Does Apple’s design team need some fresh blood? [Friday Night Fights]


Or is its best yet to come?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

You can’t think about Apple without thinking about great design. The two go hand-in-hand, thanks to the company’s incredible ability to churn out hit products that make billions of dollars one after the other, year after year.

FNF-bugBut Apple’s design team isn’t perfect. There have been some missteps over the years, and it seems like they’ve become more common under Tim Cook. Its design has also become predictable; even before we get a new product, we have a good idea what it will look like.

Are we worrying about nothing, or is it time Apple invited some fresh blood into Jony Ive’s lair? Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight between Cult of Android and Cult of Mac as we fight it out over this and more!

Killian-FNFKillian Bell — Writer, Cult of Android: It’s difficult to criticize Apple’s design because the company has produced some of the most iconic tech products the world has seen, and it is renowned for its design talent — but I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s fun to upset a fanboy like yourself on a Friday afternoon.

In fact, I might change the name of this feature to Friday Night Fanboy-Bashing.

First, let me make it clear that I don’t think Apple design is bad overall. That would be a silly statement to make. But I don’t think it’s as perfect as lots of fans perceive it to be. I also don’t think it’s as fresh or as exciting as it once was; Apple seems to have become more conservative in recent years.

It doesn’t take risks or experiment with exciting new things like it used to. We can expect its latest devices to be thinner and lighter every year, but it’s safe to say they will still be made out of aluminum and glass, and they’ll look almost identical to their predecessors. What’s more, Apple appears to stick with this familiar formula even when it limits functionality.

Apple doesn’t listen to our feedback, either. It doesn’t care that we’d accept slightly thicker iPhones with better battery life, or slightly bigger Macs that you can repair and upgrade. Jony Ive and his team decides what’s best for us, and don’t really care what we think of it.

In contrast, you have a manufacturer like Samsung, which, in recent years, has become closer to Apple in its earlier days. It is experimenting with new things that improve the user experience (designs that allow for wireless charging and water-resistance), and it listens to feedback. When fans complained about its tacky plastic, it swapped it for sturdy metal and curved glass.

Apple will continue to churn out pretty products, but few of them will really surprise us, because we know what Apple likes. And that’s a shame, I think. It has become somewhat stagnant now, and we’re not seeing Apple’s design team shake things up like it used to.

I’m interested to hear what you think… after you’ve allowed your heart rate to drop and stopped frothing at the mouth.

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke Dormehl — Writer, Cult of Mac: “Friday Night Fanboy-Bashing,” eh? I think you may have a justifiable lawsuit against the Samsung Galaxy in your future Killian because clearly it was you who invented edge, you edgy edgelord, you!

So what are you complaining about this week? Ah, Apple design! You mean that stream-of-award-winning, copied-by-the-folks-you-write-about-for-a-living design? Just checking!

To be fair, you’re not 100 percent wrong. When I first became interested in Apple back in the 1990s, you did see more variation from the company. Apple was still trying to find what worked and was far from the behemoth it is today. We got attention-grabbing designs like the Twentieth Anniversary Mac, the bulbous Bondi Blue Mac and more. Later on, we got the G5 Cube — which I still love, despite the fact that most people seem to consider it a massive flop (which, financially, it admittedly was.)

That was a fun time to be an Apple fan because what the company was producing, as it scrabbled around for its own identity, was something that could catch the attention of PC owners off to buy their latest beige box and pull them over to the Cult of Mac. Inside Apple, you had a young designer (Jony Ive, then in his late twenties to early thirties) who wanted to show off what he was capable of, with all the kind of youthful exuberance you’d expect from a young person wanting to make their name. This is the period when Apple hired most of its design team, who have largely stayed the same ever since — with the exception of a handful of departures.

What is this mess?
What is this mess?
Photo: Apple

But, like Samsung, you had a few big design missteps. Who can forget Apple’s “hockey puck” mouse, for instance? There were plenty of other examples of this; Apple trying to find the balance between form and function and, for all their successes, having some big swings-and-misses. That’s kind of how I view Samsung today. In terms of both hardware and software, there are some interesting ideas — but you don’t get a cohesive design language like you do with Apple.

