A victory for design over dogma!

Contrary to most designers. I am not a Mac user. I own a Blackberry and not an I-Phone. I have an HP Desktop and Sony Laptop, not an I-Mac or I-Book. Apple’s products are very impressive, but they have just never been my thing. Personally, I feel my first generation BB Bold may not be as good a phone as the I-Phone 4, of that there is no question, but is an infinitely more stylish and interesting object to own. And I consider the I-Book to be criminally over-priced for a laptop. A premium of 20-30% for a better laptop is understandable. But a doubling of the price to own a computer that is technically no better than its competition and aesthetically only marginally better, is something I would never contemplate. Indeed, the only Apple product I have owned in the last ten years has been the first generation ‘Shuffle’ which accompanies me to this day. So I am not exactly an Apple aficionado

In addition to what is written above, I find the whole ‘Apple being a creative person’s brand’ tiresome. Yes they are in one way. However, the majority of creative people prize individuality ahead of being part of a ‘creative clique.’ The more Apple products become the mainstream, the less distinctive they become. Furthermore, Apple are becoming more and more apolitical in their attempts to fight their corner. Attacks on Adobe regarding Flash for the I-Pad smacks of arrogance and highly political posturing by Steve Jobs. Indeed, Apple’s recent transformation from the anti-establishment brand to the all-conquering force, they now are, just makes them a whole lot less likeable. They remind me of the Kings of Leon in a way. Most of us who initially loved the Kings of Leon devoured the first couple of albums when their music was interesting are now aghast at the money making machine they have become. Finally, if truth be told, from an aesthetic point of view, their products are just not that special. From the I-Pad, to the I-Phone to the I-Pod to the I-Book. They are just boxes. Boxes with radiused edges. Indeed, most of the actual shapes could be modelled with primitive shapes on any 3D CAD programme. Beautifully finished boxes but boxes just the same. They are flattered by the lack of competition stylistically from the majority of their competitors. As I stated earlier, I am not an Apple aficionado, far from it. However, I do absolutely love the way the company has placed design at the heart of its strategy. Putting it at the forefront of the argument, highlighting its relevance. And above all, championing the incredible power that good, innovative design can have in a profit-driven world.

On May the 27th 2010, Apple overtook Microsoft as the biggest tech company on the planet. 10 years ago, it wasn’t even a tenth of the size. It was a significant moment, and I would argue, a victory for design.

I only found out recently that Steve Jobs is actually a designer, by-trade. Not an engineer nor a developer or even a professional entrepreneur as previously thought. But a designer. As a bi-product of his role, he is incredibly knowledgeable in all these fields but his first instincts are to think as a designer and his whole company is an embodiment to the power of design. It comes as no surprise that he is mad about the Beatles. The one music group, above all others, that has married creative genius with unsurpassed commercial triumph. The Beatles were passionate about their music, the creation, their songs. The thrill of the journey. First and foremost, they had an ambition to make great music. The success, wealth and monetary value of their creation was not at the forefront of Paul McCartney’s mind when he wrote ‘yesterday.’ But by concentrating on writing the best song he possibly could on this and all other Beatles songs. He was consequently satisfying the long-term commercial ambitions of their music (whether this was sought after or not is unknown.) Steve Jobs and Apple’s philosophy is identical, by making the most innovative and interesting products in their sector, they are also ensuring immediate and enduring commercial success. By weaving the values of innovation and style into the Apple DNA, they are ensuring that the Apple company succeeds in the long-term. Reminiscent of the Beatles and not some flash in the pan pop star.

But what does Apple do that makes their company so successful and leave its opponents so flatfooted? Principally, it is the whole company’s attitude to design, creativity and innovation. From the top down. This is embodied in a number of ways.

Firstly, they are ruled not by technology but by their own imaginations. Apple strive to make products that are better for their user, better to use, nicer to look at, more sophisticated etc. This fundamental paradigm sets them apart from the majority of their competitors who develop technologies and disparately try to wrap products around them. Apple’s user-centric approach is to principally make a better product for the user and subsequently find or develop the appropriate technology to make that happen. This approach allows for an impressive list of innovations from transparent computer cases on the original I-Mac to the I-Tunes concept that revolutionised music to the Apps store to touch sensitive screens on the first I-Phone and on and on. Apple are consistently one step ahead of the game. The Apple ‘Greatest Hits’ catalogue is bigger than everybody else’s, building huge brand credibility and value. The buzz with Apple products has endured a long time and it seems to be growing all the time.

