Design in Life: The iPhone (pt. 1)
Keep it simple, Steve.
In 2007, a $600 glowing rectangle changed the world of human communication forever. Blackberry had web-capable devices with comparable features. Nokia produced a more-advanced, 3G-capable smartphone three years prior. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer openly scoffed at the announcement of what many now call the single most important communication hardware advance of the past decade. As you read this, there’s a single word in the front of your mind that hasn’t yet appeared in the article – and nationwide, there’s a close to 50% chance that if you own a smartphone, you own one of these. The evidence is undeniable; the iPhone is iconic.
The iPhone is perhaps Apple’s magnum opus. When Steve Jobs took the stage at MacWorld 2007 to announce the device, he began his keynote by announcing that, “[Apple is] introducing… a revolutionary mobile phone.” The crowd erupted into applause and hollers before a prototype device had ever been shown. They all knew that what the man in the black turtleneck said, he meant. Apple – with Jobs at the helm – had made its name delivering on promises to produce high-quality, intuitive, beautiful, and consumer-directed products. The creative engine behind all that is twofold: a man and a code.
While Jobs’ influence on Apple, Inc.’s design focus cannot be understated, Jobs himself was not a designer. He did lay the principles behind Apple’s 6 Pillars of Design Philosophy, but he had no formal training as an industrial designer. Jobs’ creativity enabled highly skilled designers to work without limitation and thus create revolutionary products.
The man behind the curtain who is responsible for executing Apple’s design principles is Sir Johnathan Ive. Ive, the head of Apple’s design team since 1996, has been a part of every major Apple project since the original iMac, and his influences are everywhere in the company’s lineup. Apple’s specialty is making advanced consumer products elegant and usable, where so many other firms put those concerns on a secondary tier. Ive is the key to keeping this goal in mind. Tony Fadell, a former Apple engineer who contributed much to the technical side of the original iPod, quipped that once the hardware teams were done, “[they] gave it to Jony [Ives] to skin it.”
Ive and his team live by a code to which all Apple products are subject: the Six Pillars of Apple Design Philosophy, as outlined by Walter Isaacson’s incredibly insightful Jobs biography. They are as follows:
- Every aspect of an Apple product, from circuit boards to logo etching, must be exquisite in fit, construction, and finish.
- A product must be created with a deep understanding of consumer needs in mind.
- If the product isn’t responding to those needs, there is no reason it should be made – it would only distract from the valuable work to come.
- A product – and its consumption experience - will represent the values of the firm that creates it, and even the best product imaginable is hurt by sloppy presentation.
- A high-tech product doesn’t need to be sterile; curves, refinement, and humanity can coexist with technological advances.
- A product should be intuitive. Any removal from the experience to think means the designers have failed.
If you’ve ever nonchalantly flipped your phone out only to repeat the same practiced combination of button presses and swipes that takes you to iMessage, you’ve experienced the synthesis of these principles in action. It is the individual reflections of each of the six pillars in the design of both the original iPhone and the iPhone 5 (in my opinion, the best smartphone ever created) that make the devices so fascinating.
The craft of the iPhone distinguishes it from competitors through its “details done right” construction approach. On the outside, laser-etched logos and clean seams where screen glass meets phone body add an aesthetic element to the device, which makes sense - you’re going to be looking at this phone every day that you own it, so it may as well look nice. What’s truly amazing is that this devotion to craft extends to things you’ll hopefully never see – your phone’s exposed insides. The teardown of an iPhone reveals circuit boards brimming with colored architecture, fit tightly into the phone’s slim profile. Jobs stressed completeness in form that would not remove users from the highly-polished experience, and evidence of that is everywhere. For you, the user, that means satisfying buttons and beautifully-proportioned components to beautify daily interaction.
Perhaps the most intriguing portion of the iPhone is the empathy it embodies. Smartphones before iPhone were the privilege of the technocrat; they were bulky, they had complicated operating systems, and they often featured difficult communication interfaces (such as physical trackballs or squashed keyboards). The unbelievable information potential of giving every citizen a mobile computer seemed stifled by barriers to usage, in a fashion not unlike the personal computer industry pre-Macintosh. Firms seemed completely unphased by the needs of consumers, let alone the wants or social potential of possible consumers. If you weren’t dedicated enough to learn to play our game, they seemed to say, then you have no place on the field. After years of focus in the form of design studies and market analysis, along came iPhone. While they seem commonplace today, the first iPhone introduced two revolutionary contributions that demystified smartphones and made the technology of the day usable to those with little prior knowledge. Large touch screens and an OS full of orderly, sharp icons were not always the industry standard. On contemporary Blackberry and Windows Mobile phones, vital functions were often hidden in layers of text menus and concealed with keyboard shortcuts. Sure, if you knew the phone’s architecture, you could find your data usage and battery status easily. The beauty of the iPhone is that you don’t have to. Ultimately, iPhone is not designed for an Apple diehard – iPhone is designed for any consumer.
The next step of the process moves away from the physical and ventures into the realm of the intangible. The experience Apple creates to impute the value of the iPhone begins before you ever handle one. It all begins with the price: iPhones are comparatively very expensive. The cheapest iPhone first available was $500 – the Treo 700p and Blackberry 8800, shown above, were only $350 and $300 respectively. You, the consumer, already know that what you are purchasing is a luxury good for the segment. With that price in mind, you decide to buy one because hey, why not – it's an iPhone.
Why did you decide to buy it? Perhaps it was the sleek, elegant advertising or the aura of excitement surrounding Apple's making a highly-anticipated announcement that just happened to result in a phone. Regardless, there are forces influencing your perception of the product – imputing Apple’s “cool” factor – before you ever enter an Apple store.
Then, there is the Apple store itself: laminated woods, marble, uncluttered surfaces, and an unobstructed open air environment full of helpful concierge employees in uniform. This is a retail shopping experience unlike any other, and its sterile yet beautiful layout places the emphasis of the store entirely on interacting with the products laid out in front of you.
This is sensory marketing at its finest: characteristic lighting, tactile products, human interaction, and a space unlike any other store you’ve seen before. Finally, you buy your iPhone and are presented with an elegant package, featuring a single picture of the product simply labeled “iPhone.”
Apple markets itself as sophisticated, yet empathetic – if the retail experience did not reflect that message, these would be hollow words. However, its meticulously designed, all-encompassing product experience before the iPhone is even switched on makes sure that message is imputed upon consumers.
While the above may seem like manipulation, the positive experience created paradoxically influences your perception of the inherent friendliness of the iPhone. The concierge-style retail experience is just the beginning. The amiability must also be reflected in the device you’ll see every day you own it – and it is. Curves as opposed to geometric edges. Two buttons instead of a keyboard. Intuitive multitouch controls understandable to even the least experienced user. Clear, bright icons that pop out from the background. There is friendliness in simplicity and accessibility.
Still with me? Good. As pretentious as I’m sure the novella above sounded, the information above is positively essential to understanding what makes the iPhone so ubiquitous, both in the world and on campus. With that primer out of the way, next time we’ll dive into perhaps the most popular iPhone model at the University of Michigan: the iPhone 5.
This is Part 1 of a two-part column about the iPhone, and is meant as an overview of Apple corporate design culture and the principles that guide the thought behind their extraordinary products.
Part 2 focuses specifically on the iPhone 5.