On Why Apple is Bad For Design

Photo from here.

The Design Observer recently featured a sloppily-written article on why Apple is bad for design. Seeing the post’s title, I eagerly expected a thoughtful critique of that most vaunted of companies — nobody’s perfect, and there must be reasonable things to comment on. Instead, the DO article is an incoherent rambling on issues of form, style, and rounded corners, and ends up as much ado about nothing.

I thought, well, I could do better than that. So here I go.

The main reason why Apple is bad for design is that they’re a highly idiosyncratic organization. As such, it’s nearly impossible to copy them, because no other organization has the elements that allow Apple to product great design. This means that when others do try to copy them, they focus solely on the superficial aspects of the design.

I would argue that the main reason Apple is bad for design is because they’re so secretive about their work. So, while they benefit design because they demonstrate the value and power of design in the marketplace, they prove a detriment to design because they don’t share how they achieve such brilliance.

And because they don’t share, they make it look too easy. If you dig deeper, and listen to the stories of what it took to get iPod (all the iterations on form, as mentioned in Steven Levy’s The Perfect Thing), or iPhone (two and a half years to get it to market), you know that it’s not easy. But that hard work is lost on many, and the seeming simplicity of the end product suggests simplicity in the process. Which leads to people coming to Adaptive Path, and saying, “We want to be the iPod of [product category],” without any understanding of the deep commitment that it takes to get there.

If Apple were to share, we’d understand the tradeoffs that go into the decisions they make; the countless attempts before settling on a solution; the obsessive attention to detail, often at the expense of the bottom line; and doubtless other things that I know nothing about. And other organizations would then appreciate what it really takes in order to be a design-led organization, and, hey, that would be great for design.

(Now, it might not be great for Apple, but that’s not what we’re talking about.)

Apple is bad for design because they contain a brilliance that simply cannot be emulated. And that brilliance allows them to approach design in ways that are harmful for those organizations that aren’t brilliant. Dan, in his book Designing for Interaction, holds up Apple as an example of genius design — design that emerges from the mind of the designer. This is in contrast to user-centered design, systems, design, and activity-centered design, which all incorporate users more directly.

So, this could encourage other companies to practice genius design. The problem is, the people at those companies aren’t geniuses. Steve Jobs is a genius (and has had it proven numerous times throughout his career). And when non-geniuses practice genius design, bad things happen. Instead, what’s good for design in the overwhelming majority of cases is more of a user-centered approach, because this approach is accessible to many more people, and thus could have a much broader impact on design.

Hrm. And now I’m a little stumped. Because, in sum, I do think Apple has been quite good for design. Could it be better? Sure. Have design and designers benefited from Apple’s success? Definitely. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why Apple is bad for design…

AIGA, the professional association for GRAPHIC design

I’m trying to understand who the AIGA thinks they’re fooling with their recent-ish label, “AIGA, the professional association for design.” They claim AIGA no longer stands for “American Institute of Graphic Arts,” and that instead the organization’s purview is big-D-Design.

And then they announced the lineup for their big 2007 Annual event, NEXT, and while it looks like a good event, it’s a *graphic design* event. Of the speakers listed on the promotional email I received:

Kurt Andersen, author of Heyday, host of “Studio 360″–Moderator
David C. Baker, ReCourses, Inc.
Marian Bantjes, illustrator, designer
Janine Benyus, Biomimicry Guild–Just added!
Shoshana Berger, ReadyMade
Paul Budnitz, Kidrobot
Moira Cullen, Coca-Cola North America
Nick Currie, a.k.a. Momus
Robin Edman, Swedish Industrial Design Foundation
Ed Fella, illustrator, designer, photographer
Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Inc.
Stanley Hainsworth, Starbucks
Allan Haley, Monotype Imaging
Grace Hawthorne, ReadyMade
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper
Jonathan Hoefler, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Inc.
Maira Kalman, illustrator, designer
Julie Lasky, I.D. Magazine
Daniel Libeskind, Studio Daniel Libeskind–Just added!
Ellen Lupton, Maryland Institute College of Art and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
Katherine McCoy, High Ground Studios
Michael McCoy, High Ground Studios
Christoph Niemann, illustrator, animator, graphic designer
Adrian Shaughnessy, author of How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul
Garth Walker, Orange Juice Design
Michelle Washington on 2007 AIGA medalist Georg Olden

is overwhelmingly oriented toward graphic design. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that… but is *anyone* buying the idea that AIGA is truly “the professional association for design”?

Does the USA really “need more scientists and engineers”?

Later I’ll write up my recollections of the Gel conference, but first I wanted to dash off a little rant based on something I heard. One of the presenters, Dan Dubno, brought forth the canard about how America is falling behind in math and science education, and that we’re not turning out as many scientists and engineers, with the implication that countries such as China and India are going to surpass us and eat our lunch.


Not hogwash about the data. I’m sure the data is true. I’m sure we have fewer people interested in science and math.

So what?

The global market we’re entering into is one that increasingly values soft skills, and the kinds of understanding borne of education in the social sciences and humanities. This isn’t to devalue science and math — they’re critical — but there’s a lot to suggest that they won’t be the defining disciplines of the 21st century (the way they were of the 20th century).

As we’re realizing, “innovation” now doesn’t mean the niftiest new technology. Innovation is about identifying unmet needs and satisfying those. That identification increasingly comes from folks with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences. (Very minor data point: my company, Adaptive Path, was started by people only with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences; none of us even had a design degree.)

