An Apple Rant but Really Much Ado About Nothing!

I bumped into an article at the Design Observer titled: What If Apple Is Bad for Design? and was first excited but quickly became seriously appalled. It was poorly argued, very disjointed, and really a huge fuss over nothing. I’m also surprised as the author is apparently supposed to be a fairly decorated writer.

Interestingly enough, I was very interested in the article because, similar to my feeling, it reflects on a growing consumer backlash towards Apple. I do applaud Design Observer and the author Thomas de Monchaux for writing this article, and giving the Cult of the Mac a good shake. Oh shock and horror! There are people out there that dislike Apple products. Unfortunately the article has a lot of cracks in its reasoning that demeans the article’s strength and perhaps intent. The author focuses on many superficial non-issues, by making strong arguments but with very little substance. As a result the author comes across sounding like a high brow critic. The writer reminds me to be almost like an art, film or food critic, looking for things overly in detail and missing the forest for the trees.
Generally the arguments and points the author tries to make, clearly indicates he is someone not in the product development industry, and someone talking a pot-shot from an armchair. He misses out big picture issues such as Apple’s 360 degree branding efforts, and their design language strategies. Furthermore he discounts other things like the software interface and experience, and manufacturing constraints which apple gracefully overcomes. Finally by jumping around and contradicting himself, his writing strikes me as vapid sweaty rant.
Let’s take a look at some of his comments and I’ll let you decide for your self.

First, there is the corruption of the word “design” itself, as it’s generally applied to an Apple object. What distinguishes your iPod from your brand-x MP-3 player is not design: that brand x machine also is distinguished by design. By bad design.

The first evidence of a very superficial discussion, completely misses the thing we all know about, and that is the interface experience that is called iTunes.

What is unique to Apple is more accurately called “style”: a clear signature vocabulary of forms and materials, superabundant to the mere requirements of function, that convey a certain sensibility, atmosphere, association, vibe. Of course, all those rounded corners may aid in manufacture and structure, but they also say in a comfortingly Jetsonian way: “I’m from the future, and so are you.” It’s the familiar tension between Modern and Modernist, in which a particular high style is mislabeled as “design,” and a corrupted understanding of the phenomenon of design is misrepresented as an additional “feature” of an object. The danger here is the implication that design can be reduced to a characteristic of an object, and not the animating spirit behind all its characteristics in total, (and, thus, the notion that an expensive detail that can be dispensed with by the practical-minded).
But Aesthetes and Moderns beware, it gets worse. The good design of the iPod is not to be found in the high style that shapes its material form, but in the inspired interface between that physical object and the information design and the software embedded therein. Consider the clickwheel, that sensually pleasant disk that is the latest addition to a very short list (keyboard, joystick) of powerful attachments between embodied and virtual information. Turning and depressing that clickwheel aligns different functions with charming simplicity and deft complexity, and has a fluidity to it that approaches some organic ideal for the choreography between man and machine. (And, of course, all that software in the machine is generally functional, friendly and fantastic.) But the great functional elegance of this intersection between hardware and software has been all too easily confused and conflated with the ostensible elegance of the hardware itself — and irritatingly designed Apple hardware gets a pass.

More evidence of an unbalanced viewpoint. Let’s say we play along and drop the entire software aspect, which many critics also say is the reason behind the iPod, there is no way a rounded corner remind me of the Jetsons. The very simplicity of the product forces the designer to really understand the functional requirements of a detail. Look at the circular jog dial, though not the best in ergonomics, that circular shape is extremely intuitive. Look at all the circular switches and volume dials around you and you can see why? Perhaps the author would prefer an Mp3 player with a tap head for a volume dial? Definitely has more character would you not agree?
In the second paragraph, the author totally contradicts himself! First calling the iPod a product with no soul and then advocating, as I have done, the design of the click wheel. I’m surprised that he, a supposed designer, does not recognize that products these days, especially consumer electronics, have to be more that another pretty face. The total user experience of that product is the only way to set something apart in an ever increasing world of better designed products.

