Will Apple Get Its Mojo Back?

Interview

Friday, June 14, 2013

Design seldom makes front-page news, but Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference is always a big story. The company, which once stood head and shoulders above the rest for its attention to both hardware and software design, is increasingly challenged by Google’s Android and by Microsoft. Now it seems to be playing catch-up to companies it once derided. “Can’t innovate? My ass!,” one executive lashed out.

Apple has just unveiled a new iOS, the software that powers its mobile devices, for a fall release. In a major shift of the company’s aesthetic, the look is “flattened.” “There was a fake three-dimensional quality to everything that really started in 1984,” Bonnie Siegler tells Kurt Andersen. Siegler runs a prominent design firm, and is chair of this year’s most important graphic design conference. “They got fancier and fancier until everything on a Macintosh was chrome-looking, faux felt, faux wood, faux leather.” (The design term for this is skeuomorphism; read up on it here.) It’s a training-wheels concept that was stuck in the 20th century and jumped the shark when the company last year introduced a much-derided podcast app styled like a reel-to-reel recorder. One of Kurt’s daughters “literally didn’t know what that was.”

“It’s evolutionary,” Siegler says. “Survival of the fittest of the new characteristics. Apple invented the thing” — the consumer-friendly user interface of smartphones — “and the other guys caught up and differentiated. This guy made a bigger screen, this guy made a different operating system. Apple looked around, took the things that have been proven to work best, and incorporated them.”

The “flatter,” more classically modernist look is more similar to what Windows has been doing, but Siegler sees Apple’s attention to detail still in play. She admires a translucency, like a shower curtain, used to communicate different layers of operation. Kurt wonders if design boss Jonny Ive, who is now in the spotlight, had the design shift planned but couldn’t implement it during Steve Jobs’ life. “It has to be a difficult moment for him, this being the first huge announcement since Jobs died. At his level there must be things he’s dying to do and I hope he gets to do them now.” Siegler thinks the company’s focus on personality is a positive aspect. “I always thought it made Apple more compelling. There is a man, a human being, behind all these ideas and this vision. There isn’t that at any of the other companies. Who’s the Samsung guy?”

→ What do you think — had Apple fallen behind the curve in terms of design? Have they caught up now? Tell us in a comment below.

Comments [11]

Ed

Kurt,
How can you make such an ignorant comment about architecture being a "loser profession" during the Weird Al segment.
It's sad to me that other countries around the world are making great strides in architectural design while the greatest American architects have to practice in those countries to have the freedom to innovate.
America is no longer a leader in architectural innovation - in large part because of people like you who have the ear of a sympathetic audience and squander it with moronic, uninformed comments.
Someone with your pulpit should be promoting the need for exceptional architecture, not denigrating it.
Successful architect and FORMER Studio 360 listener.

Jun. 22 2013 02:37 PM

BTW, Siegler notes the "translucency" in ios7 as an example of Apples "attention to detail." Does she mean the translucency of MS Vista?

As to icons that employ dated imagery, whether a Bell handset is shaded or flat, it's still a Bell handset. But representing a telephone with the rectangular form of a smart phone wouldn't be very helpful, would it? The digital tools contained in our phones, from recording to phoning to mailing to taking photos, have no differentiating visual characteristics INSIDE THE PHONE. So a visual representation of the legacy equipment - the handset or microphone or camera - provides a shortcut. As for kids who may never have seen a Bell or similar handset (really?), they have seen the picture of it on cell phones since the first time they picked one up, so that odd little C-shaped thing does indeed mean "phone call" to them. They've seen the old studio microphone on talk show desks, etc. When we old people are gone perhaps they'll have a new image in mind. Perhaps not.

Ultimately, the design will follow our needs - for function, variety, communication and beauty. And that is as it should be.

Jun. 19 2013 01:35 PM

Kurt et al ~

This was one of the most annoying pieces I've hear in some time, not least for its rather fawning acceptance that the "new" iconography or tool interface represents a continuity of design pre-eminence at Apple.

The ios 7 interface is marginally different-looking from its predecessor. Some will find those alterations remarkable, but they are stylistic, more a matter of fashion, in the sense that "the new" is so often hailed as better in some way than "the old" - even when the old is from last season.

That Apple and its cheerleaders refer to this as some kind of creative leap seems to me to be the real "creative" activity here, for "flatter" e-design has been around for a long time. Not only did Microsoft offer the flattest OS yet with Windows 8, but web and ap designers have offered less "shaded" or modeled design for years. The studio 360 web site is typical. The New York Public Library is another mainstream site that employs the Mondrianesque grid layout. http://www.nypl.org/

Beyond organizational benefits (this style is more than a throwback to Frames, as it creates pages where visual hierarchies can be implied and even customized to the user) we have to come back to fashion and newness as driving forces. Just as architecture and industrial design segue from modernism to post-modernism to various revivals and back again, graphic design also moves between the classic or traditional, the retro-kitsch, the "shockingly new", etc. And not only do different styles go in and out of fashion, but personal taste - aided by customization options - means we don't all have to look at the same interface. One man's iPhone may feature a wallpaper that "looks like" well, wallpaper, while his sister's is "cutting edge" (whatever she thinks that is.)

