Apple is the biggest and most influential technology company on the planet. A big reason for its success can be attributed to how it fully embraced a user-centric approach to design before many of its competitors even bothered to consider it .
From the day Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, Apple design became capital-D Design: the original iMac inspired lines of bold, colorful (or pure white) plastic gadgets, from desktop computers to tiny MP3 players. Apple’s design matured and changed with the advent of new production techniques; the white plastic MacBook’s frequent cracking was solved by the use of sturdier materials like single-block aluminum.
But in the process of correcting design flaws, distancing itself from the gimmickry of its peers, and embracing a new, slick aesthetic, Apple left behind the playfulness and personality-filled designs of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And where Apple goes, so goes the collective tech mindset.
Today, a quick glance at the “premium” product landscape reveals an overwhelming number of clones; monotonous, metallic sea of laptops, phones and tablets from companies who lack the ability to define their own vision and aesthetic. Consumer tech products have almost certainly become better as a result of their mimickry, but it has also made this design trend phenomenally boring.
This glass and metal gospel has been helped along by tech pundits, who have not necessarily been prepared to transition from evaluating CPU performance to analyzing design. Thus, holding all other products up against Apple’s own represented a convenient and safe way for reviewers to jump into the design conversation without fully grasping the fundamentals. And the last five or six years have had one dominant tone: Apple design is good, and the more a gadget looks and feels like an Apple product, the better it is. This maybe simplifies the sentiment, but I think it’s still accurate.
Here’s an example: The most-praised non-Apple smartphone design of the past five years is undoubtedly the HTC One, but from an industrial design perspective it differs in no meaningful way from its contemporary iPhone. It is glass and aluminum; it is slim, it is cool, it is minimalist, it nods to Dieter Rams and his work at Braun. This is the Apple style of the moment.
And then there’s the Nokia Lumia. When the first model launched it was distinct. It mixed high-quality plastics and fun colors with a screen that appeared to melt over the sides of the phone like Dali’s clocks. It had the fit and finish of the iPhone and was as pocketable and durable as any other phone worthy of the “good design” tag. But while the design was politely praised by tech reviewers, it was not treated as an object of lust. And when an aluminum Lumia arrived, the general attitude rose from tepid appreciation to outright excitement, as though the original Lumia design was too childish to be taken seriously.
The attitudes towards the Lumia’s design are not why it failed to become a huge success, but it does highlight that something in this design discourse has been lost in translation. The focus has been less about the concepts that made Apple’s approach to design good, and more about the specific signifiers of Apple design: aluminum, glass. These premium materials have been conflated with premium design, which is how we ended up with Samsung’s Galaxy Alpha.
There’s nothing wrong with embracing Apple’s style; It uses fine, sturdy materials which are very functional and very inoffensive. This aesthetic signifies “hip” without alienating anyone; who could possibly object to the style of a MacBook Air? It’s all black and silver and glass. It goes with everything. It is a slim pair of dark jeans. It is fine. But design is a creative field built around evolving ideas, and when it comes to consumer technology, things have become stagnant.
For proof of that, you need look no further than Apple itself. Read any iPhone 6 review, and the design talk paints Apple in the same light as always; Apple design is good. The iPhone is beautiful. But new iPhone designs have typically brought new ideas with it. The iPhone 6 simply adopts the pre-existing design language of the iPads and covers it in ugly antenna lines. It’s anonymous, yet confused; the sleek industrial materials don’t mesh with its neutered rounded edges and buttons. It abandons Apple’s laudable, principled struggle to keep a phone at a size that’s usable in one hand, and falls in with the rest of the smartphone pack in the name of market demand.
There is an argument to be made that hardware design has reached a point of near-irrelevance; software design now has a larger impact on the usability of a device. Following this view, smartphone hardware is merely a portal to the software, that it fades away and need not be anything more than a sturdy but thin rectangle. I disagree. Just look at the ubiquity of phone cases, many of which are totally distinctive and allow the user to impart personality. As the smartphone moves from an optional luxury to absolute necessity, it isn’t enough to simply own one anymore, and there’s only so expressive that a slab of metal and glass can get.
I miss the chunky playful plastic designs of the past, especially the Pixar-lamp-like iMac G4. I miss the toy-like references to plastic Swatch watches (the clamshell iBook) and the Memphis Group of the 1980s (the original iMac). That was idiosyncratic, ballsy design; that was a design aesthetic that some would loathe. It was design that a shamelessly style-free megacorporation like Samsung could never really copy in the hopes of being considered “good design.” Samsung, or HTC, or LG, or Motorola, they can all copy modern Apple. It’s easy. Make it thin, use a single block of aluminum, use glass. Presto: now you have design. Bullshit. Innovative design isn’t just about adhering to rules set out by someone else.
There are companies who are actually trying. In addition to the aforementioned Lumia phones, the Jawbone Jambox managed to combine industrial materials (hard rubber, metal grilles) with repeated patterns and bold colors to give them a sense of play, and even Apple’s own Mac Pro is weird and thoughtful enough to grab my attention: never before has a computer shaped like a garbage can seemed like such a good idea.
And maybe this is the upside of Marc Newson joining Apple’s design team. His work on the Pentax K-01 camera is worthy of adoration. It’s a bold approach with bright colors, some functional heft, and the same Fisher-Price-like 1980s playfulness that informed my favorite period of Apple design. Photographers mostly hated the K-01’s look. Fine. Good. Design is not a contest to see how many people you can please. Don’t buy it if you don’t like it.
Newson and Jon Ive are longtime friends and have collaborated before, maybe most interestingly on this Leica camera. You can see both tastes combining: the colors and controls are sophisticated and muted, but the textures and curves are slightly retro, slightly kitsch, slightly deco.
If this is the future of Apple design, and technology design in general, I’m optimistic for Apple’s future. A future that moves away from the same safe aesthetic that’s served them adequately since the iPhone 4. But I’m fearful that tech companies and tech critics still won’t reaize there’s a place for individualistic, exciting, innovative design that has nothing to do with Apple.