Is Apple Computer dropping the ball on design as it reaches for the mass market?

“You’ve read the same exciting story about design for years. As it goes, corporate America recognizes design as a point of difference, a sales edge, an emotional connection to buyers. And buyers recognize design as fashion, coolness, lifestyle. ‘The big D,’ as Bruce Claxton, a designer, called it,” William L. Hamilton writes for The New York Times.

“Companies like Apple Computer exemplified both sides of the thinking. With a series of highly design-conscious introductions like the candy-colored iMac and the milk-white iBook – products with looks that had the hummability of pop songs – Apple set itself apart. And consumers responded as a cult, which grew, culminating in the iPod, the personal music player, which quadrupled the company’s first-quarter profit this year and increased Apple’s revenue by 74 percent,” Hamilton writes.

“But the design excitement last week in Apple’s latest introductions, the Mac Mini and iPod Shuffle, was not in the Mini’s small simple box or the Shuffle’s stick-of-gum wand. It was in the prices: $499 and $99,” Hamilton writes. “In a conversation on Monday, Jonathan Ive, the company’s vice president for industrial design, described Apple’s newest generation of designs less by how they look than what he termed ‘a whole new level of access to the product.'”

Hamilton writes, “This was not Apple’s traditional design card, played at a premium for its core audience, a group that an editorial in The Times on Jan. 13 about Apple’s move toward the mainstream called ‘the lonely elite’ (a phrase that despite the media buzz still adequately describes most of the interest in design). The important feature of Apple’s new designs was the price, not design as something you could not live without but, paradoxically, design as something you might finally be able to live with. Does design, too, have to think different now? As Apple reaches for a mass market, as yet out of hand, is it dropping the ball on design?”

Full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Apple’s Mac mini and iPod shuffle, like all of their current products, represent clean minimalism. The exterior of Apple’s hardware is easy on the eyes and evokes the ease-of-use of Apple’s software designs. Because Apple is the only company that delivers the whole widget – the hardware, operating system, and software applications – Apple is the only company that can deliver a seamless experience to the mass of personal computer users. Apple is not dropping the ball on design, they are taking it to a whole new level.

32 Comments

  1. The Mac Mini and iPod shuffle seems pretty revolutionary to me, in terms of design. Eliminate what you don’t need . . . it’s about the overall experience, and I think the design of these two products reflect that. It’s the evolution of design at Apple.

  2. What makes the shuffle stand apart from the competition is the way Apple has handled the minmalist design.

    Yes, any company can (and has) make a flash based mp3 player with only the basic controls on it. So, really, in terms of the user functions of the iPod shuffle itself, it is not much different to any other basic mp3 flash player.

    BUT, what Apple does best, is work out how you can get the maximum out of the minimum. And, in the case of the shuffle, they have done that by the “Autofil” feature in iTunes, and pushing the random factor.

    See, anyone can make a basic player.. but only Apple knows how to take that player to the next level without adding anything extra to the player itself.

    Well, this is what i think anyhow.

  3. MDN’s take is, of course, apt and spot on. It’s kind of embarrassing that Mr. Hamilton can posit his thesis and overlook the obvious. Well, NYT readers are trained to read between the lines, and assume inductions hinted at by their omission.

    1. Design (the whole widget)
    2. Cost (for the rest of us)
    3. Rule (the world)

    My Magic Word is involved. She said she was involved with someone, but she still…

  4. Visually, the Mac mini has a lot of appeal. It is the kind of product that anyone can imagine on their desk since it is so small, quiet and clean. Even if you have a computer, the Mac mini could fit on your desk. The design of the box it comes in makes it the ideal impulse-purchase item. I see no evidence of Apple’s supposed shift from design to practicality assumed in the article.

  5. Design is not just about the external appearance. Good design gets you something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

    Personally I think that the notebook drive, the (apparently) difficult access and the single RAM slot detracts from the product, The need to make it as small as possible at the expense of function could class as form over function.

    Maybe it’s worth it for the “WOW!” factor, but I’m not so sure.

    If the machine has been designed to be that particular size for a reason (e.g. ICE) that we don’t yet know, then I’ll be delighted.

    But regardless of these minor criticisms, it’s a beautiful machine. It does have the wow! factor and it is a headless mac at last. So it’s a decent 9/10 from me

  6. The designs of the Mac mini and the Shuffle are entirely in line with what Apple have previously done.

    Jonathan Ives has always used a minimalist approach in his other designs for Apple. When you’re designing for extreme ease of manufacture and reduced cost, minimalist design can work in your favour as there will be fewer bits to assemble.