Secondly, I am sure they benchmark their rivals products, but they don’t slavishly copy them. There will be instances where they have borrowed good features from their rivals, yet built them in cohesively with the rest of the product and only used it if necessary. The majority of the time they are being replicated not replicating. Indeed, it is almost embarrassing to see companies like RIM try to replicate the I-Phone touch-screen with the Storm or Sony mimic the keyboard layout of the I-book on the Vaio and especially Windows replicating so many features of the OS operating system such as the floating taskbar on Windows7. In fact Microsoft, its oldest rival, is a little like a rudderless ship at the moment, all over the place trying to keep up with Google in one respect and Apple in another. Taking me to another significant point of difference. Apple has limited itself to a small number of products. It has only competed in fields where it can. Unlike Microsoft, who by massive diversification, create multiple products badly. Microsoft should be mimicking Apple’s approach in concentrating on what they do best. Not doing what they cant do and then lazily mimicking key product features from their competitors.

Thirdly, innovation. Most recite it, few actually do it. True foresight and innovation allow a company the opportunity to differentiate itself from its competitors. If done well, it can open up massive opportunities for growth and profit. In Apple’s case, the I-Pod with I-Tunes basically stole the record company’s industry from under its nose in the most brutal way possible. Record companies sold Compact Disk’s. Apple, on the other hand revolutionised the music industry. They didn’t give the consumer a CD but an easier way to buy/listen to music putting thousands of CD companies out of business in the meantime. By looking long term at a scenario and by redefining the context, Apple changed the music industry forever. They are now doing the same to the phone market. Indeed, I do genuinely believe that if Apple were ever to make a car that they could sink a good number of our major car companies who are renown for working back to front in the creation of cars. By innovating, and innovating properly, that is making products that are better not different just for the sake of it, but better. Apple has massively increased its business’s profit. Indeed, the music industry example highlights the danger for companies that don’t innovate. They are sitting ducks waiting to be picked off by more savvy competitors from other sectors such as Apple.

Finally, style. In terms of discipline, visual coherence and finish. Apple’s products are one step ahead of its competitors. As I stated earlier, in terms of style. I am not personally a massive fan of the geometric, clean cut and simple Apple aesthetic. Yet as a designer, you cannot fail to be impressed with the way it is executed. The most important part of our jobs from a stylistic sense is to communicate the truth. All artistic figures such as artists and poets obsess about the truth, how to find it, how to portray it well. As a designer, we must communicate the truth and do so effectively, with clarity and consistency. All of Apple’s products achieve this very successfully. Although they are just boxes, their products are always beautifully finished with excellent materials and stunning attention to detail. Furthermore, the discipline to ensure cleanliness and simplicity with all their products is awe-inspiring. Apple have decided that in this age of ’information overload,’ they’ll strive to make very complicated products as minimal, uncluttered and simple as possible. This is their philosophy and this discipline extends to every individual product, their marketing, their website etc. All creating a strong and unequivocal message about what Apple is.

Indeed Apple’s dominance over its rivals in so many ways may make us consider how its rivals can properly compete in the short to long term. Basically, Microsoft, Samsung, Nokia, Sony, etc should copy not what Apple does but the way it does it. They should focus more closely on their own segments without diversifying all over the place to make a quick buck. Innovate and build products that are more desirable to the consumers and finally take advantage of Apple’s new found position as the establishment brand. By designing more distinctive products, that are truer to the company’s values, Apple‘s rivals can steal a march on Apple. Indeed it is an interesting paradox that the ‘creative persons’ brand by achieving such significant sales success may alienate the one group of people that has contributed most to its success. As the commercial world become more infatuated with its new products to the detriment of distinctiveness and individuality. The designers, journalists, photographers, writers etc may go elsewhere. Furthermore, clean cut minimalism may be Apple’s way but it isn’t the only way to design a product. Diluted me2 products just embarrass the status of respectable companies. I would love to see some products that experiment with more organic forms in their surface language or more technologically advanced sci-fi inspired computers. There are hundreds of alternatives to the beautifully finished metal box. But the company must have that universal vision and that can only be provided by the inspiration of a designer.

As It is design, that has been the biggest driver of Apple’s success. Innovation and creativity are synonymous with the designer’s brief but it has only been through empowering designers at the top level that the company has succeeded. The vision is the designer’s one and its important as it is borne of a desire to make great products, not simply make money. Apple is a formidable force because every member of the company from the sales staff to the technicians to the engineers buy into the designer’s vision. By focussing on making great products and not great profits, Apple are laughing all the way to the bank.

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