Original Apple iPod, photo courtesy bioneural.net.
Odds are you're reading this on a screen with radially-rounded corners; odds are the frame has a centimeter or so of pearly titanium grey, or milky plasticky white, or calfskin-smooth black; and, if so, I can report with 100 percent certainty that this text is being composed on just such a screen. Welcome, as they used to say, to Macintosh. If you're a creative or design type (even and increasingly, if you're an architect, whose irritable software still favors the PC environment), your work is always already produced on, framed by, and mysteriously influenced through, the design object that is a Mac.
With the sale, sometime last week or so, of the 100-millionth iPod, the aesthetic and formal habits of the objects produced by Apple have reached ever more into public consciousness. And every commentary on the ubiquity of these music players, or on the divertingly near prospect of the Apple cellphone iPhone, (or on the continuation of the ostensible revolution promised by that recently-politically-appropriated 1984 Big Brother commercial), seems to emphasize that what distinguishes Apple is something called "Design." Design, or a particular understanding of it, has been good for Apple. But is Apple good for design? What if the answer is no?
Why might this be? It would seem, at first glance, that Apple products are, by some reasonable imperative, well-designed. They're relatively easy to use, and they're easy on the eyes. They're simple-seeming. They're shiny. By any robust aesthetic standard, they're considerably less ghastly than any number of contemporary MP-3 players, laptops, digital cameras, cellphones, and other awkwardly-composed, arbitrarily-detailed ephemera whose physical form lags infinitely far behind their operational power. They do not suffer from the design syndrome that affects many such electronic objects: which is to be designed once, and then annually tweaked in ways that stray far from anything one would arrive at from first principles (e.g. the successively awful iterative corruptions of Canon ELPH Powershot generations SD100-700, or the deep caprice of the details on even "designer" cellphones). Instead Apple gear stays mysteriously the same and different, year in and year out.
The problem is, of course, complicated. First, there is the corruption of the word "design" itself, as it's generally applied to an Apple object. What distinguishes your iPod from your brand-x MP-3 player is not design: that brand x machine also is distinguished by design. By bad design. What is unique to Apple is more accurately called "style": a clear signature vocabulary of forms and materials, superabundant to the mere requirements of function, that convey a certain sensibility, atmosphere, association, vibe. Of course, all those rounded corners may aid in manufacture and structure, but they also say in a comfortingly Jetsonian way: "I'm from the future, and so are you." It's the familiar tension between Modern and Modernist, in which a particular high style is mislabeled as "design," and a corrupted understanding of the phenomenon of design is misrepresented as an additional "feature" of an object. The danger here is the implication that design can be reduced to a characteristic of an object, and not the animating spirit behind all its characteristics in total, (and, thus, the notion that an expensive detail that can be dispensed with by the practical-minded).
But Aesthetes and Moderns beware, it gets worse. The good design of the iPod is not to be found in the high style that shapes its material form, but in the inspired interface between that physical object and the information design and the software embedded therein. Consider the clickwheel, that sensually pleasant disk that is the latest addition to a very short list (keyboard, joystick) of powerful attachments between embodied and virtual information. Turning and depressing that clickwheel aligns different functions with charming simplicity and deft complexity, and has a fluidity to it that approaches some organic ideal for the choreography between man and machine. (And, of course, all that software in the machine is generally functional, friendly and fantastic.) But the great functional elegance of this intersection between hardware and software has been all too easily confused and conflated with the ostensible elegance of the hardware itself and irritatingly designed Apple hardware gets a pass.
What's wrong with Apple hardware, aesthetically speaking? To closely examine the details of even the newest and coolest Apple product, the iPhone, is, eventually, to be reduced to tears. First impressions of a deft and considered modern object dissipate. To be sure, like the clickwheel, the iPhone's multifunctional pressure screen is a lovely intersection of information design and ergonomics. But god and the devil are always in the details, so let's get fastidious about them.
First, there what we might call the curse of the default: someone decided that a rectangle with (again) radial corners was a good solution for something, and suddenly that detail spreads everywhere: around the button images, the microphone, the camera lens, the slide on-off switch, the elevation of the phone itself. Sometimes its elongated variant, an extended capsule-profile, shows up for slots and slits. Each time the detail recurs, one's suspicion of a progressively stylistic delamination between form and function is reinforced. Basically the iPhone is a 1996 Ford Taurus that car in which all design problems, from logo to windscreen, were solved with an Illustrator-stretched oval.
Secondly, and conversely, there is the problem of not applying a default obsessively enough: there is an all-too willing exceptionality at various design moments. There are lots of semi-circular and circular details on most iPods, and yet obsessive examination of these reveal that seemingly concentric curves, are in fact, oddly unaligned: somewhere in Cupertino someone still weeps at how the center of the "hold" button on generations of mini-iPods almost-but-didn't rest precisely at the center of other localized geometries on the case. As for the iPhone, forensic examination of its published images is not promising: one hopes very much that it is a mere trick of the light that gives the appearance that the exterior and interior radii of the chrome trim around the edge of the iPhone's casing appear to deviate at the corners and base: a jarring disruption to the strongest piece of visual rhetoric on the object. That one can even reasonably speculate on this likelihood is, of course, appalling. Similarly, the curved profile of the phone's front-to-back edge is asymmetrical: a missed opportunity to give the phone the tactile and visual crispness of a new bar of soap; a matte black casing component on the back almost-but-doesn't address a similar black strip on the front. Surely a few inspired alignments and resonant details in these objects would itself align with Apple's own rhetoric about sleek systemasticity, about fluid conversational exchanges between multiple operational components? Now, there must be reasonable reasons for these "exceptions," to do with manufacture or what have you, but the thought that the design team of this object decided to live with these grim little details is, for a company ostensibly distinguished by its devotion to design, deeply discouraging.
Since mid-century, the design of consumer electronics has a rich and noble tradition of deploying limitations of manufacture, or narratives about the consistent or impulsive character of a detail (is it trim or casing, a line that goes for a walk or a surface that goes for a dive?) to great effect. A meaningful choreography emerges in this tradition between the requirements of a particular geometrical or proportional system, the constraints of a particular industrial or technological system, and the story the object tells you about itself and its parts. Rather than merely solving problems, industrial designers like Achille Castiglioni, Richard Sapper, and Jacob Jensen problematized solutions into appealing visual essays on the nature of objects, of design itself. An array of textured holes in a casing on Sapper and Marco Zancuso's Brionvega TS-522 radio becomes not only a speaker, for example, but a little grammatical investigation into hexagonal stacking, and of course, the meaning of life.
Perhaps Apple's problem is to be found at the site of its greatest seeming success: that intersection between hardware and software. Often, elegant code or other software creations appropriate the name and language of architecture, and its attendant implications about the relationship between structure and content, intention and processing. But the problem with Apple may be that a software approach is being applied to the design of hardware: a seemingly economical application of default settings that progressively dissolves the integrity of each individual application of that setting or solution; and a paradoxical willingness to patch together case-by-case solutions that compromise the integrity of the overall composition in the interest of localized utility.
Or to put it another way, if you round too many corners, you lose your edge.
Thomas de Monchaux is a writer, designer and New Yorker. Recipient of the 2006 AIGA Winterhouse Award for Design Writing & Criticism, he has written for Architectural Record, ID Magazine and The New York Times, and journals like 32BNY and Log. He currently assists the design firm LOT-EK at Columbia University's Housing Architecture Studio.