    Creative would have you believe that you build a better MP3 player by adding features like FM radios. Apple have proved that you build a better product by making it’s functionality as perfect as you possibly can. Apple do that by stripping away anything which doesn’t justify it’s existence and refining everything that remains.

    The only new territory for Apple in with these two products is that they have been obviously designed to meet a specific and very low price point, without the quality of the materials or finish being compromised.

    It’s not an original concept to design the price first and the product second. Ikea have been doing that for many years and some of their designs are actually very good indeed and represent astonishing value for money ( but not ALL of their designs ).

    As Apple heads towards the mainstream, I think that we’ll be seeing more products being developed along exactly the same principles. As always, form follows function and if the function is to sell by the tens of million, so the form takes it’s inspiration from that function. It’s not dropping the ball, it’s more a case of doing some clever tricks with the ball.

  7. Isn’t there a quote by Einstein that says something like: “Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler”.

    Don’t like that one, how about Buckminster Fuller’s “When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

    I know these are both a little bit Zen – particularly Einstein’s; but the iPod shuffle strikes me as beng the ultimate rationalisation of a consumer entertainment device combined with some pretty nifty software, which is pretty much the epitome of Fuller’s quote.

  8. One reason why I don’t understand the laptop drive is because they’re more expensive. These things would be cheaper and perform better (see stats of barefeats) with a 3.5″ drive and only need to be marginally bigger.

    I’ll be happy to be wrong (I’m happy to have been talking bollox about the iPod shuffle). I just can’t quite figure this minor detail out.

  9. Non-Mac Users still just don’t seem to get it. The visual beauty of the product and of the OS is nice but not really the major appeal. It is what is inside and the way that it all works together AND the beauty that results in the winning combination.

    Apple makes its products beautiful because it wants its product to be insanely great and there is no reason that functionality has to be ugly. They pay close attention to really small details and one of the details is the appearance. But that in and of itself is not why people love Macintosh computers. It is just one facet that gives you a clue as to how great things are inside.

    For an example to illustrate what I mean you need look no further than the fruit that the computer is named for – the Macintosh Apple. A beautifully shiny red Macintosh Apple with blemishless skin and well shaped curves is very appealing to look at. But one of the main reasons this color and texture and shape are appealing is because it connotes the sweet juicy delicious quality within.

    Though many many wintel computers are ugly, you can find some that are very good looking. However, this visual appeal does not engender the devotion that you see given to Macintosh computers. For that you need the FUNCTION, married to the great DESIGN, that results in the supreme combination called a Macintosh computer.

    Or to put it all much more simply, looks are great but as MDN is fond of pointing out “It’s the OS, stupid!”

  10. “I don’t understand the laptop drive is because they’re more expensive.”

    I can’t find the original article just now, but recently there was an explanation of Apple’s reasoning behind this.

    They explained that they had considered using a cheaper 3.5″ drive, but the total manufactured cost actually came out lower with the more expensive 2.5″ drive.

    There are also benefits with this particular 2.5″ drive as it incorporates silent-running bearings.

  11. William Hamilton’s boss came into his office
    and told him he needed an article, fast. This
    is the result.

    It is the ignorant people about design who
    are going to write drivel such as this.

    Be an armchair quarterback.
    Not an armchair designer.

    Design critique’s should be left well enough
    alone by the general public.

  12. 1) The comments referred to about Apple design have no bearing whatsoever as a serious assessment of the reality of the situation- after all most hacks can talk a 1000 words about design for every one that makes any sense. What it is about is the fact that Apple having introduced cheaper products opens the door to those same ill informed and lazy hacks to question whether this will be done at the expence of the well established design philosophy, without them looking totally stupid in making such a subjective assumption- they hope. A hack is like a shark, any opportunity and it will sink its teeth in for its own selfish benefit. Like sharks they rarely have to think about it to have a go.
    2) It worries me that more than once here I have seen ikea toted as some example of good design. Surely they are the epitomy of the Emperors clothes. At best their stuff looks reasonably good in a stereotyped Scandinavian way while being mostly tat under the skin and their failings only too evident if one makes the mistake of actually using these products rather than simply admiring them from a distance. Any company that makes people suffer the worst buying experience ever invented to obtain their products and then make them suffer it a second time when they discover the carefully applied salt in the form of minimal instructions and the inevitable missing parts must be the epitomy of sadism. I like to think that Apple have substance in their designs something that ikea only play at by using the strong image of Scandinavian furniture without any of the reality, built for those who are easily pleased with the former and accept the latter with a windows like stoicism.

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