What’s wrong with Apple hardware, aesthetically speaking? To closely examine the details of even the newest and coolest Apple product, the iPhone, is, eventually, to be reduced to tears. First impressions of a deft and considered modern object dissipate. To be sure, like the clickwheel, the iPhone’s multifunctional pressure screen is a lovely intersection of information design and ergonomics. But god and the devil are always in the details, so let’s get fastidious about them.
First, there what we might call the curse of the default: someone decided that a rectangle with (again) radial corners was a good solution for something, and suddenly that detail spreads everywhere: around the button images, the microphone, the camera lens, the slide on-off switch, the elevation of the phone itself. Sometimes its elongated variant, an extended capsule-profile, shows up for slots and slits. Each time the detail recurs, one’s suspicion of a progressively stylistic delamination between form and function is reinforced. Basically the iPhone is a 1996 Ford Taurus — that car in which all design problems, from logo to windscreen, were solved with an Illustrator-stretched oval.

I’m not a big fan of Apple design. But one thing I have to take my hat off to them is that they are consistent. I’m sure most of you can point this out as I can; this is what we like to call a Design Language. Furthermore, the best of us know that a Design Language is a reflection of a brand. It communicates to a user the brand promise and brand essence in a tangible manner. I wonder what he though of Paul Rand when he said “Design is the silent ambassador of the brand”.
These little “radial corners” are not a result of a designer getting a fillet orgasm or “Ctr+T” his vectors. No, no company gets to where Apple is today in terms of design, with random details. Also why does this author keep on referring to Apple product’s details as radius or radial or circular? Annoying.

Secondly, and conversely, there is the problem of not applying a default obsessively enough: there is an all-too willing exceptionality at various design moments. There are lots of semi-circular and circular details on most iPods, and yet obsessive examination of these reveal that seemingly concentric curves, are in fact, oddly unaligned: somewhere in Cupertino someone still weeps at how the center of the “hold” button on generations of mini-iPods almost-but-didn’t rest precisely at the center of other localized geometries on the case. As for the iPhone, forensic examination of its published images is not promising: one hopes very much that it is a mere trick of the light that gives the appearance that the exterior and interior radii of the chrome trim around the edge of the iPhone’s casing appear to deviate at the corners and base: a jarring disruption to the strongest piece of visual rhetoric on the object. That one can even reasonably speculate on this likelihood is, of course, appalling. Similarly, the curved profile of the phone’s front-to-back edge is asymmetrical: a missed opportunity to give the phone the tactile and visual crispness of a new bar of soap; a matte black casing component on the back almost-but-doesn’t address a similar black strip on the front. Surely a few inspired alignments and resonant details in these objects would itself align with Apple’s own rhetoric about sleek systemasticity, about fluid conversational exchanges between multiple operational components? Now, there must be reasonable reasons for these “exceptions,” to do with manufacture or what have you, but the thought that the design team of this object decided to live with these grim little details is, for a company ostensibly distinguished by its devotion to design, deeply discouraging.

Oh gosh spare me the rhetorics please! Again why the iPhone is not a “crisp bar of soap” is simply again design language. Furthermore, the slight mismatches are likely the result of the best compromises the designers could achieve over engineering constraints.
However that being said, being in the industry 10 years, the way Apple has manage to overcome some of the tougher manufacturing and engineering constraints is just straight out amazing. An Apple product oozes pristine detailing within a simple design, something that is the result of some very heavy handed treatment of their vendors. Their arm twisting clout is something very few other consumer electronics brands can replicate.
Ultimately the iPhone dissection is a very wrong example to use. Why? Because the product is officially launched, nor is it available its final form. The author is likely cross-sectioning a prototype or at least an off tool sample. From what my vendors tell me, Apple takes no prisoners with details, and the final product will likely not have such issues.

Since mid-century, the design of consumer electronics has a rich and noble tradition of deploying limitations of manufacture, or narratives about the consistent or impulsive character of a detail (is it trim or casing, a line that goes for a walk or a surface that goes for a dive?) to great effect. A meaningful choreography emerges in this tradition between the requirements of a particular geometrical or proportional system, the constraints of a particular industrial or technological system, and the story the object tells you about itself and its parts. Rather than merely solving problems, industrial designers like Achille Castiglioni, Richard Sapper, and Jacob Jensen problematized solutions into appealing visual essays on the nature of objects, of design itself. An array of textured holes in a casing on Sapper and Marco Zancuso’s Brionvega TS-522 radio becomes not only a speaker, for example, but a little grammatical investigation into hexagonal stacking, and of course, the meaning of life.

