Sufficiently Great

I have a small confession to make. Bad arguments dressed with the tinsel of pseudo-intellectualism are like catnip to me: they drive me crazy, and I’m a total sucker for batting them around. Deep in my heart, I know that’s the intent of the author of any of these articles, yet I can’t help but want to dress them down.

So, here’s Ian Bogost, writing for the Atlantic:

Apple has great design is the biggest myth in technology today.

Alright, I’ll bite.

The only problem with this conclusion: Apple has never accomplished sufficiently great design in its electronics to justify lionizing the pedantry of design at the new Apple campus.

A bold opener. But what is “sufficiently great design”, in the context of industrial design or consumer products? One definition might be that a product becomes widely-imitated, yet never loses its iconic status. Consumer laptops, for example, have coalesced around a blueprint established by the MacBook Air. After the iPhone was released, all smartphones became iPhone iterations. If we reach back a little farther, to before Jony Ive was at Apple, virtually every laptop that succeeded the PowerBook 100 has imitated its layout.

It’s not so much that these products were popular that evidences “sufficiently great design”. It’s that all of these products established the de facto standard for the design of their product category:

  • The PowerBook 100 was the first laptop to be sold with its keyboard near the hinge of the case, creating an area for a palmrest and pointing device below it. That’s been the basic design language of laptops ever since.

  • The first MacBook Air was thin and light, and forecast the way the rest of Apple’s laptops — and then much of the industry’s imitations — would be built. The version first released in 2010 came with solid state storage as standard, and created the blueprint for most of the consumer laptops on sale today.

  • The iPhone’s litany of contributions to the modern smartphone need not be restated. It, once again, set the standard for every phone that followed.

But there’s more to great design than its capacity to be imitated. Design, after all, is about how something works in addition to how it looks. And that’s where Bogost starts to sink his teeth in:

Starting with the iPhone 5S, first released in 2014, Apple adopted a software-controlled fingerprint sensor mounted on the home button. Known as Touch ID, the feature allows users to authenticate to unlock the phone, download products from the App Store, and make payments at participating retailers with Apple Pay. But even the slightest disturbance on a finger makes Touch ID unreliable. Washed your hands recently? Ate a banana? Dug in the dirt of the garden? Touched something too warm, or too cold, for too long? Good luck authenticating with your fingerprint. A mere inconvenience when unlocking the phone, but Apple Pay won’t work at all without Touch ID. So fat chance using that new digital wallet on a rainy day, or after tactically interacting with worldly substances.

Everything that has ever been designed has required a series of decisions based on what’s possible, what’s necessary for the final product, and what reasonable compromises can be made for everything to work correctly. “Sufficiently great design”, in this context, is also about making choices and compromises that produce a better product in typical use.

In this case, the Touch ID sensor allows for a very quick way to authenticate a transaction without requiring anything to be typed or finely-manipulated with one’s fingers. In a typical use case — while holding the phone very close to an NFC sensor at a checkstand, for instance — that’s a better user experience than any currently-available alternative I can think of.

As for Bogost’s specific complaints, I’ve never had anything like those problems with Touch ID on my iPhone. Between the built-in error correction and the fast sensor in my 6S, it works almost unbelievably well virtually every time. On the off chance my fingerprint fails to read, quickly wiping my thumb on a tissue or my jeans is enough to make it work. And, realistically, if your fingers are muddy from digging in the garden, is your first instinct going to be to reach for your smartphone without washing your hands?

In 2008, [Jobs] revealed the first run of the impossibly-thin MacBook Air by sliding it dramatically out of a manila envelope. Amazing! Less so, but not shown: the inch-thick power adapter needed to charge the device. Apple still hasn’t even attempted to reduce the size — and particularly the bulky thickness — of its power supplies, even as it has systematically reduced the girth of its computers.

This argument is silly. AC adaptors are limited by two things: the width of a plug, and physics. AC adaptors are already about the same width as a typical North American or Korean outlet, and they make full use of their available space, mostly for safety reasons.

Bogost’s article contains a series of other complaints: the USB-C ports in the new MacBook Pro, the flaws of autocorrect, iTunes, and larger iPhones that are harder to handle. But poking at these individual products — and I have, too — misses the larger scope of why Apple can be considered great at design. Bogost:

Steve Jobs’s design philosophy was fascist more than it was exacting. The man was a not a demigod of design, but its dictator. He made things get made the way he wanted them made, and his users appreciated his definitiveness and lack of compromise. They mistook those conceits for virtues in the objects themselves.

