Have Apple designs become too familiar and boring? The answer is more complicated than you think

iPhone 7 Design AppleImage Source: Apple

Over the past few years, there has been an increasingly well-traveled narrative that would have you believe that Apple’s once vaunted penchant for design has vanished. Whereas Apple products used to be revered for taking bold risks and introducing cutting edge designs, it seems as if it’s been a few years since a new Apple product has been heralded as a design-win.

With the recent introduction of the iPhone 7, this narrative has picked up steam once again. Even though the iPhone 7 is jam packed with a multitude of compelling new features, including a better display, improved battery life and impressive camera technologies, some analysts and pundits can’t help but get hung up on the fact that aesthetic design of the iPhone 7 is boring, familiar, and proof positive that Apple these days is more interested in playing it safe than in taking risks and pushing the design envelope forward.

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Typically, critics of Apple’s design aesthetic offer nothing more than hyperbolic statements that would otherwise have you believe that Apple’s best days are behind it. This zero-sum game type of approach may make for eye-catching headlines, but it often ignore the nuance involved in product design.

Having said that, a recent piece from designer Dustin Curtis takes a rather interesting and decidedly fair view of Apple’s somewhat repetitive design ethos as of late.

In a piece titled What happened to Apple’s industrial design team?, Curtis, to his credit, doesn’t just lazily proclaim that the iPhone 7 looks similar to the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6. On the contrary, Curtis takes a broad look at the entirety of Apple’s product line and can’t help but come away with the feeling that stagnation now defines a design team that was once renowned for innovation.

The iPhone 6 looks and feels like every other modern smartphone. It is unremarkable. So I was incredibly surprised when Apple released the iPhone 7 last week, which, from an industrial design standpoint, is essentially an iPhone 6 with a new coat of paint. The iPhone has been committed to at least another year of sporting an unremarkable design.

Unfortunately, this industrial design stagnation did not start with the newly released iPhone. It has been happening for years, and is even clearer when you look at the iPad, which has not seen a case design update since 2013–not even an update to integrate the materials and casing technology improvements from the newest iPhones–or the MacBook Pro, which has been virtually untouched for more than five years, since 2011. Even the newest iPad Pro models simply reuse existing iPad industrial designs, including the same chamfered aluminum edge around the screen, which can be traced back to the iPad 2, also released in 2011.

Curtis raises an interesting point here. While it’s one thing to defend a single Apple product for not evolving, it is something of a peculiarity that we haven’t seen any cutting-edge push-the-envelope type of designs emanate from Apple in quite some time.

Now whether or not this is a bad thing isn’t entirely clear. As devices like the iMac and the iPhone have matured and essentially evolved into giant screens with impossibly thin form factors, the room designers have to work with, the area under which they can work their magic has necessarily become much narrower.

Has Apple “lost the ability to experiment due to rapid growth and unprecedented scale” as Curtis suggests? That may be part of the equation, but it’s still hard to call Apple’s design stagnation a problem just yet, especially as the company’s products become more and more popular with each passing year.

Consider this: did people buy iPods because they enjoyed the aesthetic of the design or because it was an incredibly intuitive and forward-thinking product? As Steve Jobs famously said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

To that point, one could argue that the hoopla over Apple’s design stagnation is overblown.

Championing this point of view, John Gruber of Daring Fireball opines:

Here’s the genius of the black and (especially) jet black iPhones 7. In a very seductive way, they look like something new and desirable. And at the same time, they are instantly recognizable as iPhones. That is what Manjoo and similar-minded I’m-bored-with-Apple’s-designs don’t get. With a highly successful product and brand, new versions need to strike a balance between familiarity, the foundations of the brand, and hot newness. The bored-with-Apple crowd just wants the hot newness.

You need to recognize a Porsche 911 as a 911. An iPhone needs to look like an iPhone. The design needs to evolve, not transform. The thing to keep in mind is that the iPhone itself, what it looks like in your hand, is the embodiment of the iPhone brand. There is nothing printed on the front face of an iPhone because there doesn’t need to be. The Apple logo is the company’s logo. The iPhone’s logo is the iPhone itself.

Hot newness, as Gruber  calls it, is undeniably exciting, but when consumers are bombarded by new designs just for the sake of new design, it tends to be more of a jumbled mess than anything else.

Curtis finishes with an intriguing proposition: perhaps Apple has simply abandoned frequent and subtle design shifts in favor of more grandiose design transformations that necessarily require more of a runway before becoming ready to introduce to the public.

But there is one other potential explanation: maybe Apple has taken the enormous–one might even say courageous–risk of spending all of its resources on far-future product designs to the severe detriment of current products. I sincerely hope so.

Food for thought.

Curtis’ entire piece is well worth reading in its entirety. As opposed to some pundits out there, he doesn’t profess to have all the answers, nor does he make sweeping generalizations about Apple’s future prospects for success. If you’re the least beast curious about the state of Apple design, it’s well worth checking out.

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