Thomas de Monchaux | Essays

What If Apple Is Bad for Design?

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.

Posted in: Product Design, Technology

Comments [118]

Overuse of rounded corners aside, Apple's attention to detail, intentionality, and suppression of function have set great examples for designers in all fields. This is especially true considering the overwhelming tendency large corporations have to satisfy the variety of the consumer.

I can't tell if this is intended to be satirical or not.

I think he is saying that the hardware is not as well designed as the software and the software is following the hardware stylistic direction.
I agree but both could be improved considerably for user friendliness which is more important overall compared to rounded corners. So it is a bit like saying you love your 1955 Chevy for its simplicity then realizing the year is 2007 and you could be in a safer more ergonomic contemporary cleaner Honda hybrid (or Chevy, maybe).
Apple is not a done deal. They cannot rest on, or build on, their laurels. Like all software companies, I hope they continue to simplify and make processes easier and pull back feature bloating. The hardware does not need to match software or vise versa. I'd rather have a slightly ugly Mac with a great, reliable, simple, and human centered OS and software than a slick stylistically trendy object of desire.

Apple's design is a beacon for businesses who have a genuine sense of self. Apple products are identifiably Apple. They have set the pace for industrial design, interface design and communications since before the Macintosh was born.
I have to confess to being partisan about the brand. I have used them since 1984. With a single aberrant moment when I had a Dell laptop to check corporate email sitting next to my G4 powerbook (on which I performed every useful task) I have been unflinchingly loyal.

The price of fidelity has been to accept that even Apple is not perfect.

The introduction of the magnetic AC adaptor plug was genius. Possibly the best part of the new MacBook Pro design - I have broken two screens by catching a cable and pulling the computer to the floor. But I found that even this has a flaw. Placing the power in on the left has meant the cord must usually turn back on itself at a sharp angle. Over time this has caused the cable to heat and, finally melt through the plastic insulation - rendering the adaptor useless - a $179 (NZD) replacement cost. A genuine design detail that needs to be addressed - not only for quality but also safety.

But would I swap my Apple for an alternative? The alternative would have to be something special indeed. In fact I would like to see Apple either get into consumer electronics (Cameras, Video, TV ec...)

...How about an Apple car or motorcycle? I could live with that. Can you imagine what they would look like?
David MacGregor

It may just be me, but I found this article extremely difficult to comprehend. I'm not quite sure what the author is criticizing.

If JC is right that the author thinks Apple's hardware design isn't on par with their software design, I'll have to respectfully disagree. In my opinion, Apple's greatest strength has always been its unsurpassed attention to detail in both its hardware and software design. Of course it's not perfect, and of course it could be better, but that's true of everything, and goes without saying.

Anyway, I'm probably misunderstanding the argument being made here, and if so, I apologize.

"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."

That there exists a disconcerting disconnect between the engineering and industrial designers at Apple, may be Mr. Monchaux's most compelling point. His statement (above) captures the essence of thoughtfully empathic design by engineers, I suspect, and the failings of industrial designers, I suspect. The logic of one and the caprice of the other seems symptomatic of a greater disconnect that exists in all design endeavors. While we all relate to the quality of that "moment" with the click wheel, we equally fail to engage on any similarly visceral level, what I suggest is arbitrary and capricious form making. In applied arts, one ignores certain rules at their peril.

Recently I've been feeling that there's not enough criticism in design writing, but I'm not sure this article is doing the trick.

I'm should say that I'm not a foaming-at-the-mouth Apple fanboy. But I still question some of the statements above including: 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...

Aren't the deviations from perfectly systematic (or, sarcastically, systemic) execution what makes a device useful? Because the curve is different from front to back, one could blindly pull the device from a pocket and know which side is the front side. These other deviations help to reinforce the distinctions between the object's two different planes with two very different functions.

I think Apple has faltered on many occasions with its first at-bat (remember the first generation Titanium powerbooks whose painted exteriors bubbled and flecked from contact with human skin?) and I would expect that the iPhone will be no different.

But I'm not convinced that this is a case of "paradoxical willingness to patch together case-by-case solutions that compromise the integrity of the overall composition in the interest of localized utility." Apple was involved in a case of this in recent history and it was called the Motorola ROKR... and in that instance the "localized utility" suffered too.

As for the iPhone, forensic examination of its published images is not promising...
This entire critique seems quite definite for criticism based on product imagery instead of the actual product, and I find it strange that one would be so willing to make such a detailed criticism public without checking out the object in person first.

Maybe I'm missing something?
Andrew Twigg

It's very hard to judge the iPhone without having one in hand.

Looking at the MacBook Pro, I see more sharp rectangles than rounded ones. The keys are all sharp (though they include rounded lines). The holes for the speakers imply sharp rectangles. The bottom two corners of the displayed screen (not the LCD per se) are sharp, although the top corners are rounded. I could go on and on.

In every one of these cases, I can see a very good reason for using the type of corner that was used. The rectangle created by the camera would be awkward if it was sharp. The speakers have to be sharp, otherwise they would fit awkwardly against the keyboard. The shape of the track pad reflects the shape of the displayed screen.

These seem to be results of rules — from the Apple brand, from usability, from aesthetics — not the effect of design by default.
Daniel Parks

The popular perception of human factors design is often obfuscated by the very word "design".

All too often, people I encounter seem to imagine design to be limited to "making things pretty;" I can recall a friend once lamenting something to the effect of "Apple allowing design (of mice) to get in the way of usability." Feeling a moment of design testimony had presented itself, I admonished that design is by itself neutral and can enhance or degrade usability, and that style, on the other hand, is something Apple has likely allowed, on occasion, to get in the way of good design.

Zooming out, the problem with the industry is that industrial design draws popular attention away from interface design. You can see it best in contemporary cell phones: Everything in the physical realm is chiseled and lovely, while upon the LCD display, you have crude typography, clumsy metrics and alignment, and overzealous use of graphic embellishments.

Is it because industrial design has been around for over a century and interface design is less than a quarter of that age? Is that anywhere near a good excuse for displaying the time in a Commodore 64 font in black with stroke-width white outlines over a high-contrast photo of a forest?

Why make design criticism seemingly so esoteric and full of rhetorical bs? Are rounded corners and radii the only criteria for design criticism? Should it not be criticized on how it behaves as a product; and not just how it 'investigates into the meaning of life' merely through its form?.

I completely agree with Andrew.

I think I'm a bit lost here, too.

and irritatingly designed Apple hardware gets a pass.

Oh? Cracks in the Cube casings. The 3rd-gen iPod. The wind tunnel G4s. Cracking Nano screens. iBook palmrests that yellowed within weeks. I'm sure someone else can fill in a few more here.

becomes not only a speaker, but a little investigation into [...] the meaning of life.

