Rant: Apple and odd ideas about what is good design

Is Apple wearing the Emperor’s new clothes when it comes to design excellence?

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.




So said Steve Jobs, and of course he was right, just as many recent interpretations of design are wrong.

Our modern notions of ‘designer’ goods are really about brands and advertising. Makers of shoes, apparel, handbags spend fortunes on marketing but use derivative designs based on the latest catwalk fancies and source their goods from third-party makers, taking advantage of low labour costs.

Another notion of ‘design’ has it that some quirky, non-essential features helps a product stand out from the crowd and therefore, somehow, desirable. We have come to know these as “bells and whistles”, although the origin of that term appears to be lost in the mists of time.

My sense of design relates closely to delight when things “just work”. In technology I’m impressed by software that guesses my intentions and hardware that has the buttons located in the right places – stuff that doesn’t get in the way and makes the things you want to do quicker and more reliably achievable.

Apple has long been lauded for its designs but I wonder how much of this relates to the aforementioned definitions of design. After all, the category of “white goods” became a byword for lack of innovation when applied to cookers and refrigerators and the like. When Apple produced, quite literally, its own white goods in the form of digital music players, laptops etc. it was seen as the ne plus ultra of design excellence. Puzzling, and with more than a hint of the Emperor’s new clothes.

When I first used iTunes I was flummoxed by software that appeared to me counterintuitive and clunky. I was also stumped the success of the iPod which seemed to me to reduce music to mush. Was it just me being useless? Not quite. I asked others about their experiences and very often they agreed with me, at least about the (lack of) iTunes usability. 

And then recently my colleague Ayesha Salim conducted an interview where the feted user experience consultant Don Norman criticised Apple for its disservice to usability. The article appeared to embolden those who were wondering about the lack of criticism of Apple products.

I don’t want to suggest that the perception of Apple as one of the most influential design companies in the world is just hogwash and I don’t write this as clickbait. The story of Apple, its revival and its insistence on the importance of research, development and, yes, design, deserve an illuminated page in the annals of business literature.

And, at times at least, I have been a believer. For example, the arrival of the iPhone and its attendant app store was for me, as for many others, and again I mean this literally, life changing. The availability of some many sleek services together with a marvellous touch interface refreshed our relationship with information, images, knowledge and entertainment.

I’ve never gone back to other phones and I also adore the iPad even if my relationship with iTunes remains moribund. But the iPhone 6 I recently acquired has resuscitated my suspicion that Apple too often gets a free pass from the media when it comes to the notion of design.

Two points.

One, the curved and shiny case of the iPhone 6 makes it slippery and therefore more liable to join the legions (millions? tens of millions?) of iPhones with broken screens – another longstanding weakness of the device. Of course I could add a protective case and bulk up the device but why should I have to and who thought that making a phone with the tactile effect of lathered soap was a good idea?

Two, the join between the screen has a habit of clipping the hair above my ear whenever I, you know, want to make a phone call. It’s not painful, just annoying. I checked to see whether I’m alone in experiencing this and found that there had been a minor tempest on the subject back on the launch of the product. So again, what happened in user testing?

Well, look, I’m not going to give up my iPhone for the sake of a couple of snafus that should have been avoided but a company can’t be put on a pedestal (luminous, white and shiny, I imagine) and then have a faulty testing process. Apple is a remarkable company but it is also emblematic of the way that the design ethos has been co-opted, used and abused.