Apple products are known the world over for their iconic industrial design. Before we take this debate any further, let us be clear about one thing. Taste is, of course, subjective, but the mechanisms that result in great design are not. The work involved in making a product like the iPod or any Apple product are based on very personal experiences and subconscious influences from the fabric of human nature. This nature tells us that we like products that reflect our personality. In order to illustrate the dichotomy of great design, I will start off by talking about another respected brand.
Timeless Design = Personal Value
Leica is a brand respected for precision in anything to do with imaging products. Its most prominent products are, of course, the Leica M cameras. For me, they are the essence of timeless design. In over 50 years, their looks and feel have not changed. Steve Jobs said: “Most people think it’s how they look, but it’s not really how they look, it’s how they work.” That is how the design of the Leica M happened. The story of timeless design is as follows. Once an optimum is reached, that is to say that a great balance between beauty and functionality is achieved, then the end must be written. Leica knew when that end came with the M system camera. That is the reason why it is considered the most respected tool for any photographer. It is not an advanced DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) with fast shutter speeds or breathtaking high-definition video, but a camera made of and representing precision. To this day, Leica M cameras offer up only manual focus.
The LEGO brick. We all know it. We all have played with it. As a boy, I used to build my own spaceships. Just recently I bought myself a small star destroyer from the LEGO Star Wars series. It was a revelation to put it together. It made me remember how much fun it was when I was a child, even while growing up during the digital revolution. Regardless, today I would still regard LEGO as the best toy ever invented. It all relies on the simplest of designs: a plastic brick with four studs on top, which is available in all colors of the rainbow. My fiancee gave me a storage box disguised as an oversized LEGO brick, which is simply a wonderful decorative piece as well. The square LEGO brick embodies the quintessence of functional minimalism. Yeah, people who love design are real geeks who see the meaning of life in a brick of plastic.
The general public buys products based solely on emotional impulses. The device must feel good in one’s hands. This is the foremost aspect leading to a purchase. At that point a purchase is, of course, very subjective. Yet when it comes to a more uniquely marketed device like the iPhone, design itself becomes secondary. It is known that Apple takes great pride in its design work, and one must acknowledge the sleek look and feel. However, before 2005, Apple had no idea what design to settle on. Every new iPod nano looks different to this day. Every new iMac had a different design. Any leading designer will agree that good design — timeless design — builds on consistency. Apple has had very little consistency if you compare its products from the past through today. Leica, on the other hand, has very strict guidelines in how new cameras are designed. One can always see that it is a Leica. Had it not been for the iconic Apple logo, then Apple products would not be as unique.
Personal value is the hardest to attain for any products — in this case, electronic devices. This is where the diversity of cultures comes into play. While some of you might think the iPhone has amazing design and the best functionality, I believe the opposite. An object makes a connection with the owner. It is this connection that makes something timeless. Yet on a purely visual level, personal value makes an object beautiful to the beholder.
Timeless Design = Timeless Functionality
To Steve Jobs, good design meant honesty. His father, Paul Jobs, taught him a lesson while painting the wooden fence around their garden. It was his opinion that even the backside must receive as much care as the front — the side that most people will notice. No one ever looks behind to make sure the back is also painted with the same urge for perfection. This lesson had its lasting impact on a young Steve Jobs. The modern MacBook Pro line is a manifest to that early lesson in his life. Every part of the inside — parts that most will never see — are carefully and individually designed. Apple developed what it calls the “unibody,” which is a culmination of this vision Jobs had all his life. Even on the inside there is beauty, resulting in a quite coherent consistency across the products Apple offers. As far as functionality goes, Apple has succeeded in every way.
When one looks at the design of the Leica M cameras, on the other hand, functionality is very much the foundation of the look and feel. However, owners take pride in using these cameras because, not only do they provide several advantages in street photography, but also they have a very long and intimate history in photography. Their price tag is absurdly high, if one considers only the the bang for the buck. Since it falls short of modern DSLRs in features, a Leica camera excels in picture quality. The best and most heralded press photography of the 20th century has most certainly been taken with a Leica M. Steve Jobs would surely have been a fan of Leica, just like he was a fan of Mercedes vehicles.
For Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive, a device is well-designed when it is clear and understandable. That is what makes users fall in love with their products. Both of them disliked the arbitrariness of other computer manufacturers, which also implies a certain carelessness. Famous designer Dieter Rams puts it this way: Good design should be innovative; good design should make a product practical; good design is honest and inconspicuous. The latter is the core of Apple design, and also Leica. Good design is consistent in every detail. A good example for this is apparent in the design language of Braun in the 1960s. The last, yet deepest idea is that good design should, in fact, be as little design as possible.
Apple, Leica, and historically speaking, Braun as well, have in common this philosophy of getting design out of the way. “And I think when forms develop with that sort of reason, and they are not just arbitrary shapes, it feels almost inevitable; it feels almost undesigned. It feels almost like, well of course it is that way, why would it not be any other way?” Jonathan Ive said in a video about Apple’s design philosophy. When I touch and use a Leica M, I have exactly that impression. It feels just right and one can admire the precision of this camera. That is something missing from professional DSLRs. The new MacBook Pro has finally acquired, after five years, a unified design language that put functionality and ease-of-use in front. In that sense it succeeds completely; for my taste it is a bit too bland, though.
The design of Apple is very much inspired by the work of Dieter Rams. It is functional and simple, nothing more. It is as little as it needs to be. As far as hardware goes, this is always the case, but interface design in Apple products has not always adhered to that philosophy. Mac OS X looks too glossy and colorful to be inspired by the same source. Jonathan Ive is of course not involved with the software development, and it is known how often Steve Jobs had been frustrated by the look of key software. Hardware from Apple does indeed materialize the idea that design should never dominate people, but rather help them and guide them.
Is Apple Design Timeless?
There is one simple way to find out if an object’s design is timeless. It does not even matter if we are just talking about Apple or Leica or Braun. Anything, even an oversized LEGO brick, can pass or fail this test. Something that is timeless means to me that it is almost unnoticeable. A well-designed product does not stand out because of colours or bizarre shapes, but it catches your attention with humility. Modern smartphones, as exemplified by the iPhone, are simple and functional in design that serves only the purpose of being practical. Again, in this sense, Apple is very successful. Most important, design has nothing to do with subjectivism. It is not a question of whether something is beautiful or not. Rather, the question should be whether something fits the rest or not. Consistency must not only prevail with a company’s line of products, but also within the user’s space at home or at work.
CC licensed Flickr photo shared by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com