Sorry, but: What?

Often, elegant code or other software creations
[...] the problem with Apple may be that a software approach is being applied to the design of hardware [...] a paradoxical willingness to patch together case-by-case solutions that compromise the integrity of the overall composition in the interest of localized utility.

Is there some implication here that Apple's (ostensibly) elegant code/software is leading to these design faults because of case-by-case solutions, etc? Because that is by some definitions not elegant code. Which would kind of cancel out this line of argument before it starts.
The exceptionality you reference further up has existed in OS X from day one, when Apple began blatantly ignoring their own stringent interface guidelines. People such as Johns Siracusa and Gruber spent years detailing the seemingly changes that were made to just the Finder, not to mention the overall interface and other specific applications.

[On a tangent, I have never(literally ever) seem MP3 written out as "MP-3." Is this localized somewhere? I'm genuinely curious.]

As a sidenote, I was primarily curious to see the follow-through on the implication at end of the first paragraph that use of a Mac influenced the work of those designers using them, but it seems to have been dropped, which was disappointing.

The iPod is - and I presume the iPhone will be - much easier to use than this article was to read, if that counts for anything.
Mr. One-Hundred

i came across a quote recently and am kicking myself for not saving it - but it basically says that Art (capital A) is essentially Design (capital D) but with only its own internal rules to adhere to. much can be said about the differences between A and D, but i think what is important to note here (with a nod to all idiosyncracies about Apple design mentioned in this essay) is that Apple design is more Art than most corporate product developments, if you take the above definition as meaningful. it is important to note b/c we live in a world where product design is so very hard and oppressive (the tyranny of real world constraints), that what Apple has done in this recent iPod era is to torque the crap out of that assumption (product design and the gravitas of reality) and make stuff that (i won't use the "T" word..%$#nscends) banal disposable products. they have done it consistently, and they will be sure to evolve, and that is just so f--king hard to do these days. "W.H. Auden once argued that the standard for recognizing a "major" poet should be established by the following points: "1. A large body of work; 2. A wide range of subject matter and treatment; 3. An unmistakable originality of vision and style; 4. A mastery of technique; 5. A constant, progressive process of maturation--so that should an author's individual works be placed side by side at any stage of his or her career" (some writer on neko case from billions.com)

can it be said that Apple as a company can be considered a bonafide "Poet"? (a corporation, a poet?) they surely do fulfill ALL 5 requirements. ALL FIVE. wow, i say.

Gong Szeto

This feels pretty incoherent and trying to grasp at straws at a case against Apple. If you're criticising Apple's use of "design" instead of "style" is a case of semantics and not an issue of their design ability. Rounded corners are a signature look of Apple and are also less likely to tear your pocket as you grasp your iWhatever out to quickly answer the phone or change your song or tear your MacBook from its sleeve.

The only issue that can be seen with Apple's hardware is the slew of product material issues (like the iPod Nano coating, the iBook yellowing) which comes from rapid prototyping and rushing to market. The problems are coming as the company is growing incredibly rapidly but not changing their QA process.

Thomas, I really enjoyed your piece.

But I'm a little confused at the title. The title implies that Apple is bad for Design, meaning that it does damage to either the field or the process.

The text which follows, however, seems to suggest that Apple's design is what is bad...which is a quite different thing.

Am I missing something?
Joshua Porter

So if I read this right:

- Designers use Apple laptops, but that does not matter because this article is actually about the design of the iPod and iPhone.
- Apple design is bad because it is consistent.
- Apple design is bad because the designers make tiny concessions for the sake of internal component layouts.
- Apple design is bad because Apple has applied its successes in one arena to another.

Was this whole article some sort of odd satire? Because it fails to make sense as is.
james puckett

Thanks, Thomas; lovely article. Design criticism needs more writing like this.

Well done.
matt kirkland

one thing that irks me about the latest gen of ipod is the LACK of rounded corners. my 30gb has a 'flat' front, then rounds to back. it's nice and slim, but less comfortable to hold in the hand as past generations. oh well.

I'm a little "problematized" by this article. Silly made up words aside, I just cannot quite figure out what he is saying. I'm more than a little distressed by the notion that he is apparently critiquing the iPhone design based only on pictures of it (that is, "forensic examination of its published images"). Maybe I've misunderstood--maybe he has an iPhone prototype--but one cannot legitimately critique the design of something like the iPhone without seeing and using the real thing. Well, I was pretty sure it was satire when I read the line about the design of a speaker having something to do with the meaning of life, but now I am not so sure.
Rob Henning

Dr. Few Manchaux,

Good stuff. In five years, people will understand.

Kind of like David Bowie songs or SNL skits.

Keep up the good work, sir.


Joe Moran

"Why make design criticism seemingly so esoteric and full of rhetorical bs?"

Because there's not enough of it. I don't want to read design criticism which is like a Hollywood movie (where conflict must be crystal-clear after first 10 min. or else the director fears that confused ones will start walking out of the theatre). There's too much of that stuff in popular design magazines already...

Now, on a more practical level, my biggest criticism of iPod's design specifically is lack of replaceable battery. Once it's depleted, throw the iPod away and get a new one? Profits vs. sustainability? Design for obsolescence?

The fact that Apple's plastic cases use more flame retardants than any other popular computer manufacturer also didn't make me feel good about owning a Mac (until they announced the free recycling program that is).

i think what bothers me most here is a preliminary assumption that rounded rectangles just sort of came from somewhere out there in the zeitgeist.

they didn't. they were a conscious decision made because jobs thinks they're a necessary part of our everyday environment.

firsthand documentation here.

the point of this article? Like a few others, I'm wondering if I missed it or the author got to it. Just for the record though, I'm probably not reading this article on a rounded screen and neither are my colleagues. Or they might be... Either way, so what? Sure lots of designers use Apple product. That's hardly a validation! I'm generally more interested how the software in our various development pipelines works together and enables people than what its running on (PC, SGI, *nix, Apple, PS3, Xbox 360)

With regard to the rounded corner issue (which I'm using to summarize the "design critique") In a word... yes? I'm not even sure where to begin, simply because I don't understand the point (if there is one?) being made here.

Is the subtext of the article simply that Apple has become synonymous in the public/corporate mind with Design, and therefore the design decisions made there also affect that public by usage of consistent elements which are mimicked, aped, improved upon, etc? OK...
Gary R Boodhoo

Wow, you have a lot of time on your hands to create this polemic. Is this a Marxist critique of Apple with irony included?
Andrew P

Great thoughts (albeit a bit long *wink*), although I've never equated the use of or desire for a Mac to be associated with anything to do with the future.
The Aesthetic Elevator

What a lame write up... I read through the whole article thinking that there would be a clever pay-off to the headline but it's just another high-brow critique.


