The Myth of Apple's Great Design
The Myth of Apple's Great Design
The company’s new “spaceship” headquarters shows how its beauty has always been skin deep.
The Apple Campus 2 is seen under construction in Cupertino, California. Noah Berger / Reuters
IAN BOGOST 10:28 AM ET TECHNOLOGY
Apple has great design is the biggest myth in technology today. The latest victim of this ideology comes in the form a remarkable report on the late Steve Jobs’s final project, still in production: a new, $5 billion Cupertino headquarters for Apple Inc.
Writing for Reuters, Julia Love outlines the campus’s “astonishing attention to detail.” Vents and pipes remain obscured from reflection in the structure’s massive, curved-glass façade. Thick guidebooks regulate the usage of wood. Structural seams are held to a standards measuring a fraction of normal construction tolerances. Individual ceiling panels require multi-step approval. A door handle—the project’s first deliverable—is rejected for sub-nanometer imperfections. Even the empty spaces of thresholds are subjected to meticulous attention:
One of the most vexing features was the doorways, which Apple wanted to be perfectly flat, with no threshold. The construction team pushed back, but Apple held firm.
The rationale? If engineers had to adjust their gait while entering the building, they risked distraction from their work, according to a former construction manager.
Love compares Apple’s construction design process to that of its product design. The building is meant to be “as flawless as a hand-held device,” she writes, a process supposedly brought about by “treating the construction of the vast complex the same way they approach the design of pocket-sized electronics.”
The only problem with this conclusion: Apple has never accomplished sufficiently great design in its electronics to justify lionizing the pedantry of design at the new Apple campus.
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At base, such a claim seems preposterous. In 1977, the Apple II made the microcomputer useful and affordable. In 1984, the Macintosh made the computer more usable by the everyperson thanks to the graphical user interface. In 2001, the iPod fit a music library in a pocket. In 2007, the iPhone made computing portable (and obsessive).
Steve Jobs’s design philosophy was fascist more than it was exacting.
But if Apple designs at its best when attending closely to details like those revealed in the construction of its spaceship headquarters, then presumably the details of its products would stand out as worthy precedents. Yet, when this premise is tested, it comes up wanting. In truth, Apple’s products hide a shambles of bad design under the perfection of sleek exteriors.
Take Apple’s late-2016 MacBook Pro, its latest flagship laptop. The new model ships only with USB-C ports. But all of Apple’s current devices, including the iPhone 7 and a rechargeable Bluetooth keyboard and mouse come with USB-A cables, which cannot connect to the new laptop. A replacement cable can be had— for $20. Over time, this problem will work itself out as USB-C replaces USB-A entirely. But if good design is in the details, why should anyone spending thousands of dollars on a supposedly well-designed machine have to wait on the details?
The iPhone is no better off. Starting with the iPhone 5S, first released in 2014, Apple adopted a software-controlled fingerprint sensor mounted on the home button. Known as Touch ID, the feature allows users to authenticate to unlock the phone, download products from the App Store, and make payments at participating retailers with Apple Pay. But even the slightest disturbance on a finger makes Touch ID unreliable. Washed your hands recently? Ate a banana? Dug in the dirt of the garden? Touched something too warm, or too cold, for too long? Good luck authenticating with your fingerprint. A mere inconvenience when unlocking the phone, but Apple Pay won’t work at all without Touch ID. So fat chance using that new digital wallet on a rainy day, or after tactically interacting with worldly substances.
And what about autocorrect? As funny as it once was to guffaw over its foibles, the feature hasn’t become smarter, so much as its users have become more acclimated to managing its errors when writing and reading smartphone-composed messages. How much typing has become retyping, correcting corrections. One of Apple’s solutions to the problem, revealed in a 2016 patent filing: just to punt, highlighting corrected words and inviting an interlocutor to “request clarification.”
Likewise, the larger, 4.7-inch screens offered since the 2014 iPhone 6 made reaching the edges of the screen with one palm difficult, even for users with large hands. Apple’s solution, dubbed Reachability, was an awkward one: double-tapping the home button would lurch the whole screen down for easier address.