So, do Apple and Samsung and Microsoft and HTC and Google determine our design choices? Only in the way that Issy Miyake and Ralph Lauren determine what we wear. Though they all have talented designers at work, thousands more toil in the creative universe, bringing real innovation - or clever irony, or failed attempts, or a bright germ of an idea - to web and ap design. This is the real beauty of our current electronic design world, and it's crazy to think that the big boys wouldn't be watching, using and "adapting" the ideas of the up-and-comers, just as clothing companies watch what's being worn on the street.

Smart phone notwithstanding, I find that more than ten years hence the iPod is still the standout of design of the 21st century. The wheel and click button are an elegant interpretation of the mouse or joystick, intuitive in labeling and use, successful in function, and thus, not just pretty to look at but beautiful to use. Talk about FLAT design!

Jun. 19 2013 01:31 PM
irwin from Yorktown, NY

Its sad, I believe a lot of people will agree that Apple is no longer the leader in innovation.

Jun. 18 2013 11:06 PM
marcellus hall from Manhattan

A note of clarification: When computer design iconography is described as three dimensional, it is not meant that the icons are made to resemble outdated counterparts in the real world (bookcases and microphones). Rather, it is the rounded edges, slight shadows, and fake highlights that are meant. Apple employs these effects shamelessly. Think Ingres versus Picasso. Or Pixar versus Russian constructivism. One is "real" and one is flat. One is more intent on "illusion" than the other. One is not necessarily better than the other however.

Bklyndf from nyc asks "in what way is it less fake... to make things on a computer screen flatter?" Only in the way that the computer screen itself is flat... Declining to create the illusion of three dimensions need not be deemed real or fake, however. It may just be a matter of taste. I, for one, have found the attempt to make computer icons three dimensional boorish. I am eager to see what 'flat' looks like. If it's anything like Russian constructivism I'm excited to see it.

Jun. 17 2013 08:40 PM
Ben Kleschinsky from Merrimack Valley, Mass

I was listening to your radio show today and I like how apple brings on retro designs with a modern touch. I don't think it outdated to have a 20's microphone and an old fashion phone hand set. It makes us familiar and gives us a sort of conftorble felling something your use to. Before I rate the new design, I'd have to use it myself.

Jun. 16 2013 02:23 PM
Mark from Nyack NY

There is a person behind Samsung's design concept. It's Jonny Ive.

Jun. 16 2013 12:12 PM
BklynDF from NYC

Since we're talking about design, we each have our idea of what is attractive. I greatly dislike the flat look. I'm an unashamed fan of the skeuomorphic design. Apple's "mojo"--in fact, its entire brand--has been based on making our computer/virtual experience similar to our actual experience. In actual life, I have paper, I have folders, I have a desktop. Things have three dimensions (or four, I suppose). I enjoy computer designers noting that.

More important, though: in what way is it somehow "fake" to portray things in three dimensions, and in what way is it less fake (more truthful?) to make things on a computer screen flatter? Everything on a computer is artifice--it has been created by humans. Buttons, folders, and icons have the form a designer gives them. Any form they take has been created. The notion of "fake" versus "real" is itself a false idea. We can discuss whether we like the form. I like the one Apple has, I don't like the upcoming one. I believe that aesthetically, it's a step down.

Jun. 16 2013 11:33 AM
SherMus from NYC

Look, you have to acknowledge that Apple isn't going to have the greatest ideas for everything. They created the smart phone, and then other "genius" in the industry started tinkering and innovating. You have to admit that there are a few things in Android and other phones that you wish you had as an iPhone user.

I have been a Mac user since 1987, and the one thing that has kept me buying Apple computers is the OS, and the reliability of the machines. I have always been willing to pay more for that. I can get used to a new look, as long as it operates the same.

Speaking of iPhones, I would be happy if Apple addressed some other problems as well as the look of the OS. Like the antenna which doesn't seem to pick up a signal as well as other phones. And lets face it, a stunning piece of technology like the iPhone is useless if it cannot connect. Speaker and earpiece volume is another problem that has never seemed right to me: there never seems to be enough.

Jun. 16 2013 11:30 AM
Gary McCardell from Lookout Mountain, TN

Hi Guys,
I listened to this segment on the radio today. Twice Kurt Andersen asked Bonnie Siegler if she was a shill for Apple. He asked laughingly, but I think he was on to something. The idea that a single person as the focus of attention for design features somehow makes Apple more compelling is silly, unless you are talking about marketing and not a product's usefulness. Because I prefer utility over "cool," I don't worship at the Apple altar.
What induced me to comment here was an article in Forbes about how Microsoft pioneered the design which ios 7 now adopts and how Apple stands to gain from it at Microsoft's expense. To me part of the reason that may happen is that the press fawns over Apple, an example of which is the choice of a clearly partisan person to interview on your usually splendid program.
Cheers,
Gary McCardell

Jun. 15 2013 07:28 PM
Bruce from san francisco, ca

I *hate* flattened UIs. If I wanted that I'd buy from Microsoft.
I'm also worried that fashion is trumping usability (and choice),
and that next year user interfaces will all have, want them or not,
big tailfins! (ask your dad).

Jun. 15 2013 01:05 PM

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