- Been there and done that!
- So what?
- Heard it!
- Who let out the hot air?

What a let down.


You raise some good points, but I'm not sure I agree with them!

For me, the deviations from the current style are more abhorrent than following the curved shiny plastic aesthetic - any one else hate the new nano (former iPod mini)?

The premise of this article, if I even understand the author correctly, strikes me as extremely academic. Just because you can find things about a products design that you don't agree with, doesn't mean you've identified its fatal flaw.

Design is about solving a problem. I think Apple is a good example of a company that has figured out a good solution of the problem to mass-market personal technology.
j doo-dah

A company whose approach to design results in other companies hiring more designers is good for design. Most of us are trying to make a living doing this stuff.

Sorry but I highly disagree with this entire article. Apple pushes new designs. They are at the forefront. No other major brand is so innovative when it comes to the designs of it's products. Their designs inspire. I don't see how that can be a bad thing.

Many other have covered other points, so I'll reduce mine to cover this bit from the article:

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.

I find that obsessive application of things like this often leads to visually rigorous but functionally flawed end products, be it in industrial design or graphic design. After learning all the rules, isn't the first lesson when to break them? What I find befuddling is the total contradiction of this statement at other points in the essay. The instances of displeasure seem to arise from very specific elements that displease de Monchaux, rather than broader issue of greater depth. It broke the well-delivered opening punch of the article into a series of tiny nitpicks.

I think there's a lot to chew over here, particularly concerning design-as-a-feature. But ultimately the thesis here turns into a somewhat myopic critique of fairly unimportant details. Why argue beveled edges when issues of poor production are far more impactful and relevant to the users?
Chris Rugen

fantastic post!
Hitesh Mehta

Sorry, I do not use macs. God only knows how I got into the SVP Art Director position I'm in now since I don't steal design cue's from Apple like all other Mac-based designers.

In five years, people will understand.

Kind of like David Bowie songs or SNL skits.

I never thought a pat on the back could ever be too friendly. I stand corrected by the above comparison.

Like most other readers I'm not sure about the intentions of this article. So I'll assume it was written with a certain amount of devil's advocacy.

There are several points which I feel were simply incorrect.

Early on you seem to confuse design with style. Sure, Apple products are stylish but they are also well designed. Unlike their unstylish and badly designed competitors.

I think it's important to highlight that Apple's recent success has been down to the holistic design of the whole experience from ads through stores, packaging, product and ultimately interface.

Whilst Apple's usability is not perfect it is easily class leading. A good friend of mine recently switched from PC to Mac. What surprised him the most was that as a non technical person he had managed to set the whole thing up without having to use the 'Help' once. I know, he rang me all weekend to tell me.

The iPhone isn't real yet and I, like many others, find it hard to say anything good or bad about it until it's real.

As for manufacturing, I thought Jonathan Ive was famous for visiting manufacturers and pushing their processes to get the exact finish he wanted.

Lastly, possibly the most important thing Apple has done for design is to increase it's profile and it's currency significantly in the boardroom. What do you think would happen to GM's share price if they announced that Jonathan Ive had joined their board as Head of Design - it would go through the roof.

I didn't know Apple had a "problem" with its hardware in the first place. Design is subjective, and the only problem here is personal preference.

That's what I got from this, after I fought my way through the jungle of unnecessary adjectives.

If Apple were truly invested in good design, there wouldn't be the planned obsolescence that seems inherent in each product.
Jing Jing Tsong

"What's wrong with Apple hardware", you say? Hint: it's not the rounded corners. Sorry, but Apple's shitty environmental record is far worse than a few slips in their styling.
Michelangelo Iaffaldano

"I didn't know Apple had a "problem" with its hardware in the first place. Design is subjective, and the only problem here is personal preference."

Design isn't subjective. Style is subjective. There are things that make a design either good, bad or in between. For instance, there are remotes that are well designed, fit in your hand well and are easy to use, and ones that don't fit in anyone's hand, and aren't easy to use. Even in layout, there are designs that work and other ones that some bad designers think work but really they're crap and any educated designer knows it and can explain to you why it doesn't work. That's the key to design for me. Can you explain why it works in objective terms.
Margo Pearson

You're absolutely right!

The world was a much better place when the world was ruled by bland plastic beige boxes that came from the drafting tables of engineers -- not those frou frou designer types.

This commentary is so reminiscent of the self loathing navel gazing comments that many of us put behind from architectural school or design programs as we sat through endless critiques on the so-called "nature of design".

Apple is a rare company that still attempts to add a sense of style to their products which is an element sorely lacking in most consumer electronics.

You have to be joking.

(Good one.)

amazing perspective.

In response to Jing Jing Tsong:

Just about EVERY PRODUCT MADE has "planned obsolesence" - haven't you noticed?

Shoes, cars, computers, toasters, etc.
Companies have to meet crazy profit expectations, so every company figures a way to keep people buying their stuff.
This in no way makes Apple different from anyone else.

I would also like to say that I agree with many others on this comment board - I don't really get the point of this commentary.
I know that Apple isn't perfect and shouldn't be above being criticized (their environmental record is a real issue), but on their design? Seems like nit-picking.

This, coupled with the obviously sensational headline makes me think that this article was written just to stir things up.

Importantly I think it is important to recognise they strive to maintain a design bar that is higher than that of any other electronics company - only Sony come anywhere near close. The issue is possibly more to do with their success - with the there has to come greater demands on mass production and as with any mass produced product there is a degree of compromise between ideals on the drawing board and how to get product built on mass in the real world.

I believe Apple surf this line of compromise better than anyone in there market place by a huge margin.

The shame is that others are unable to take up the challenge - the competition just don't seem to get it, they prove with their poor imitations that it is a lot more than just a few well placed rounded corners as the article suggests.

"...How about an Apple car or motorcycle?"

Good for rounding corners...

Seriously: is this a hyper-compressed reworking of a 70,000 word thesis or a hasty, hyperbolic extrapolation of a few (not altogether related) notes in the back of a sketchbook? Either way it doesn't communicate very much more than misplaced pedantry.

The distinction between "design" and "style" is poorly made. Just because all products are designed does not mean that they are all "distinguished by design." The underlying agenda of this curious schism may have been clarified by Margo Pearson's comment:

"Design isn't subjective. Style is subjective. There are things that make a design either good, bad or in between."

In between? You mean neutral? Positively neutral or detrimentally so? Having no value for me? Good for someone else?

Design certainly is subjective, and no amount of semantic tinkering will make it otherwise. Design is articulated as a series of yes/no choices, often in pursuit of innovation and often made at speed. It can be rationalised and judged against various criteria but it can't be built to "universal" standards.

