Cognitive Dissonance is Bad for Design

2nd May 2007 @ 11:04 pm
apple, Design and Hardware
Thomas de Monchaux at Design Observer says Apple is bad for design, and the argument largely boils down to a matter of style:

"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."

Adaptive Path's Peter Merholz says that isn't good enough, and that Apple is bad for design because they make it look easy but don't talk about what's hard. Everyone tries to copy them, but they're just not smart enough to pull it off:

"Apple is bad for design because they contain a brilliance that simply cannot be emulated. And that brilliance allows them to approach design in ways that are harmful for those organizations that aren’t brilliant. Dan, in his book Designing for Interaction, holds up Apple as an example of genius design — design that emerges from the mind of the designer. This is in contrast to user-centered design, systems, design, and activity-centered design, which all incorporate users more directly."

He continues,

"So, this could encourage other companies to practice genius design. The problem is, the people at those companies aren’t geniuses. Steve Jobs is a genius (and has had it proven numerous times throughout his career). And when non-geniuses practice genius design, bad things happen. Instead, what’s good for design in the overwhelming majority of cases is more of a user-centered approach, because this approach is accessible to many more people, and thus could have a much broader impact on design."

I think both Thomas and Peter have fallen into the same trap here and missed the real problem with Apple products: they look more perfect than they really are. The clean lines, smooth surfaces, and rounded corners are better finished than the internals. Every surface detail is taken care of from the packaging to candy-like GUI style to the consistency of the error messages. Ah, the error messages! If only my Macbook Pro showed me an error message before freezing and losing a couple of hours of work. If only the ipod showed an error message before its famously hard to replace battery died.

Of course, I'm falling into a different trap here by blogging that Apple products aren't perfect. People will find me and tell me they never had a problem with theirs. The fallacy of abundant anecdotes ("my friend had a problem with their mac", "our office runs on macs and never has problems") will be cited in both directions. The debate will be buried because people love their products - they look and feel so perfect, there can't be anything wrong with the reliability. Can there?

The problem is that under the veneer of consistent styling, beneath the packages of audacious world-changing product line-ups, is the same consumer hardware and fallible software and colourful pixels that drive all those other non-Apple products that we love to hate. And we think the Apple products will be better because the packaging is well thought-out and the buttons are consistent. Apple is bad for design because they only fixed half the problem. At least when a shoddy-looking Windows PC or iPod rip-off crashes it's behaving in a way that is commensurate with its appearance.

If a cheap-looking thing crashes, it's because you get what you pay for. It turns out the same applies if an Apple product crashes - it's still because because you got what you paid for, but it turns out you only paid for surface details. Same shit, different box.