The New York Times’ horrible article on Apple’s design challenges

Mon, Apr 9, 2012

Analysis, News

A week ago, I clicked onto a New York Times article detailing how Apple might lose its design edge, much in the way that Braun – once the world’s darling of design in the 60s and 70s – became less and less of a player in the design world.

The article ostensibly appeared to be interesting and engaging. Apple, under the reign of Steve Jobs, went from teetering dangerously on the brink of bankruptcy to the most valuable company in the world. And there’s no question Apple’s success has, in part, been fueled by its elegant and intuitive industrial design.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Jony Ive, Apple’s Senior VP of Industrial Design, is the only tech related designer who has made a name for himself in the mainstream media. Beyond that, Apple’s hardware designs have won innumerable awards and have helped influence the design sensibilities of the entire tech community.

For example, the general style and shape of the iPhone has become the de-facto blueprint for almost every other successful smartphones out on the market.

That said, an article detailing the design challenges Apple faces in the years ahead promised to be quite a read.

Or so I thought.

Instead, Alice Rawsthorn of the Times failed to articulate any concrete examples of how Apple’s design prowess may falter in the years ahead. And though she works as the Times’ design critic, her tackling of design at Apple demonstrated a fundamental lack of knowledge regarding Apple and, to a certain extent, the purchasing habits of the mainstream consumer.

Given Apple’s status as the reigning champion of corporate design, it is not surprising that the design world has speculated frenziedly about the risk of the company losing its design luster since the death of its co-founder, Steven P. Jobs, in October. In the last few days alone, I have listened to one designer predicting confidently that the styling of Nokia’s new smart phones would soon surpass Apple’s, and read an editorial in Creative Review magazine, which cast Microsoft in the Nemesis role by claiming that it may “have edged ahead of Apple in the design stakes” with its new operating software.

What is she talking about here, industrial design or software?

As for Nokia, some of their new phones are admittedly quite stylish, but Apple’s formula for success is the fusion of hardware design with intuitive software. Sure, Nokia may have some nice looking phones, but the Windows Phone 7 operating system, while certainly unique, pales in comparison to Apple’s iOS.

Next, Rawsthorn writes that Apple’s penchant for design may erode over time if it continues to do the same things for way too long. It’s a valid point, but Apple, more so than any other company, has shown a willingness, and arguably a burning urge, to discard the old and usher in the new. Indeed, Apple has been able to stay atop of the tech heap precisely because they’re willing to take risks, push out new products, and not get fat and lazy on the riches of their past successes.

Okay, so far so good, but then Rawsthorn begins grasping at straws.

A more enticing possibility is that Apple will falter not by being beaten at its current game, but because one of its rivals achieves something that it has failed to do: by developing digital devices, which not only score highly on the traditional design criteria of aesthetics, efficiency and ease of use, but in terms of their ethical and environmental sensitivity.

So let me get this straight.

Apple’s design prowess may fade because competitors will design hardware that will rank highly in terms of ethical and environmental sensitivity?

That’s such an obtuse point of view that it’s hard to know where to even begin.

For starters, Apple, more than any other tech company, has stepped up to the plate to address the ethical concerns at the manufacturing plants that produce its products while also working hard to create products that are increasingly environmentally friendly.

From recycling to pollution, Apple is quite transparent with what it’s been doing to create products that take ethical and environmental considerations into account. They even set up a page on their website where consumers can explore all that Apple is doing in its efforts to create environmentally friendly products. And while they undoubtedly have a lot of hard work ahead of them in this regard, they’ve taken more of a pro-active approach to address these concerns than any competitor.

Whenever design commentators, like me, reflect on what does — and doesn’t — constitute “good design,” we tend to identify “sustainability” or “responsibility” as an indispensable element. We use those words as shorthand for saying that nothing can be considered to be well-designed if we have reason to feel guilty about any aspect of the way in which it was developed, manufactured, packaged, shipped or sold, and will eventually be disposed of. After all, how can we take pleasure in something that we know — or suspect — of being ecologically damaging, or of causing pain or hardship?

The reality, sadly, is that most consumers don’t care much about where their products come from. And again, given that Apple is doing more than almost any other tech company to be environmentally responsible and transparent about its efforts, one has to wonder what in the hell Rawsthorn is talking about.

Further, sustainability and responsibility may be two rubrics that design critics may use to measure good design, but that doesn’t translate down into the mainstream consumer. And again, just what is Rawsthorn talking about, exactly? Will Apple’s industrial design falter because competitors will have better designs? Or will it falter because of environmental and ethical concerns? It seems that Rawshtorn is focusing on the latter because she didn’t do any research into the former.

Then Rawsthorn drops this nugget.

If you look hard enough, you can find more sustainable phones and computers than Apple’s, but the differences are often modest, as in Samsung phones that are made partly from recyclable materials. And, in general, it is difficult to assess exactly how Apple’s ethical and environmental record compares to other companies.

It’d be nice if she actually defined specifically what she means by ‘sustainable’. The phrase is a catch-all word that can mean any number of different things.

What’s more, she admits the differences amongst Apple products and competing devices are “modest” and that it’s tough assess how Apple’s environmental efforts compare to others.

That’s not exactly true, and I think Rawsthorn, if she truly tried, could have written an interesting article detailing and comparing Apple’s environmental and ethical efforts to other tech companies. (Funny enough, Nick Bilton of the New York Times did something similar to that this past weekend).

But she didn’t, because I suppose it’s easier to say that something might affect Apple’s design prowess than actually doing the legwork to come up with cogent facts to back up those assertions.

Presumably, this is not an issue for the diehard fans, who waited in long lines outside Apple’s stores last month when the new iPad went on sale, a few weeks after global media coverage of the onerous working conditions and safety problems at some of the company’s Chinese suppliers.

Yes, because all of the 37 million people who purchased iPhones last quarter were diehard fans who waited outside Apple stores in long lines.

And as for the onerous working conditions and safety problems at the company’s Chinese suppliers, Rawshtorn would have more of a case she bothered to look into the working conditions at factories that churn out products for other tech companies. But doing so would have completely negated her article so why bother, right?

But if one of Apple’s competitors was to address its ethical and environmental responsibilities with such verve and rigor that it emerged as a role model, wouldn’t you want to buy its products? I would. (Assuming, of course, that it checked the other “good design” boxes.)

That’s a benefit, to be sure, but it’s not a factor most people include in their purchasing desicions.

Besides, it’s all too common, when looking at ethical and environmental responsibilities, to ignore many of the cultural, business, economic, and legal factors that underlie many of the reasons why things are the way they are.

Good design is good design, and despite what Rawshtorn may think as a design ‘critic’, it’s largely a separate issue from ethical and environmental issues. A company could have amazingly designed products manufactured in horrid working conditions, while another could develop horrible looking products put together in splendid working conditions.

The reality is that Rawshtorn, in looking at these issues as one, fails to really understand how most consumers go about making their  purchasing decisions.

What I hoped would be an interesting article explaining how Apple might lose its design edge was nothing more than a vapid lecture on the importance of being environmentally and ethically friendly.

You would expect more nuance from the New York Times.


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