Someone has already pointed out a rationale for rounding the corners of the iPod, surely we can accept screen design that internalises these practical cues. Then again, the rounded corners of OSX.x may simply be there to demonstrate the anti-alised properties of the Aqua interface. Even in this case the rounded corners still have a function. However, whether anti-aliased brush-metal effect boxes with drop-shadows is good for design is another, potentially more interesting, question.
Simon Palmer

laugh or cry?
This article is perfectly mimicking what 'bad design' does/is. I hope it is intentional: very exciting and promising headline (packaging/sales pitch), and muddled content, that goes nowhere near what the headline promised, with piles of words that serves only to camouflage substance. If there is any.

There might be a shining, wonderful, crisp and original thought somewhere- I am just not able to see it. So I must assume there is a humour/irony here that are not european friendly.

"- with the there has to come greater demands on mass production and as with any mass produced product there is a degree of compromise between ideals on the drawing board and how to get product built on mass in the real world.
I believe Apple surf this line of compromise better than anyone in there market place by a huge margin."

-agree with arcd wholeheartedly.
ms. norway

One man's "style" is another man's "interface design".

Successful interface design frees users from unnecessary distractions of underlying function.

"Form follows function" is sometimes used as a self-justifying excuse for one's inability in interface design.

There is a lot of pseudo-jargon in this article. I take issue with its user interface.

Design Observer encourages comments to be short and to the point; as a general rule, they should not run longer than the original post.

Double standard.


Apple's problem? Wow.
Jose A. Contreras

Looking at the title, I was hoping for an interesting and cogent critique. There are many things one could say about how Apple is bad for design.

Reading the article, though, the author's point is utterly lost. His perspective gone missing. Just what is he railing against, anyway?

I expect better from Design Observer!

Dear acquainting Thomas of the auxillary band of Monks

Are you getting a chuckle from this little scholastic test of your "huh, I dont" followship?
no official comment

its complicated. I think that though that everyone gets too caught up in the 'gadgetyness' or it all and stops thinking about the user. The Ipod was an initial step to focus on (non tech / Stupid Ipod Users ) consumers. Would I be critercised for saying most Ipod users are Idiots, at least when its comes to any sort of Tech Literacy. I would say this only apply to 25+. The current generation is fully literate, and don't need to understand a Ipod as an extension of a Walkman, or Vinyl.

All the current generation care about is listening to there music, its not the hardware, the software or the interaction design. The end of the day people love it because its there music. The Like Listening to Music.

This brings me along to the IPhone, It is meant to revolutionize the telephone. Yet this product is based on an extension of the Ipod (listening to music). I don't believe the IPhone will succeed as like a Ipod is about "the music" the Iphone should be about "connecting people". Taking an existing product, and trying to integrate it to a limited metaphor of connect addresses doesn't address the full scale of the problem. If someone was to make a MySpace, or Facebook Phone.. the way we would communicate would change dramatically.
Ben Arent

If design can be described as "evidence of human intent" than any type of writing can be considered design (save poetry or fiction, which are art).

Your writing makes me feel stupid.

In much the same way that PC's make me feel stupid.

You've sacrificed comprehension in favor of the aesthetic brilliance of wordy sentences.
Harper Lieblich

Yeah...hmm....I don't think so.

Good Title, Terrible post.

Apple has a huge impact on the way people percieve and understand the value that design can bring when applied religiously.

And who in the world would want to put a device in his/her pocket that doesn't have rounded corners?
Michael Melnick

I feel like this is written from a frustration of how good Apple has been for so long. Designers are getting fatigued at always having the iPod thrust in our face and saying, "Just do that!" but then having clients who do not have the discipline to allow us to do "that".

That being said this article was poorly written and not up to the standards of Design Observer.
Don Lehman

I get the feeling that if Apple products had sharp corners that the author would be criticizing them. Seriously, comparing an iPod to a 1996 Ford Taurus because both have rounded edges? Are Brancusi's sculptures also like 1996 Ford Tauri? It's a superficial comparison that only serves to demean the iPod. That was the paragraph where I stopped taking this article seriously.

re: #2 David McGregor

An Apple car? I thought that was the VW... Recalls aside, I love it as much as my G4.

"The price of fidelity has been to accept that even [EVERYTHING] is not perfect."

Your spouse, pet, food, domicile, car, mp3 player, cell phone, etc.

I'll argue that there is a perfect design for a specific time and place in history. The best designs have been the ones that draw a line and make a commitment to a current set of guidelines. Now, the guidelines maybe forward-thinking and accomodating to new technologies, but the design occurs in a set timeframe. Look at televisions: at first made like cabinets & furniture. Now, they're like computer monitors. (I personally don't think that will be enough to save Television. You can only consume one channel at a time, why pay for more than one??)
The iPhone is made with an improved Apple-style of the recent decade. If people confuse rounded corners and high-gloss finishes with Design (as is apparent with Web 2.alsO-rans), then we have a problem.

Frankly, I bemoan the loss of each hard-switch. A switch you can fix, a touch-pad? Good luck. And can you operate it with gloves on (I live at 55 degrees)? No. Would I LOVE to have a simple on/off switch; a real SWITCH? OMG YES.

i don't see how reviewing a marketing shot of an unreleased device gives you any authority when discussing the iphone design.
jason a

This article is intentionally obscure and is one of the many things wrong with the design community. The reality is, apple invests money and resources into the design of their manufactured goods that other mfg' don't. This is completely over-critical and difficult.

Philosophically, I understand what you're saying but you also keep in mind there are words used in the design industry that carry different meanings for the general public - just like font does not equal typeface but when you have 800 million menus that say FONT at the top, you can understand why for 97% of people font = typeface.

What you really should be focused are how many people perceived the ipod success just to be "fashion" and ultimately ephermeral but now 100 million later, they have to rethink that- the ipod is one of the few products that hits on all cylinders of style AND design. It is an excellent if not perfect marriage of software, hardware and design ... pretty rare - something along the lines of the zippo lighter but even more complicated.

What should also be noted is that the ipod may be the world's first portable and relatively easily affordable mass market customization product. The car is really the better example but at $14,000 plus (the minimum for a cachet car) and hard to take everywhere with you ... the ipod has essentially shrunk down that cachet into a handheld device. It manages to convey cutting edge, style, fashion AND your socio-economic status ... plus there no two exactly alike - two people with orange ipods never have the same playlists or the same accessories ... Apple certainly partially stumbled upon this but they've done a great job of keeping it intact.

All pretentious posturing aside, I like the rounded corners of my iPod.


