using physical models, using drawing.  And he took from that a fascination for shape and touch, an understanding of the attractions that people have to something that feels good in the hand. Something that is smooth, something that feels elegant. To that he added a layer of interfaces that actually make the phone work. So we’ve lost the switch and the knob and the lever with which we used to feel in control of objects, but what Apple did was to recreate that in a digital form, so that you have a user interface which is clear and easy to navigate.

So much digital communication is based on knowing that human beings are basically addictive. So the programmes we have on our smartphones are programmed to make us want more and more, we want to see how many ‘likes’ we’ve got, we want to see who’s texted us, we want to share our Instagram images with the world. And the iPhone as an object provides a wonderful frame for that.

Design is now about how we interact with each other, it’s about what you see on the screen, it’s about designing a process, it’s about designing how you apply for a passport, how you buy a plane ticket, how you get on the underground, how you pay for your tickets. All those things are designs in some way. It’s not always about making a beautiful shape. Sometimes it’s about how things feel. But it’s always about how we understand the world around us.

The iPhone came from California and it changed the world, because a generation of extraordinary people looked for freedom in California and found new ways of delivering it in the digital world.  Every year the Design Museum does have a Designs of the Year exhibition and in each category there’s a winner. 10 years ago, the iPhone was nominated, but it did not win. And now we know how wrong we were.

With thanks to

The Design Museum 



Associated Press archive

Alamy Stock Photo

Axel Koester

BBC Motion Gallery

Getty Images

Mathieu Thouvenin




Stewart Brand

University of Wisconsin-Madison

superapple4ever via Youtube



Audio Network


Full list of images shown: 

EARTH DAYS, Stewart Brand

Zeitgeist Films/Courtesy Everett Collection,1966, digitized 2009


Cover of  ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ fall 1968

© Stewart Brand, 1968


First colour photograph of the whole Earth (Western Hemisphere)

Shot from the ATS-3 satellite, 1967

© University of Wisconsin-Madison / NASA


Hewlett Packard Garage, Silicon Valley

Raneko, 2009


Garage of YouTube Chief Executive Officer Susan Wojcicki

Justin Sullivan, 2013


Garage of Steve Jobs’ parents on Christ Drive in Los Altos, California

Mathieu Thouvenin, 2007


The Last Whole Earth Catalog book at Tipi Valley an eco-community near Talley in Wales

Debbie Bragg, 1999


One Pair of Eyes: Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Directed by Julian Cooper, 1972

© BBC Motion Gallery via Getty


Steve Jobs Introducing The iPhone At MacWorld 2007

superapple4ever via Youtube


Jonathan Ive with iMac

Axel Koester, n.d.


Apple CEO Tim Cook, right, and Jonathan Ive, Chief Design Officer shows the new iPhone X

Marcio Jose Sanchez, 2017

© Associated Press archive

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