Devices & desires3 June 2010
Apple does not design products so much as create seductive platforms on which we build our own consumer experiences
I’m currently pondering communications devices as a route to understanding how design itself might be shaping up for the future. Phones and their technological offspring, in other words, are what I’m talking about, and more specifically devices designed and made by… Apple.
What kind of company brings a product to market half finished and relies on the love of its consumers for its brand to provide the other half (and, incidentally, profit thereby)? With a certain amount of trepidation, I’m asking you to consider how Apple, and more specifically the iPad, demonstrates how one particular company manages its brand and its design process.
Woah – the trepidation. I’ve been here before. I’ve heralded the iPhone as the best thing since sliced bread – better, even – and found myself ignominiously eating my words once I actually got my hands on one. (Turns out that the one I had was genuinely faulty, and the Apple store in Regent Street swapped it without a murmur. Another good brand experience, Mr Jobs.) So… careful. Are we prefiguring a critique of yet another device whose true social and cultural impact has still to be revealed?
Nearly two years on and more than 50,000 iPhone apps later, we begin to perceive that the Apple design process isn’t really about the device at all. Well, of course it is, at one level: a beguiling mixture of sleek and sexy appearance and graceful, stylish function are Apple’s trademarks when it comes to product design. But with the iPhone and now particularly the iPad, we see that what is really being designed is the behaviour surrounding the device; the way users personalise it in a genuine and meaningful way, the relationship they develop with it – not only for look and feel, but for function. Sounds a bit sad, but hang on, because this has huge implications for design.
The brand, like most powerful brands – a particular kind of cigar, say, or car or breakfast cereal – carries resonances that are essentially emotional, that generate an emotional relationship first and satisfy a need for functionality second. That is how Apple gets away with launching a product that starts almost like a blank sheet, then depends on a community of users to develop and exploit its astonishingly broad relevance to all. And that is what it seems to have done again with the iPad.
It’s also educational to look at how Apple has managed, in a world where its computers are used by about 10 per cent of the computer-using population, a) to get its products into the hands of people who would never use an Apple computer, and b) – and more importantly – to become the host brand to a whole raft of global giants. The New York Times, the Simpsons, Nike, the V&A… the list is growing. All, by some extraordinary sleight of brand hand, now available to you through… Apple.
A large part of my living is making seminar and conference programmes, one of the recent examples of which was at a publishing exhibition called, surprisingly enough, Publishing Expo. The iPad had just been launched a few days before the show opened, and although I had programmed a couple of specific sessions dealing with the iPhone’s relevance to the changing publishing industry, I probably should have done one on the iPad. If I could have found anyone to talk about it, that is, who really knew the inside story on the design process.
This is also an Apple trick; refuse to talk about what you’re doing. The public head- to-head interview between the company’s Essex-born design genius Jonathan Ive and the (now ex) Rector of the Royal College of Art, Christopher Frayling, at the college’s ‘Innovation Night’ last summer, was pants, frankly. It left the audience with not a jot more understanding of how design works in the Cupertino campus than we already had.
But that’s a clever way of turning corporate paranoia into market manipulation; Apple makes a brand virtue of not talking about its products prelaunch, so observers are driven into frenzies of speculation. That policy, at least in the case of Ive, seems to apply right down to the detail of what he and his department does on a daily basis. The questions I really wanted answered were: Did they really figure it out to happen this way? Or was it just a combination of cleverness and out-and-out luck? Did Apple really know that within two years of the launch of the iPhone there would be 50,000 third-party applications for it? They set it up via iTunes, of course, but did they really have any idea of the scale of its adoption? Did they have the aim and intention to create a place in the mobile phone market that simply did not previously exist?
Changing the rules of the game, pushing the game on, that’s what all but the most inveterate Apple haters expect. And now we come to the iPad, hailed as the most exciting product ever launched, guaranteed to revolutionise publishing and a few other industries besides, to save newspapers and open up brave new worlds. And also, as nothing more than an oversized iPhone, clunky and awkward, that would look ridiculous if you held it up to your ear, and without a camera or multitasking to boot (you wait for the developers to get going).
Having gone through a bit of a stormy start in my own personal relationship with the iPhone, I read all the iPad reviews and commentaries I could find – and concluded that I didn’t want one. What use was it? What gap would it fill in my life? I have a laptop, thank you very much, and a phone that does email and internet adequately. Why would I want to carry something around that does more or less what the phone does, only is bigger and heavier?
Answers come from the likes of Kevin McCullagh, the profoundly thoughtful principal of a consultancy called Plan (www.plan.bz), which defines its function as ‘helping companies work out what to do next’, and Adrian Caroen, a director at product design consultancy Seymour Powell. What McCullagh said when I started on about the iPad and its apparent irrelevance was: ‘Aha, but just wait till the content starts to match the device. Apple isn’t a content company; it’s a container company.’ (Not sure how Mr Jobs would like that definition, but we know what McCullagh means.)
Similarly, Caroen starts talking about ‘emergent behaviour’. Like the Sony Walkman in the Seventies, then more recently the iPod, a device has arrived to market that demands new patterns of behaviour – and in both these cases, as it turns out, a whole new attitude and a new route to market for recorded music.
All the reviews and commentaries about the iPad that I have read concern themselves either with its function (or lack of it) as a computer, with the already existing landscape for tablet computers, with the implications for publishing or gaming or whatever industry you happen to be in; or, as in the case of Stephen Fry’s recent piece in Time magazine, with what it feels like to use, and what it makes the user feel like.
What I’m interested in is a design process that, right at the start, seems to be taking an extra imaginative leap. A leap from a known device type that functions and is used according to familiar rules, to a device type of which the best that can be said about its usability and usefulness is that that stuff hasn’t been decided yet, and it’s up to the users to define it themselves.
Imagine, says McCullagh, a children’s book on the iPad, such as the classic Where the Wild Things Are. How much richer, more engaging and potentially more educationally effective could the experience of reading that bewitching book be if the creatures popped out of the screen, if the sea that Max sails for a year and a day bobbed up and down, if the music for the Wild Rumpus was monstrous, and maniacal – and loud. And that’s just one book.
I still don’t profess to understand it myself. What I do understand is that it is to companies like Apple that we should look when we feel the need to get an idea of the way design is going; non-prescriptive in terms of behaviour, but in and of itself helping to create new forms of behaviour. Personalisation and mass customisation have been product design and product marketing buzzwords for a generation now; the iPad, even if there are plenty of other tablet computers out there, looks as if it is offering an altogether different level of experience.
We will get used to using a smart and beautiful content container to enjoy – and even create – content for ourselves that feels thoroughly ours. And that, by any standard, is a spectacular achievement. I still don’t know if it’s luck; I suspect not.