I’ve been watching Apple’s design for a long time. Besides being the products that I personally choose to interact with the world on (desktop/laptop/phone), they have obviously been trend-setters in industrial and consumer electronics design since possibly the launch of the original transparent iMac in 1998. And although I love their products for many reasons, I have been concerned that they have not made a major leap in design language in the past 5 years or so (read my original article “Has Apple design lost the plot” from 2006). Interestingly, it seems to me that nobody else has stepped up to the plate in that regard either, and I find that leads me to an even bigger question: is Apple the only major consumer electronics manufacturer willing to take a risk on design?
I don’t actually have an answer to that, and you could argue that even Apple isn’t taking risks anymore, but I find the question fascinating. There are some attractive mobile devices and consumer electronics out there right now, but nothing that I would consider groundbreaking has happened in a long time. I haven’t personally been inspired by the design of anything in years.
I think design has become universally better in the past decade, with a real design “dog” very rare these days compared to those of years past. Mobile devices and laptops are leading the way, but most of the designs are still derivative. Sure, a Dell or HP laptop that looks more like a MacBook Air is a step in the right direction, but why the hesitation to move forward, to take a chance, and explore new materials? I think public perception and appreciation of design is at an all-time high, especially in the US (which has lagged behind the rest of the developed world for the better part of the last half-century), and a bold design could be a real differentiator for someone looking to make their mark in the industry. So are the designers being timid? Is it management? Maybe it’s just because nobody wants to take a risk in a down economy? Or maybe, just maybe, everybody’s waiting for someone else to show them the next big thing. A sort of “you go first. No, you go” conversation between companies. Maybe everyone else is so scared that Apple will suddenly change the design game on them (as they have many times before), that they don’t want to step to the front of the line for fear of walking a plank of their own making (Motorola).
Well, I’m here to say that I’m waiting, and watching, for signs of life from the design community. To my surprise, I see a glimmer of hope from the auto industry, who out of desperation seem to be taking more risks than they have in the past 25 years (Buick Lacrosse, Nissan Cube, or even the Kia Soul showing signs of life), but I haven’t seen anything, from anyone, that says to me “we trust our designers and we’re going for it”. And I find that sad.
A sign of the times? Maybe. But if everyone else is watching Apple, maybe they’re just missing the point. Apple got where it is by breaking out and setting the trends. By being the leader. If they’ve become a bit complacent, maybe it’s time for someone else to take up the mantle of design leader. They’re begging to be taken down by a bold competitor, but it seems that everyone is too scared to make the first move.
Have a design that you think breaks the trend? Think I’m way off base? Think I’m just a Jonny Ive fanboy who should shut up and buy a sweet Dell? Let me know in the comments!