The TS-522 radio and the Industrial Design work done by such luminaries, are pure beauty and worthy of any hall of fame. However what are we really considering here when he talks about such consumer electronics?
Is he still living in the 80’s and totally missed out the internet age? Barring perhaps Jacob Jenson, comparing the iPod to the TS-522 Radio or products by Castiglioni or Sapper is like (excuse the pun) Apples to Oranges! Furthermore consider how much of an ignoramus I would sound if I said “all furniture design only consists of the design of tables and chairs”? The world of “consumer electronics” is a whole lot bigger than FM radios and CRT TVs. The sheer complexity of the iPod is probably 100 times more than that of the TS-522 radio. Again, this is just arguing for argument sake, as the author clearly forgets to address the whole other issue of a complex product interface which any Apple product, or consumer electronic product of today, has to resolve.

Perhaps Apple’s problem is to be found at the site of its greatest seeming success: that intersection between hardware and software. Often, elegant code or other software creations appropriate the name and language of architecture, and its attendant implications about the relationship between structure and content, intention and processing. But the problem with Apple may be that a software approach is being applied to the design of hardware: a seemingly economical application of default settings that progressively dissolves the integrity of each individual application of that setting or solution; and a paradoxical willingness to patch together case-by-case solutions that compromise the integrity of the overall composition in the interest of localized utility.

This is hearsay and pure speculation followed but a huge spew of bombastic nonsense. The author has not provided any evidence to support this conclusion, except that the nice rounded corners in the software are poorly represented on the product (from the previous paragraph). I don’t think Apple designs the software first then the hardware or vice versa, my guess is that Apple focuses on the experience they want the consumer to have and the rests follow suit.

Or to put it another way, if you round too many corners, you lose your edge.

I’m sorry, but I have to say that the author’s constant references to radiuses, radii and rounded corners annoy me to no end. It’s not commonly known to most designers, even Industrial Designers, Apple products don’t use radiuses at corners, they use curvature matched splines. Therefore I’m not surprised that the author did not get it, but I would have expected that for someone attempting to write a critical essay on Apple’s physical design to at least know a little more about the subject matter. Sadly this point is a reflection of the entire article, argumentative but contains very little substance.

11 Comments
  • drew kora

    May 16, 2007 at 11:52 pm Reply

    Hey DT, the rounded corners of this grey “leave a comment box” I’m writing inside of right now have to go…you crazy Apple lovin’ fan boy. I shall raise my right eyebrow, look down my nose, and sneer in your general direction.
    …seriously. Apple isn’t perfect, they need some criticism and can always improve. But his article is more of a narrowly-focused personal opinion/rant than a critique. The author also needs to read William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.”

  • Aen Tan

    May 17, 2007 at 8:06 am Reply

    Hey DT, nice criticism on an unbelievably narrow-minded and poorly-written article.
    That guy has no clue. Design is design, making things in a way that pleases the senses, by being easy to use, good-looking and good at doing the tasks or meeting the objectives it is designed for. Apple certainly fulfills all the of the above criteria and that’s good design.

  • drew kora

    May 17, 2007 at 9:00 pm Reply

    I went home and re-read the DO article. I was thinking about it all night. It reminded me of something Mark Boulton wrote on his web design blog. He wrote that good design, really good design, is about more than merely solving a problem. He wrote:
    “The grey area of Art and Design is the practice of the craft of design. It’s the difference between a design being usable and a design being usable and special.”
    He sites an example of the Dyson vacuums that solved an age-old problem in a new way and it works and people love it. But they didn’t just solve the problem of function. Boulton continues: “…Now we get down to how the thing looks. There is love in this product. There is craft in this product.”
    OK, now we get back to Apple. Boulton next says this: “…Apple make beautiful products. But they didn’t always do that, and they nearly went bust because of it…In 1998, they made the first iMac. The distinguishing features of this new machine were crafted and mostly aesthetic. They are examples of beautiful product design. As a result, they sold a bomb and the rest is history.”
    Interestingly enough, those comments by Mark Boulton are actually categorized as a “rant,” but they are a bit more reasonable. Granted, all those statements were made in a very different context. But I think it helps me realize my position on this whole thing: APPLE IS NOT BAD FOR DESIGN. If anything, Apple has taught us that Apple’s combination of intuitive (not always perfect, but better than most) software and a consistent design language (across products, ads, packaging, etc) works. Apple are an example to lots of companies about how consistent and pervasive branding throughout a company can really pay off.