Success in the global market will be one of understanding and empathy, will be due to an ability to appreciate trends, to synthesize information from a variety of sources, etc.

Again, I don’t mean to undervalue science and math; they’re crucial. And you know what? Folks will continue to study those, and that’s great.

But I don’t get why folks are so up in arms about us “falling behind.” That’s 1950′s thinking.

Ottawa – Plenty of Good Eats

Tomorrow I leave Ottawa for New York City. I’ve been to Ottawa a couple times before, but never ate so consistently well as I did this go around.

My first dinner was at Domus Cafe, which proudly features regional cuisine, and does it a delightful service.

Breakfast the next morning was at Benny’s Bistro, where I had an excellent croissant (they’re a French baker).

Lunch that day came from the Black Tomato, where I sat at the bar, chatted with the restaurant’s manager (and maybe owner) while quaffing a St. Ambrose Pale and eating a good tandoori chicken platter.

Dinner was served at Whalebone Oyster House, probably the most yupscale of all the places I ate. The raw oysters and other seafood were delectable.

The only disappointment was my dinner the following night, at Khao Thai. It was talked up on Chowhound, but maybe I ordered wrong — the choo chee fish was nowhere near as good as what I get delivered to my house in Berkeley.

Today began with a fresh-from-the-oven bran muffin at Jodalina, and then off to Cumberland for an all-you-can-eat “sugarbush” buffet at Proulx Farm, which offered up excellent (thick and eggy) pancakes, beans cooked in maple syrup, and crispy pork. Oh, and maple TAFFY ON SNOW, which I’d never heard of before, and which is made by pouring maple syrup over snow or ice, letting it start to harden, and then affixing to a stick from which you consume it. SUGAR SHOCK.

Today ended with a delightful meal at the Wellington Gastropub, a cozy yet modern eatery, where I had an excellent parmesan risotto, and Ontario pickerel, something I’ve never seen in my part of the country. The beer selection was high quality as well. (As were the delightful people I ate with!)

Next time I’m in Ottawa, I want to do more downscale ethnic stuff. We drove through the Chinatown area (more of a Pan-Asia Town), and there were many enticing options there…

Vonnegut, Quickly

Kurt Vonnegut died. Like many nerdly types, I devoured his novels in junior high. Hell, I even got a teacher to let me use BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS for a class project, and I remember drawing assholes on the chalkboard in front of the class.

While he is understandably lauded for CAT’S CRADLE and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, my two favorite Vonnegut novels are ones that don’t receive the same attention: THE SIRENS OF TITAN, which, for my money, is easily his most clever and nihilistic, and MOTHER NIGHT, a remarkably touching tale with the amazingly… true phrase, “We are what we pretend to be.”

I was pleased to see how mentally agile Vonnegut remained as he aged. His appearance on The Daily Show a couple years back (where Jon couldn’t contain his fanboyness) delighted.

Though, for those of us who idolized him, I find this story of Justin Hall’s very grounding. Vonnegut, at least in 1995, reviled computer-mediated communication, and didn’t see it’s remarkable potential for bringing people together. Nobody’s perfect.

All the World’s a Game

I’m reading Henry Jenkins’ _Convergence Culture_, which addresses a number of points of convergence in how people engage with media — technological convergence (when everything’s digital, everything is easily manipulable, hackable, editable, mixable); producer and consumer convergence (people taking media developed by “established professionals” and making it their own; fans developing new stories for worlds created by estaliblished professionals, etc.)

My main frustration with the book is how puerile the objects of such convergence are. Jenkins’ exemplars of this convergence culture are: The Matrix movies and associated media; American Idol; Survivor; and the Star Wars franchise. He spends an inordinate amount of time on The Matrix, which frustrates me, because I thought that even the first movie was kind of crappy. (Reading this book reminded me of Bruce Sterling’s rant at SXSW, in which he called for us to be more critical of these new things, and not just appreciate them for their newness. Mr. Jenkins lets a lot of crap slide in favor of praising that which is new.)

Anyway, reading the book has made me think about how gaming continues to evolve as a cultural paradigm. What I’m not talking about are things like the increasing presence of video games (though I suspect that is related). What I’m talking about is the propensity of our society to turn things into games. In the book, Jenkins discusses the Survivor spoiler community, a group of folks who try to figure out things about the television show before they are aired. These people have constructed a whole new game separate from the game that is played on the show — they’ve decided to make a game out of figuring out locations of upcoming seasons, the order that people get voted off, etc., with the television production crew being their foil.

Also, the book discusses Alternate Reality Games, wherein games pervade real life, typically through communication tools such as computers and cell phones. ARGs are a growing phenomenon, and again demonstrate the desire that people have to game-ize their lives.

And this is all about the internet, and how it enables people to more easily connect with one another, join forces, form teams, and, well, play. Pre-internet, such coordination was hard, and limited to those you could get a hold of in your immediate area. With the internet, coordination becomes relatively trivial.

Anyway, I don’t know what all to make of this (though I wonder how much of this game-izing of our lives is due to the abundance of capital and time that the developed world has), but I’m curious to see how this phenomenon evolves… Particularly in “work” situations, where games and play are slowly becoming increasingly accepted.

My eastern tour April 10-21

Next week, I’m making a run across the eastern part of the United States.

I’ll be in the Philadelphia area April 10-11.
I’ll be in Ottawa April 12-15.
I’ll be in New York City April 15-21.

If we should hang out, let me know at peterme AT peterme DOT com.