My iPod spends a good deal of time in my hip pocket. Round corners are more comfortable.
Stephen Macklin

I agree that the mix between hardware and software design on Apple's products is going a bit too far, but I guess that is what makes it such an incredible and powerful brand. And, as an interface designer, I tell you, people like seing the same metaphors over and over on a products line, cause they don't need to learn new stuff when using the different products from the same company, may they be hardware or software.
Fernando Lins

Don't Look Now,

David Bowie's guitars have (bippity-boppity) rounded corners.

So do cowbells. ;-)


Joe Moran

In between? You mean neutral? Positively neutral or detrimentally so? Having no value for me? Good for someone else?>>

No I mean mediocre design. It might work but it's not optimal, pleasant, and it's not 'finished'.
Margo Pearson

David Bowie's guitars have (bippity-boppity) rounded corners.

Like most acoustic guitars ever made. Ever.

What is the point of designing an object if not to improve the task's that a person perform's. Sadly your essay overlooks one of the most important aspects of design, usability!
If a product looks good but doesn't perform the fundamental need or function it was created for then it is a failure pure and simple.
Your essay is a contradiction unto itself, this webpage looks like any other web page, and does a worse job then most, it's very apple like with it's white background and it's very minimalist look and feel, the manner in which you've written your idea's highlight's the pompous attitude that most designers have, why right an essay which most human being's will struggle to understand the context?
Your whole notion of aesthetics is in essence nonsense, we are talking about a mass produced product which needs to be understood by people who aren't designers, it is designed with a language that everyone can understand, not just designers who seem to have a superiority complex, i had a few lecturers like you, and simply that's all they will ever be lecturers or small scale niche market designers, because they do not understand that when you design for consumers at such a large scale, you need to change the design language you use.
In the world of product design, many people will argue whether form follows function or vice versa, the truth is, that this argument is absolute nonsense, everything in our physical world performs a specific function, whether you want to acknowledge that or not isn't my problem, but if you are going to create an object it needs a purpose, even art has it's purposes, either to trigger an emotional reaction or create a new idea, they still perform functions with respect to the viewer or user that is engaging the object or space, the form of an object ultimately assist's the user to understand what an objects function is, in electronic goods, form is used to create a richer emotional connection between the user and the object.
As an interaction designer will tell you it is fundamental to have a very fluid interaction between hardware and software, most MP3 players perform a disgraceful interactive experience, the iPod changed dramatically this paradigm.
I'm not really sure if your issue is in fact with apple or it is with mass consumption goods, I get the feeling that it may be later even if you still are struggling or don't want to acknowledge this, mass produced goods are exactly that, a well designed product in a mass consumption world is a much harder thing to achieve then most people think. It requires a lot of communication between designers, engineers, marketing teams, ergonomics teams, researchers, and the users them selves, it is a very narrow tight rope walking act, and at any stage of the design process you can fall and leave a real mess, so for a company to perform this balancing act and come up with such a well designed product and further more a product which is easily understood by your ever day Joe, congratulations to them, if every company could do design at this level, what an amazing world we would live in, you should be attacking all those other company's out there, who do not innovate and design as well as apple for not being up to scratch. Why aren't you bagging this website for having such a boring and uninspired website?
The innovation which is the iPod which you focus this clap trap of an article on, is not only found in the interface as you choose to focus on, but you seem to have overlooked, the simple fact that the hardware of this iPod is stunning, let me ask you this, how many screws can you see on your iPod? I'll answer that one for you 0! Why? Because Apple engineer's where able to package this device using manufacturing techniques which no one else wanted to even consider, design is not purely performed by Product designers, it is a synergising of individuals from different backgrounds, to achieve a common goal for the benefit of the user! Design is not a competition, it should not be used as a forum to argue between designers about how brilliant they are, because ultimatly designers have never had the final say in anything they do, consumers and users are the ultimate judge, if you like it or notit's to bad! That's the reality of the world we live in.

I have no idea what I just read. He never makes his point, he just rambles. Come on frenchie! Tell me HOW Apple is bad for design, not why *you* don't like the design of the iPhone.

Come on, we've all been there before... you have a 15 page paper due in 13 hours that you haven't even started yet, so you sit down, open Word, and just start typing away, letting your brain excrete page after page of rambled bullcrap. When you're done you skim over it and think to yourself "this is great!" And then, a few weeks later you get a chance to read over it again and you think to yourself "Oh, I'm a douchebag..."

"Why make design criticism seemingly so esoteric and full of rhetorical bs?"

Because there's not enough of it.

Thomas de Monchaux ... currently assists the design firm LOT-EK at Columbia University's Housing Architecture Studio.

Columbia is an art and (French Marxist) literary theory school masquerading as an architecture school. This self-indulgent, little-critical-judgment essay is a good example of the work they do there.

Look at this post at Curbed to see one of the worst New York buildings proposed in the last 50 years, designed by Lot EK. It shows no understanding of what we like about cities. The primary statement of the building is, "What a cool architect must have designed this!"

Winterhouse: You gave your annual award to writing like this? Shame on you.



The original click wheel!

B&O launched this phone in 1998.
Chris F

Monchaux was the editor of the Brown Daily Herald, so obviously he knows how to write clearly -- which makes this even worse.

I think people write articles like this because they enjoy drawing the fan boys out.

The fan boys tend to be web-centric and unix-friendly. The graphic designers are less inclined to defend Apple, having waited six years to untangle their Quark installation, and giving up, wondering why the two tools that sustained the Apple myth for a decade ground to a stand still.

Mac designs and concepts fail and succeed at a rate about the same as Sony during its best years (80's/90's - who remembers the original Walkman? That was as visually arresting as the iPod). They are more consistent visually than Sony, but not much. Neither are exceptionally groundbreaking, from a design or technology standpoint (that is, you can find most of their 'innovations' in less available, but typically more expensive products). They both share the skill of making a tepid version of modernism palatable for the distracted masses.

To make it simpler: Sony/Apple is to Bang & Olufsen/Alessi as Coldplay is to Radiohead.

Case in point: the MacMini. What started as potentially a groundbreaking idea did not deliver technically (or in software form either), and from a business standpoint, is an absolute failure. Yes?

miss representation

I'm glad to read that not everyone commenting here is an Apple trance.

Well, I am certainly fine with this post. I think the observations themselves can be as critiqueable as the brand they suppose, but they are well thoughtout, none the less.

I am probably going to state some things already stated, but this post did seem to miss the big idea - Apple products are simple to use, so their designs are streamlined to match this visual language. Of course, simple to use does not mean easy, whereas that is where the criticism lies. I also don't contest the interface issues many can and do face. I would point that they are, once again, simpler to solve on a Mac.

At the beginning of this post, I almost immediately took that this would be about the inappropriate aesthetic duplication that we see in design work that is easily traced to the Mac rhetoric. Rounded corners, etc. work on Mac because it has created a recognizable family of products and expected interfaces, much of which is not as well kept in the PC world.