  • Aen Tan

    May 17, 2007 at 9:14 pm Reply

    I was at one point in time making those iMacs in Apple’s Singapore plant after Steve Jobs returned to Apple.
    I was 17 and working as an operator on the production line and subsequently was promoted to the position of “Float”. I basically was trained to know the whole process from assembly of the logic board to putting all the hardware into the plastic casings. Not just iMac, G3s too.
    I have to say, iMacs and G3s are more than just good looks. There’s well-planned and well-executed design right down to the nuts and bolts.

  • drew kora

    May 17, 2007 at 9:30 pm Reply

    Cool to know someone who built those iMacs! You might have built mine from way back when.
    Yeah, Apple’s quality is very thorough…no doubt about that. (My old boss had one of the quad-core towers…you’d open that thing up and everything was enclosed in clear plastic…it looked amazing. Beautiful inside and out.) Anyway, I don’t think Boulton was downplaying those aspects of Apple design, he’s just focusing his comments on the aesthetic side of things (like I said, differetn context). In reality, I’d say his point about aesthetics actually supports your comment about being well-planned and well-executed. The love, the craft, and then naturally the quality in that product could be seen all the way down to its basic components.
    Off topic: Aen, I love your web site, too. Nice and simple.

  • Design Translator

    May 18, 2007 at 6:34 am Reply

    Hi Drew and Aen,
    Thanks for the great comments. Drew, also thanks for taking the time to type out the quotations by Mark Boulton.
    I personally am cynical of Apple and their designs. I dont and will not ever own an Apple product (Well I did get a chance to play with a 17″ powerbook for 3 months). However I do have enormous respect for what they have done.
    More of the time, the critics tend to look at objects in a very one dimensional way, and as a result missing the boat completely. If you just look at an Apple product in terms of its form, many people can pull out problems with its ergonomics, simplicity etc…however these days product design is not only about form, simply because consumers require more than just visual stimuli.
    Also in today’s extremely fast pace and competitive consumer electronics market, just looking at design in terms of form will not cut it. This to me is where all the critics get it wrong, and will continue to be critics and not CEOs of a company like Apple. Apple’s 360 degree and multi-dimensional approach to things is the key, and providing their “solutionsâ€

  • drew kora

    May 18, 2007 at 8:38 pm Reply

    I’m a little miffed at Apple myself because they just updated the MacBook only a month after I bought one…could have had a faster processor for $100 less. Grrrr. That’s technology for you.
    I love this blog though. Even though I’m primarily a print designer, I’ve learned so much about what makes a good creative process and how to really take a problem, dissect it, and find the solution. Thanks DT and the rest of the commentators.
    …back to work.

  • Aen Tan

    May 19, 2007 at 6:37 pm Reply

    I just got myself an Ipod Nano 2GB for some music on the go.
    Have to say it has one of the best and most intelligent / smartly-designed interface I have ever seen and used.

  • Design Translator

    May 23, 2007 at 6:36 pm Reply

    Hi Drew,
    Thanks for the vote of confidence!
    Hi Aen,
    I have also been thinking about it as well. But having to use iTunes just annoys me!

  • Aen Tan

    May 23, 2007 at 8:20 pm Reply

    Nope you don’t have to use iTunes. Use Floola instead. No need to sync or format stuff. Just drag and drop and it can do much more than iTunes.
    http://www.floola.com/modules/wiwimod/

  • Design Translator

    May 23, 2007 at 8:34 pm Reply

    Yes I heard about floola as well, I will explore it if I do decide to get one. Thanks!

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