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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…


  1. imho, Apple’s bad for design because they make it look like child’s play and it isn’t because they hide the 99% perspiration part. Jobs is not only a genius, he’s a showman. A design impresario. He presents each of his pieces with a flourish and bow. He plays to the audience, he’s part of the Apple brand mystique.

    heh 🙂

  2. Hmm. I think you are right in that most people don’t realize the financial commitment to being a design centric company. And, as an aside, I’m really tired of the “really rich CEO is a genius” point of view. This is said of every rich CEO (except Martha Stewart, how interesting is that?) IMHO these people aren’t “geniuses” they are smart business people. Einstein was a genius, Jobs isn’t. OK, so that has nothing to do with design.

  3. No, Jobs is a genius. He has been directly and intimately involved with two computer revolutions:
    – making the GUI widespread through Macintosh
    – changing the face of portable media through iPod
    and he also had the savvy/awareness to understand the potential of Pixar.

    No other business person (that I’m familiar with) has been involved in three distinct revolutions that have so deeply and fundamentally affected business and society.

    That’s genius, to me.

  4. There is sometimes a misconception that throwing usability or designers at a problem will always add value. Form a UCD Team, build a lab, hire a designer … it seems to me that its much, much more than that.

    IMHO : Its a customer culture that translates into design. Its the ability for everyone in the company – CEO to Systems Architect to Customer Support to think about the User Experience. Apple seem to embody this in their designs. Yes, not perfect, but brilliant!

    Culture is critical to both innovation, risk taking and great design.

  5. The organization is key. Just as design is often treated as something that can be “sprayed on” after the fact, a design-centric organization is not one that can created with an additional layer of “design thinking”. To do what Apple does, it has to be design-focused at the, ahem, core.

    But as you say, the Apple model doesn’t scale well, and to try to turn just about any other large company into an Apple is a) probably not a good idea, and b) probably not feasible. Apple is a fluke, not a model.

  6. This is so much more succinct and relevant than the Design Observer article I was disappointed by a few weeks ago. Thanks.

  7. I think Apple is good for design and designers. They have, with their tools, put the design world on the map. I benefit from Apple every day.

    On the other hand, do I like Apple? Let’s say compared to a person, Apple would be likened to a show-off genius. They are perfect and great at everything they do, never let anyone see their ‘human’ side and pretend that it was ‘easy’. In the meantime, Jobs is a notoriously difficult and arrogant person and as Peter points out, a lot of sweat goes into developing the groundbreaking products that Apple makes.

    So, to answer my own question – no I don’t ‘like’ Apple as much as I would if they would be more human-like and approachable.

    It would be so much more beneficial to design if they didn’t have such a pristine, repelling persona and opened up to share their lessons and their exceptional design vision so others could learn from them.

  8. Forget about genius (a wildly overused term in silicon valley) — Steve Jobs is a micromanaging egomaniac. I mean that in the nicest possible way. That’s the only kind of personality that can drive an organization as large as Apple to create such a focused, consistent product line.

    But his personality / management style got him kicked out of Apple (when it had become a liability) and got him invited back (when it had become the last resort).

    I agree that Jobs has been right about several major trends in technology, but don’t forget he’s been spectacularly wrong at times too (Lisa, NeXT, “no need for expansion ports”). Sooner or later, he will be wrong again.

  9. I don’t really understand the article of The Design Observer. I neither get your point.

    Loads of people are devoted to Apple / Jobs. Whatever Apple produces or Jobs says, its fans will like it. Take the iPhone which is not on the market yet. Everyone wants one, but nobody has actually seen one.

    Apple sold a dream and are still working hard to make things work. By the time it sees the market, there will be several other phones with similar functionalities. I don’t say the iPhone will be a bad phone, but please be realistic and objective.

    I’ve got an iPod myself and I must say I like the design and I like the interface as well. The sound quality is excellent. But, it’s far from the best product. I spend days configuring and re-installing the firmware, it has lots of constraints (works only with iTunes, not able to copy music,…). Besides that iPods break. Right now I’m waiting for my third replacement. The last one I had exactly one week and it gave up playing.

    Summarized. Apple produces great products, but they’re not the best and Jobs is not God.

  10. Apple is, in my mind, bad for design for two reasons, of which you outlined one, but I’ll elaborate on my stance a little.

    One, Apple does not share its processes. Even interviews with Jon Ive show little to no depth: he just says what he likes about what he does, and how other people have made great products with him. As shows in design (art significantly less so) education, it’s a split in importance between concept, process and final product. Evidently, the consumer only cares about the product (“yay, it’s easy to use and looks nice!”), the company only cares about the process (“yay, our employees know how to cater to people; we should pay him stuff!”) and the person who sprouted the concept only cares about the concept (“yay, I made up something cool again!”). Okay, so it’s not that simple, and we all care about at _least_ one of those steps—I know I like all three of them. The crux is in the fact that, when all we see is an iPod, we see nothing of Ive’s concepts—no, I don’t buy the PR speak: give me honesty, damnit—and certainly nothing about the design process—how many people have worked on the iPod? Sharing is caring, right?

    Two, people take the Apple approach for granted. I’m not talking of just the guys who copy the navigation tabs. It’s on a bigger scale, and people are trying to copy the design aesthetic that Apple has been working on for so long now. I’m not accusing anyone of ripping off Apple, because anyone can create simplicity—simple isn’t easy, but it’s possible—but no-one should think it will just work out if you copy the white-glossy-plastic look and make the menu actually easy to use. This ties in closely, evidently, with the sharing of the process: if Apple would do that, I suppose more people would appreciate the backgrounds instead of taking over just the product.

    Apple is good for design in that people now realise that it would be nice if people got to use stuff that’s actually usable. That’s worth something.

  11. Apple has done another thing against design: They focus too much on making the product “feel” good and solid an not so much on making it actually solid. They make such a good work that most people agree that apple’s products have the best possible technology. But when entire years of production have known failures you must stop and think about it for a second. When you read iPods’ support main keywords: “Reset. Retry. Restart. Reinstall. Restore.” your eyebrows should raise at least for a few seconds. They spend a lot of time designing they’re products but they still fail. MacBooks have been shipped with poor brightness, a plastic that gets the color of your hands and batteries that die (at least they are not catching fire anymore) a few weeks after you buy them.
    They excel in making their product desirable but forget about great design in engineering. And these products need so. Even OS X has weird issues. The other day my computer couldnt start up because the spotlight database got corrupted. i know files can get corrupted, you can only do as much to avoid that. But there’s no good reason why the whole operative system should block for that. Thats not good error handling. And i’ve seen lots of apple’s apps get slower and slower for poorly optimized logging and database files. I think design should be a global word meaning a product not only behaves and feels good but actually has solid technology inside empowering it.

  12. Really? Why must genius -if we agree that it is in fact genius- be punished and told it is bad? It’s a very sad day when companies cannot understand what deep commitment is needed to produce quality products whether it be pure genius or a user centered approach.

    It sounds like Apple is bad for design because most projects won’t commit to that level of excellence so it makes everyone else look bad.

    That sounds like Apple raises the curve.

    I think raising the curve is a good thing and thus Apple is NOT bad for design. 🙂

  13. Peter… A very timely article serves as a fine rebuttal to your presumption of “Apple is Bad for Design”.

    Apple’s close-lipped nature isn’t to further or hamper design. They VALUE design so much it’s THEIR differentiator. Why give that up, of all things, as an Open Sourcing of the creative process!?

    I’ve taken the mantle upon myself to get you to issue a retraction if you hadn’t noticed. All in good natured discussion. You’re still a genius too you know! 🙂

Comments are closed.


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