Mac is edgy because it does have a very understated nature in its aesthetics. Are all of their products successful? No. But they are not as widely used as their competition, which is alright. They're not vying to be like a PC workhorse. They are vying for those who find the digital lifestyle which is where this post fell apart for me. It didn't seem to take in that point.

Also, on the note of the MacMini, negative numbers would make it a business failure. Whether it was or not I certainly cannot say. It was well received, but Apple did seem to compete with itself. MacMini with extra purchase of keyboard, mouse and decent monitor or just purchase an all in one iMac? That's a no brainer.
Daniel Bertalotto

I realize that long (and usually witty) rhetorical discourse is a time-honored literary tradition in certain cultures. But I must say, so many words and so little content! I don't have time for such belabored, mannered, and moribund rhetoric. (But it is nice to read some design criticism!)

In essence the nub of the article is:
Apple is bad for design because:
1.) they tend to fall back on previously established design forms (rounded rectangles etc.) by default rather than by consideration.
2.) the design forms they have defaulted to are not used in a consistent way,

I don't think either assertion is presented in a way that can be easily evaluated. But since the author did take so much of my time without supporting his premises, I feel inclined to disagree on principle!

In response to the author's first assertion, I would consider that perhaps rounded rectangular forms are appropriate for the product in question. And perhaps it is the result of consideration, strategy, and intent rather than a symptom of lazy stagnation. After all, Apple products look clean and inviting. They work well and feel good. I am not frustrated by them. They seem far more innovative than their competitors and they have certainly proved themselves in the marketplace (Since he has chosen to treat product design as "Art", he should at least be honest enough to treat it as "Commercial Art"!)
And in response to the second assertion, I would ask the author to go back and read again my response to his first assertion and also consider the wise words of Oscar Wilde, "Consistency is the quality of a stagnant mind."
JP Watkins

Finally a designer critical of a company that almost always received unanimous acclaim from all other designers. Thank God there are people who, albeit a bit hard to follow, don't cheer to any, the latest Apple product.

Personally, I hate Apple's aesthetic. Everything is so horribly fluid and smooth and grey and white. yuk. So, of course I am happy that someone else dislikes the rounded corners too. Sometimes I feel a bit alone in designworld.

Apple has done great things, but it is time their overloyal group of followers (designers) move on.

There must be daring designers out there who want to do computers, and who come up with wonderfully new and original laptop designs.

I hope so anyway.

Before the 1996 Ford Taurus there was the 1993 Infiniti J30.

That's all I have to say about this unreadble article.

On "Apple's shitty environmental record"
Greenpeace rates Apple lowest. But The Green Electronics Council, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, rates Apple above Greenpeace's highest rated companies using categories established by the IEE. Apple is a high profile brand, ripe for parody. Greenpeace needs a design hook to campaign on. It's Brent Spar all over again. Check out, Greenpeace Report Misleading and Incompetent:
(Greenpeace's ratings are based on promises. Apple doesn't make promises, no matter how empty. Shame on them.)

On rounded corners:
I work in an office where the only objects with rounded corners are Macs. Is it dangerous? A little. Mostly upper thigh injuries. Does it *feel* dangerous? Very.

I once fell off my chair in an edit suite and punctured my cheek on the corner of a Sony VTR deck. The first rule of design: do no harm.

Coming to you from left field:
have a few Heinekens
then, read this article again
it will make perfect sense!

Actually, a superbly written article with elegance and prose. It reminds me of the initial approach by the advertising company that had the Honda car advertising campaign before anyone ever had heard of the Honda "car" brand.

According to the book on that topic, it was raining that day, so they filmed the Honda driving around and around in the rain.


How they made 1984 big for Apple too. (link above).


Buttons that look good and don't work right, stubbornness to preserve archaic and terrible design decisions and call them features.

The perfect pinnacle of a modern cult that has legitimized form over function, Apple has leagues of defenders and is essentially the perfect example of design gone wrong.

There's a UI that creates more clutter than order and interferes in the creative process with its over-stressed aesthetic. Your intial assumption that the only person using a PC would be an architect was enough for me to assume this article is a joke. Especially since anyone with a need for productivity hasn't relied on a Intel Mac for creative work until CS3 was released.

Much like the myth of its usability in terms of design, the perpetuated myth of its "stability" is equally maddening. It's never been true, the Apple OS has always been the more high-maintenance OS since the advent of Windows XP. It's always been defended by those who simply "feel" more for the OS and the hardware. It's undeniable, they've always gotten by on their looks and supposed feel.

The perfect example is the iPhone. A device with a flat smooth surface and no tactile feedback is a waste of R&D and consumer dollars. Read: You must be staring at it continuously to use it. I would pose that the beauty of Apple is they probably realized early on in the process that this was a serious flaw and went ahead with it, choosing to place the burden on the user to "adapt."

No one can deny that people love Apple products. People also loved British cars like Triumph and MG. These cars were the gold standard for terrible engineering mistakes, and similarly defended them as a company and as a culture that "just plain enjoys" owning a car that has no recognizable function to its electrical system. In other words let's not confuse design with the science of creating fetish objects and a rabidly loyal cult following.

You can say a lot of bad things about the company, but you can certainly never say they've been afraid to use design for evil.

Vincent Rice

GUys, Guys,

I heard that Apple (JI) ripped off the Ipod shape and form from the head designer of Muji after he visited and showed them his work!!!
De Man

Agree or disagree with the author's opinion of apple/design and/or his writing style, as you choose. I applaud that he has the wit to offer a controversial topic, and an opinion - and a forum for your (our) responses. Are all of you similarly vulnerable / courageous?

Further, I personally find his writing style elegant and delightful ... and much prefer it to the current (25- ?) text-message / email shorthand, can't-be-bothered-with-punctuation-or-proper-spelling style. Though Ben (for example) makes some good points, HIS post is far more difficult and unpleasant for me to read.

Finally, my opinion on the topic at hand: I too almost daily have discussions with clients referencing the success of the Ipod - allowing me to explain my opinion in a context with which they are familiar. And for that, apple has done design a great service ... i.e., apple is good for design.

