The Bad Apple of Design?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Ah! The hazards of blogging "evergreen" topics in advance. The day before yesterday (as of scheduled publication), a story about Apple "destroying" design caught my eye, and I commented on it briefly:

A rather lengthy piece argues that, since introducing its smart phones and tablets, Apple has been abandoning the design principles that made it great and, in the process, giving the field of design a bad name:

Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people's true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them. Design combines an understanding of people, technology, society, and business. The production of beautiful objects is only one small component of modern design: Designers today work on such problems as the design of cities, of transportation systems, of health care.

Apple is reinforcing the old, discredited idea that the designer's sole job is to make things beautiful, even at the expense of providing the right functions, aiding understandability, and ensuring ease of use. [bold added]
I have only skimmed through the longer case, but my impression is that this is true, and it bothers me that Google, another tech industry leader, seems to be following Apple's lead.

I always find such decisions puzzling, and usually, I have to fight the urge to dismiss the people who make them as idiots. That said, Apple and Google seem to be getting away with their foolishness for now. It is interesting to consider that their success comes in different ways (1) despite such decisions or (2) because of them (due to passivity being common among many members of the buying public).

But the topic has caught fire enough for me to see that it is being discussed vigorously. This merits more timely posting on my part: I thus yank it from my "rainy day" post pool and note another commentator's qualifying remarks, among them:
Yet Apple's fumbles with the "undo" and "back" features also illustrate a crucial -- and rather obvious -- point that [Bruce] Tognazzini and [Don] Norman scarcely mention: the inevitable constraints of a pocket-sized device. They worked at the company in an era of desktop computers, when keyboards came standard and screen real estate came cheap. Now space is at a premium, posing design challenges they never dreamed of. Drop-down menus and fixed buttons would be nice, sure, but they'd hopelessly clutter a 5-inch screen. Apple has no choice but to hide them. For a designer working in this context, visual simplicity isn't a fetish. It's a prerequisite.
This may be true, but imitators, like Google (linked above) or Microsoft (See Windows 8.) would do well to keep in mind why some of these decisions are made. We don't all use "fondle-slabs" for everything or at all times, and it is an offense against good design to impose such limitations on non-users just because the spare interfaces they require seem more elegant.

-- CAV


Elmas said...

Reminded me of an old architect vs engineer joke.

The engineer tells the architect that his buildings are beautiful but they're so badly constructed, they fall down. The architect smiles and responds: “Yes, unlike your really sturdy buildings that are so ugly, they are torn down."

Gus Van Horn said...

Good one.

Steve D said...

'That said, Apple and Google seem to be getting away with their foolishness for now.'

Could they be running out of ideas? Here's a suggestion for a real innovation. Make me a flying/automatic/amphibious/thorium-powered car.

'the inevitable constraints of a pocket-sized device'

People gush on about their huge television screens and then buy an smart watch...Hmmm. Then Apple comes out with a larger smart phone...

Gus Van Horn said...

I could see them being out of ideas. The smart watch leaves me nonplussed and I am astounded at how long it took them to come out with a larger phone.

Steve D said...

Other than the very early stages, most of this 'communications revolution' does not represent true innovation. Americans have forgotten what innovation is. Smart phone6 is not innovative in the way 3D printers (or new rocket designs) are. It still takes me the same amount of time to get to Australia as it did in the 60s. Perhaps robotics will make some major changes but that car I mentioned could be developed. What about sub-orbital space travel?

Or maybe the real reason is that it is harder for the government to justify regulating the communications industry and that poor car/rocket has too many 'safety' issues.

Gus Van Horn said...

It's interesting to contemplate government regulation of communications. I think we have a combination of the genie being out of the bottle and advances still occurring faster than regulation can keep up.