The argument that Jobs was an unredeeming tyrant has been made countless times while he was alive and since his death. It’s never going to go away. The simple fact is that his general direction was, more often than not, right.

Bogost’s implication that Jobs did not compromise or that he didn’t invite argument or debate is complete bullshit, as has been documented extensively.1 The difference between the compromises that Apple has made while designing their products and those that their competitors have made is that Apple’s have generally been produced from a specific thread of Apple-yness. It’s the reason why Bogost is able to write an article like this where he points out that it’s decidedly unApple-y for the Lightning cable that comes with every new iPhone to require an adaptor to be plugged into a new MacBook. For something like that to feel unApple-y requires a general sense of what does feel Apple-y.

(Also, including the word “fascist” in an article is a great way to get noticed in 2017.)

At a time when every company bows to even the most absurd demands of the consumer, Apple never cared what its customers thought, or wanted. Instead it told them what to like, and how to like it. What a relief! The corporate design autocracy obviates the need for decision-making. Computer users won’t use floppy disks because there is no floppy drive. Later, likewise optical drives. Later, likewise mini-stereo headphone jacks. To ascribe such choices to design — or to courage — is a mistake. As I have argued before, Apple is expert at getting people to commit to Apple’s future without pondering how technology could have evolved differently.

The prior articles Bogost wrote include paragraphs objecting to the superseding of the CD-RW by the iPod and, yes, bemoaning the loss of the floppy disk. Pardon my stating the obvious, but what he fails to acknowledge is that the replacements in every single case he cites are objectively better. An iPod is a far better way to carry around a bunch of music than is a stack of CDs. Going back a generation, I don’t really need to mention how much better it is to listen to real sound recordings than it is the MIDI interpretations of them, because that’s all that would fit on a floppy.

And Apple’s bets have seemed to pay off. While there are myriad flaws in the argument that better products sell more units, the simple fact is that if the issues Bogost raises — including the obligatory whining about the dumping of the headphone jack from the iPhone — were truly show-stopping for most people, most people would not buy one. If you absolutely need a DVD drive in 2017, you’re not going to consider any of Apple’s laptops, and they’re okay with that. Their standpoint on that is, quite literally, by design.

(Also, including the word “autocracy” in an article is a great way to get noticed in 2017.)

The attention to detail around door handles and thresholds might feel like a design methodology so pedantic at the micro-level that it could only ever produce greatness at the macro.

But one could also compare the zombified reality of Apple workers plodding to work over the carefully unperturbed thresholds in their new spaceship headquarters to the sleepy drone of an army built to abide rather than to think, let alone think different. The same invisible doorways lead to and from the authorized chambers of work and gardens of leisure. So exacting!

These are, I think, the paragraphs where Bogost’s argument truly disintegrates. I’ve never worked at Apple, but not a single employee or ex-employee I’ve asked about their time there has responded by stating that they “abide rather than […] think”. When you read anything an ex-employee has written about their time at the company or hear about an interaction that someone has had with a current employee, the clearest thing that comes through is that the people working on these products really, really care about their work. That’s, perhaps, a third pillar of “great design”: true care and passion.

That leads me to addressing an argument that opened Bogost’s essay:

But if Apple designs at its best when attending closely to details like those revealed in the construction of its spaceship headquarters, then presumably the details of its products would stand out as worthy precedents. Yet, when this premise is tested, it comes up wanting. In truth, Apple’s products hide a shambles of bad design under the perfection of sleek exteriors.

“Sufficiently great design” does not, of course, mean “free of imperfections”. But it’s also something that cannot be read solely through details. Bogost’s argument is, therefore, backwards. Apple’s biggest contribution to design has been their ability to project a broader vision of consumer electronics at vast scale while still keeping an eye on the details.

Maybe you’re someone who’s getting bored with Apple. Maybe you’re frustrated by some of the decisions they’ve made — anyone who reads this site regularly will know that I certainly am. But, as I wrote above, great design is a process of compromises and decisions. Apple’s products are not perfect, but the company’s contributions to design from both aesthetic and functional perspectives is impossible to deny. They have, truly, produced some of the most iconic, popular, industry-changing, revolutionary designs of the past fifty years. If that’s not “sufficiently great”, I don’t know what is.

  1. Steve Jobs at D in 2007: “At Apple it’s about ideas, and we argue about ideas constantly.” ↥︎