I may have misunderstood Thomas' thesis, but it seems his first and second criticism are at odds. The first berates Apple for prescribing to a "default" design vocabulary (radius corners, etc.), whereas the second point charges Apple's failure to "obsessively apply that default". Unless the argument is desultory to begin with, I think you can't have both notions on the table. Personally, I feel it may only be academic. The technical aspects of producing an iPhone or iMac are many and I think that if a decision about a shape relationship, or feature, would have to be made to address a technical consideration, a production limitation, or a financial consideration. I'm not qualified to make a judgement on any specific implimentation of the iPhone, but no one is, as we have not held one in our hands yet. Personally, I think rounded corners better address the intention that Apple's products be handled. Properly curved forms better fit the human hand. For full disclosure, I use several Apple products throughout the course of my day, and I feel I mostly have benefitted by the presence of Apple's products in my life. But by no measure am I a Mac evangalist. Apple has made some poor design decisions along the way. Remember the round mouse that came with some of the earlier iMacs? But I would posit that Apple is good for design. Apple has crafted (through in-house innovation or through acquisition), products that inspire and excite not only design professionals, but also many people of all backgrounds and professions. Despite design and technology mis-steps, Apple Inc. has brought its product design out from from the backroom, as an afterthought, and onto the center stage, with the spotlight full on, because Apple knows that not only is well considered design important, it is necessary.

Steven Lee
Steven Lee

This is a confused and poorly argued post, definitley not up to the standards of Design Observer.

As a product designer I know how difficult it is to get 'Apple quality' products to market. The real issue here is not that Apple are so great, its just that the rest of the consumer electronics industry is so poor. Apple products may not be perfect but they make make 95% of the other products out there just look incompetent.
mark Delaney

Some fine comments, Thomas. I especially love how you walk the fine line between criticism and satire - despite the confusion and dismay in some of the comments (which were quiet enjoyable to read),one cannot doubt your complete and total sincerity as a critic. Look forward to further writings...
progressive reactionary

Much like the myth of its usability in terms of design, the perpetuated myth of its "stability" is equally maddening. It's never been true, the Apple OS has always been the more high-maintenance OS since the advent of Windows XP. It's always been defended by those who simply "feel" more for the OS and the hardware. It's undeniable, they've always gotten by on their looks and supposed feel.

What exactly makes it such a perfect truth as to call it "undeniable"? Your saying it, perhaps?

By the way, I have never enjoyed reading the word "advent" as much as I've enjoyed it in the above quoted text. I think we all owe you a great, heaping, smelly bowl of thanks.

Satire? Wit? Playing at "Devils Advocate". Huh. I found the post silly, if not absurd. The nudge and wink has to be applied at the correct moment, otherwise I would think excuses were being made.

Yes there are people that are enthusiastic about Apple's products, perhaps to a fault. But that enthusiasm is generated out of a unique circumstance, the company understands the importance of well considered and well executed design. It's not an afterthought or a peripheral consideration as it seems to be to many other companies. In short, the enthusiasm is not baseless and should be regarded with due consideration. Apple has produced or aquired innovative technology and consistently intergrated its products with a distinctive design philosophy. Evoking a sense of corporate DNA that no other company has ever done. Well, maybe Coca-Cola, but they've really only make one thing ever. Perhaps the criticism that some people are slavish in casting their praises upon Apple can be turned around and we can also say that there's a also a reactionary component to the consistent critics of Apple. Perhaps it would pay to not be so dismissive of others enthusiasms.
Sure, it's not a 100 percent perfect, product nirvana or anything of a sort, but I would be hard pressed to submit the name of another company in the same industry that comes as close. Also, it seems that the charges of environmental irresponisibility on Apple's part may be more spin than substance. Even the shrillness of the most ardent critic is dulled by the most modest exploration of the facts. Apple isn't the greenest, but they certainly aren't the worse offenders.
Steven Lee

I am far less concerned about how Apple has affected design principles and aesthetics than I am about how Microsoft has affected reality. Talk about asking the user to adapt! How about making an entire civilization do so?

Two words: "problematized solutions" ... Indeed!

Just as quick aside for the "lack" of a replaceable battery on the iPod. You're wrong the battery is replaceable, just not by you. Mine came with a lengthy discussion on battery life and how to get it replaced once it dies. It costs something like $40 to have done, but far cheaper than purchasing a brand new iPod.

It would be nice to be able to replace yourself, but it's false to say it can't be replaced at all.

Round corners? Its simple.. in the real world sharp corners scratch and tear. Quite important for an object which may be carried in a cloth pocket.

What an incredibly self-important diatribe... Thomas needs to reset his default settings.

Great article however I think you are aiming criticism at Apple because so many other companies hurt "design" but simply ignoring it.
George Morris

This has got to be the biggest waste of an article. Are you for real? I hope you're not getting paid for this lame sh*t.

100 Million sold. Critique that. People don't buy Apple for the hardware or for the software - they buy for the experience.

"This has got to be the biggest waste of an article. Are you for real? I hope you're not getting paid for this lame sh*t."

For Shame! This man wrote critique, for better or worse, shot with a heavy dose of ironic temper. He put his name to it and outlined his professional background.

Your response is churlish, unworthy, insulting and beyond all pathetic. If you have to say such things have the decency to step out from the anonymity the medium of the web affords you and say it your self.

Thomas: Thank you for a meandering but at times insightful article, I'm no fan of Apple but in turn no fan of Microsoft or the thousands of *nix flavours out there either. I guess whether you take anything away from this article depends on your loyalty and devotion to (just) a brand, and in some cases reading level. Again thank you for the article and the debate (when it rose above the playground mud slinging) it inspired.

It would be nice if just for once the design community met Apples latest offerings with as much scepticism as it meets Microsoft's, which is not to say don't like enjoy and even promote them but the obsessive 'Apple can do no wrong I must have their new *' is after 20+ years getting very very old. The Cult has to stop, please.
Adrian Johnson

Adrian's comment above is spot on.

I just have to add... Articles that give us a different 'take' or perception on accepted truths are very easy to kill off. Do you expect every writer who dares to say something less "digestible" to be Don DeLillo? Design Observer have nothing to be ashamed of in publishing this piece - on the contrary.

Let's not think about design for a moment - or convenience - and take up this theme of "harm", the harm you get from square edges. Fair point. But let's also talk about the mental health implications of the i-Pod i-Life, which this post has tried to put on shuffle.

Not all technological forms are aesthetically symmetrical. Get over it.

I'm sorry, but I have to say that the author's constant references to radiuses, radii and rounded corners annoy me to no end. It's not commonly known to most designers, even Industrial Designers, Apple products don't use radiuses at corners, they use curvature matched splines. Therefore I'm not surprised that the author did not get it, but I would have expected that for someone attempting to write a critical essay on Apple's physical design to at least know a little more about the subject matter. Sadly this point is a reflection of the entire article, argumentative but contains very little substance.

I've written a point by point breakdown of why I think so at my website, please stop by and visit if you can.

To DT in his comment above,

As an FYI, the author is correct in referrring to radius, and radii in reference to industrial design, and it is standard terminology. A positive 'rounding' at the intersection of two surfaces is called a round, and it's inverse, a fillet. The rounds on apple products are circular. A 'spline' is a mathematical expression of a curve, and it needn't be circular.


