Post Format

The Myth of Apple Minimalism


Cliff Kuang, on the minimalist Apple design, over at Fastcodesign.com;

Not only do HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Samsung make boring black boxes, but every single black box they make seems to have no relationship with the others. As Apple has proved, that’s a massive missed opportunity. Each one of Apple’s gadgets quietly sells the others, every single day you have it. When you buy an iPhone, you’re buying into the Apple design language, and the little details you come to appreciate are details you know you’ll find in all their other products–from the laser-etched buttons to the stunningly beautiful screws to the dead-simple UI layout. When you finally decide to buy another Apple gadget–say, an iPad or a MacBook Air–you’ve already been primed to love it.

Apple have been pulling this one off for decades now. Nobody seems to have taken them seriously until now, but again the focus is all wrong. Samsung and HP may be able to ape the design of Apple products, but they’re missing something serious under the hood. A quality experience all round. Beyond the hardware, including the packaging, the day to day seamlessness of the software, the tight-knit app and iTunes ecosystem — these are not all accidents. And to boot, they took years, literally years, to come into being. A look at Apple today doesn’t reveal the countless effort, iteration and foresight it took to get from A to B.

It would extremely hard to pull that off without a minimalist design language. The wilder your detailing and form-factor are, the harder they are to translate to totally different products. Not so with a minimalist palette–in that case, simply lifting a few, select details such as an aluminum case or a particular rounded corner, is enough to suggest a strong, familial relationship.

I really think the key idea that Cliff misses is that Apple has great design taste, but more importantly they work constantly to create the best end user experience possible. This misguided argument crops up from time to time, and I have three main problems with it;

  • It assumes that design style equates success in the marketplace, which we’ve seen proven wrong in the 90’s and again today with Apple competitors who prefer to copy the design style of Apple.
  • It ignores the notion that the real value to the user, comes from the many complementary elements of the ecosystem (the iPod was complemented by iTunes, the iPad is complemented by the iOS app store), not one element in isolation, due to the overall improvement in user experience, and it ignores the notion that the real value to the user, comes from the many complementary elements of the ecosystem (the iPod was complemented by iTunes, the iPad is complemented by the iOS app store), not one element in isolation, due to the overall improvement in user experience, and
  • It forgets the over the complete vertical integration Apple has created, passing off the minimal design style as the key innovation rather than the whole ecosystem and value chain. It’s like praising Carl Sagan for his penmanship, rather than the quality of his ideas.

The goodwill that a company can build with a remarkably designed product can disappear overnight, if its successors don’t live up to expectations. Over time, and with greater and greater successes, the inherent risk that you carry with a redesign only grows.

It’s remarkable how easy these claims are to make, that Apple is just one bad product away from impending doom. The iPhone 4S was a remarkable flop, in the eyes of the tech press. Last quarter Apple reported a record breaking revenue of $46M, and a profit of $13M. This is on the back of the iPhone, which sold in the order of 37M units. Sold, not shipped. The tech press was full of praise and wonder at the success of such a company, even moreso given that they’d essentially written them off due to the incredible flop that was the 4S. Ridiculous.

Brands are only as good as their last redesign….It’s no surprise that Apple’s own designs have grown more conservative over time.

Apple is a business. A highly successful one. Their profit margin on the iPhone 4S is in the order of 50%, according to reasonable estimates. For Apple to iterate the design of the iPhone, in order to please the tech press, they could do a few things;

      1. redesign the whole enclosure
      2. make the screen bigger
      3. Make the system more ‘open’ i.e. open to theft, grift or unwelcome behaviour.

For Apple to make any changes to the physical design of the iPhone, affects everything & they’d need to have damn good reason to do so. Changes to the product design have consequences on their overheads, their ability to ship immediately, the lead/lag time for scaling the new operation, and so on. Changes of that nature really do need to have solid grounds. If anything, I’d be more inclined to buy the argument that Apple isn’t getting more conservative, rather they’re getting better at focussing their efforts in R&D, and are reaping remarkable rewards for it. Keep in mind this is the company that almost went bankrupt in the late 90’s. With Steve at the helm, Apple is nothing if not a company with a long view, and plenty of focus. They take a stance on the design and experience qualities of their products, and not an ounce of it hinges on minimalism.