Some Apple fanatics will blame these more recent misfortunes of design on the vacuum created by Steve Jobs’s death. After all, his tight control over the company’s products was legendary. But this explanation isn’t sufficient. After all, Apple’s design chief Jony Ive, who is considered to have taken over Jobs’s design dogmatism, has remained in charge of the company’s design efforts throughout Tim Cook’s tenure as CEO. And moreover, Apple products’ inattention to detail in design was already easy to see during the Jobs era anyway.
Take the iPod. It made listening to a whole music library easy, but iTunes always made managing that library difficult and confusing—even destructive. In fact, most Apple software fails to meet the design standard set by the devices on which they run. Mail still can’t search for emails effectively or accurately. On the desktop, iMessage frequently stops working; on the iPhone, it successfully sends less reliably than text messages once did, particularly when reception is poor. Keynote, Apple’s PowerPoint alternative, randomly changes the formatting of text in presentation notes—a charming surprise to discover during an actual keynote. iWork, the Apple office app suite of which Keynote is a part, never came close to competing with Microsoft and Google’s commensurate products, horrid though both of them are, nor even in achieving the elegant simplicity of its ancestors like AppleWorks.
The same invisible doorways lead to and from the authorized chambers of work and gardens of leisure. So exacting!
Apple’s Jobs-era hardware also failed to meet the scrupulousness for which it is nevertheless worshipped. In 2010, when the iPhone 4’s antenna design produced reception issues, Jobs famously told impacted users to just to “hold the phone differently.” In 2008, he revealed the first run of the impossibly-thin MacBook Air by sliding it dramatically out of a manila envelope. Amazing! Less so, but not shown: the inch-thick power adapter needed to charge the device. Apple still hasn’t even attempted to reduce the size—and particularly the bulky thickness—of its power supplies, even as it has systematically reduced the girth of its computers.
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Steve Jobs’s design philosophy was fascist more than it was exacting. The man was a not a demigod of design, but its dictator. He made things get made the way he wanted them made, and his users appreciated his definitiveness and lack of compromise. They mistook those conceits for virtues in the objects themselves.
And enjoyed it. At a time when every company bows to even the most absurd demands of the consumer, Apple never cared what its customers thought, or wanted. Instead it told them what to like, and how to like it. What a relief! The corporate design autocracy obviates the need for decision-making. Computer users won’t use floppy disks because there is no floppy drive. Later, likewise optical drives. Later, likewise mini-stereo headphone jacks. To ascribe such choices to design—or to courage—is a mistake. As I have argued before, Apple is expert at getting people to commit to Apple’s future without pondering how technology could have evolved differently.
In the process, Apple standardized excellence in design at the surface level, while failing to achieve that distinction holistically. Apple’s products are beautiful objects, no doubt. But beautiful objects whose operation never matched their appearance. Beautiful objects that lied about the depths of that beauty.
And in that lie lies an important, if accidental lesson of Apple’s obsessions in the new spaceship officeplex. The attention to detail around door handles and thresholds might feel like a design methodology so pedantic at the micro-level that it could only ever produce greatness at the macro.
But one could also compare the zombified reality of Apple workers plodding to work over the carefully unperturbed thresholds in their new spaceship headquarters to the sleepy drone of an army built to abide rather than to think, let alone think different. The same invisible doorways lead to and from the authorized chambers of work and gardens of leisure. So exacting!
Ironically, such design amounts to an inversion of the company’s famous 1984 Super Bowl ad for the original Macintosh. In the ad, Apple’s exuberant individualism destroys the tedious uniformity of an unnamed foe, implied to be IBM. But as time has worn on, Apple’s wares have become increasingly collectivist and uniform, not to mention inoperative—even as the company has somehow gotten credit only for innovation and performance. It has inspired that uniformity in competing products too. Every vagrant entrepreneur in the local coffee house has the same gray (or rose gold) laptop and the same black (or rose gold) phone, no matter their makes or models.
Like every Apple product, the company’s new headquarters is a monolith meant to be worshiped at sight and by touch. Just don’t ask too many questions about how it works in practice. And work it surely will. Borg-like, the black, glass Apple mothership, with its perfect ceiling panels and regulated wood veneers, will shroud its engineers in the safe comfort of an unperturbed gait, such that they might yet craft the identical, future devices that shall still inspire the indistinguishable software that will yet run on them, so you and I might rejoice in their splendor.