Thanks for your feedback. Yes I agree, adding a "fillet" is basically "rounding a corner" in very general industrial design speak.

However again these "rounds" on Apple products are NOT circular profiles as you have discribed.

If we reduce this to layman speak, the correct description should be elliptical fillet or elliptical radius. Think of a corner profile or section that is a quadrant or a oval or half parabolic.

Well, I can't agree. Look at the profile of any current apple product, and you'll see a rectangle with rounded corners, with an exact, circular radius. Not an ellipse, and not a curve of any other kind. You will find examples of where this is not true, but these are the exceptions not the rule. Generally caused by, as you observe in your response, a concession to the practical limitations of technology & manufacture. Fillets, rounds & radii are not layspeak - neither is elliptical fillet, btw! When's the last time you worked that into a casual conversation with your mom? ;)

What I like about my Mac hardware and software is the same thing I like about good design: I barely notice that I'm using it at all until I (occasionally) realize how well it works.

As I see it, Thomas points out some very real problems with the practice of industrial design, and with the popular definition of design.

The term "Design" is often used to describe an end result rather than a process. If it has the requisite Apple radii or Karim Rashid blobitecture then it is "Designed" regardless of how arbitrary that round or blob is.

The emphasis is placed on the aesthetic end result, the beauty shot, which more often than not consists of design decisions made on a whim, following trends, rather than seriously considering the product at hand.

I am baffled by the number of design awards Apple receives for releasing a brick with a slightly different(seemingly arbitrary) radii. It may be a nice brick but it's not groundbreaking.

The beauty of the click wheel is that, clearly, a lot of thought went into making its use simple and intuitive.

Apple has introduced a particular design aesthetic
into the mainstream, which is good for Apple. The problem is that for lack of a vocabulary to describe what they do industrial designers simply point to iPods and say "I do stuff like that."

Dave O.

i think the author is trying to "elevate the discourse" about graphic/industrial design to the kind of meaningless dribble that comes out of the mouths of architecture professors and critics. architects have spoken like this, and been spoken to like this, since at least the 1970s. but the author misses the point: buildings are not iPods. and besides, architecture would be better off if someone tried to LOWER the discourse.
some guy

" if you round too many corners, you lose your edge."

strong words. I'd like to read more from this critic. It's true that apple does not approach problems, and brings arbitrary solutions, but they are the perfect example that there is no right way to designing. There are just ways.
José Piccardo

Someone had mentioned interfaces with substandard typography. I think that happens because a lot of interface designers are industrial designers (I've also met some who were architects) by training and have had no formal training in typography. Unfortunately, it shows. A LOT.

And what's up with all the wet & shiny interfaces? And the horrendous bevels and drop shadows??? I'm really getting tired of all this UI chart junk.

And if Apple is bad for design, I shudder to think what Microsoft is for it. Oy.

There are rumors here in the Seattle design community that Microsoft is where designers go to die...

Although I must say, I've felt a Zune and it feels nice. A quite pleasurable tactile experience, although I haven't used one enough to comment on the UI.

I think perhaps the author laments that the integrity of the object being designed is being compromised by the apple's device design language. It's clear that the form is not following the function of the device when looking at the iPhone. The beauty of that object can't be questioned, but it seems we no longer judge the quality of the industrial design by how it benfits the operation of the device. Ignoring the GUI for a moment, the physical characteristics of the thing - polished surfaces, symmetrical form, and the lack of tactile feedback - will certainly make operation of the phone more difficult in all but the best of all environmental conditions. With an iPod, you choose the times when you interact with the device, and you can just yank out your earbuds when you need to for any given situation. You can't choose the times when the phone will ring. Trying to fish a slick bar of plastic out of your pockets or purses when you have an armoload of groceries will have expensive consequences, and trying to operate a device that requires you look at it for every basic function is problematic for driving situations. Perhaps the author is pointing out that most of the attention from apple's talented ID staff have been focused on styling, and not on the kinds of considerations mentioned above. If this trend continues, it definitely would be bad for design.

You lost me at "grim."

You really did. In every profound way.

Or maybe it was that "deeply discouraging," come to think of it.

Interesting attempt, but this piece has Straw Man written all over it (inadvertent pun) ... which is to say, Way to lose reader's trust, guy. Sorry, only a B.

Okay, maybe a B+. For elegance.


His entire argument is based on insignificant visual preferences, and he's also using a vocabulary that is far over his head, and not very effective designers.

And what's up with complaining about a rounded-edge (i)phone? Who wants to carry a sharp-edged, or odd-shaped phone in their pocket all day?
justin miller

how bout the simple fact round corners simply slide in better and are more comfortable to carry out in everyday life....don't call me crying when you poke you eye out with the new razor sharp corner iphone.
raymond Gems Adrian

I think I've read something simillar a few days ago. I don't remember where, might have been on digg.com or slashdot.

Putting aside the question of whether your critique is absurdly hyperbolic, you make a good observation at the end about hardware vs. software.

Ask Steve Jobs, and he will tell you that Apple is a software company.

They were arguably the first company to give any real design attention to the PC. The bar was low, to say the least. The design gap between Apple and everyone else in the category was immense and still is.

Perhaps as a result, they raised expectations too high.

The genius of the iPod - especially the clickwheel - is not in its symmetry or circularity but in the way it allows you to scroll through a huge list with amazing speed and control.

Form to serve function.

I found this article hard to follow, partly because there were no illustrations. I don't have the familiarity with the visual details/alignments of parts etc. to visualize what the author is talking about precisely enough to feel for myself whether I agree or disagree.
Similarly with his judgements about other dimensions/characteristics of the products that he is trying to say something intelligible about. I think it would have been better if the article had more specific, illustrated judgements that were clear. From that foundation, maybe some of the abstractions spun might have been more understandable. The forest is wide, and Hansel is not dropping nearly enough breadcrumbs!
brian kennedy

AGA: What exactly makes it such a perfect truth as to call it "undeniable"? Your saying it, perhaps?

Right on the fanboy nose. And you are welcome!
Vincent Rice

Much better article when spoken in the voice of the Simpson's comic book store guy.

Yes, you are missing something: If you are going to carry it in your pocket, then it better has some rounded corners.
Bill Gates

Bill Gates,

wow, like coins and candy wrappers that don't make tears in my pocket (shall I call it) ticking.

Now what can apple or Jonathan or Steve do for the key in my pocket that keeps on poking me when I sit down? (I drive and live out of a small car)

I'm so tired of hearing about apple. it's so last week ..

THIS is the new beacon of good design and the relevance and integrity of the design industry:


Jobs | July 21