Instead, you get something that hopes to desperately grab your attention as you’re reaching for that next-gen iPhone. Samsung’s definitely never going to be accused of not experimenting, but there’s something to be said for the consistent quality of Apple’s industrial design. It may not always be make your jaw drop at its crazy left field thinking, but I’d rather have timeless design than cheap gimmicks at the end of the day.

Killian-FNFKillian: I’m glad you recognize that there were certainly some misses in amongst all the hits. But you’ve forgotten some, like the aluminum PowerBooks that were incredibly flimsy, the plastic MacBooks that fell apart as they aged, the iPhone 4 that needed a case to make calls, the black iPhone 5 that slowly but surely shed its paint… and others.

But you’re wrong about some things (most things). Some of Apple’s “timeless designs” have aged incredibly badly — like the “hockey puck” mouse you mentioned, and some of the Macs it released in the early ‘90s, which look just like those beige box PCs you criticize. And consistent quality? Pah!

If anything, Apple’s design has gone backwards under Tim Cook. Sure, we have the incredibly beautiful MacBook and Mac Pro, but we also have protruding cameras on the latest iPhones and iPad Pro, the abomination that is the iPhone battery case, a Magic Mouse with a charging port on its bottom, and Apple Pencil. Have you seen how you charge that thing? I can’t imagine Steve Jobs would have ever put his stamp of approval on these things.

What good is a cohesive design language when it comes with flaws like these? Don’t you think it’s about time Apple added some fresh blood to its design team to shake things up once more?

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke: Do you know why Apple design fails make such an impact? It’s because, like a scintillating Cult of Android article, there are so few of them. I can’t help but feel that you’re throwing stones in a glass house if you want to start talking about design errors. That protruding camera bump on the latest iPhone and iPad, for example, certainly wasn’t bad enough that Samsung wasn’t willing to do the same — with protruding camera housing on its latest Galaxy phone. Then there’s the lack of basic symmetry on both the Galaxy S6 and S7: something which speaks to a lack of care and attention.

I’ll give Samsung credit for stepping away from its early reputation as a complete iPhone copycat artist, but there’s simply nothing particularly striking about its designs. They feel like half-baked solutions, often rushed out to try and beat Apple to market. Even Samsung’s former head of product strategy and user experience design has said that the company suffers from failing to execute its ideas in a clear way that doesn’t see them get watered-down in the process. Samsung’s a successful company (well, most of the time) in terms of shipping in volume and appeasing a large number of customers, but there’s a reason we don’t know the name of the company’s Jony Ive equivalent. And it’s certainly not because Jony’s out there hogging the spotlight.

Another part that you’re missing is that Samsung’s physical handsets could be undisputed things of beauty — but that still doesn’t get around the problem that the UI design fares incredibly poorly next to iOS. Again, it’s a case of features being thrown out there to grab attention, which are inevitably ditched when they fail to work as promised. Is eye-tracking really an acceptable distraction to the lawsuit-inducing amount of bloatware that clogs up Samsung’s phones?

Galaxy S7 is better than iPhone 6s. Period.
Galaxy S7 is better than iPhone 6s. Period.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

I’m really trying not to argue that Apple’s design has never failed (it has) and that Samsung hasn’t ever had any good ideas (it has). But suggesting that Cupertino needs to go back to the drawing board and hire some new blood when Samsung is certainly not producing anything better is pretty ridiculous.

In terms of Samsung’s design cool, let’s not forget that the James Bond producers turned down $50 million so that 007 wouldn’t have to carry a Samsung in the latest movie. No matter what you say, it seems that Bond would agree that tailored suits, Aston Martins and Samsung Galaxies don’t belong in the same sentence!

Killian-FNFKillian: Don’t give me that basic symmetry rubbish again. It’s such a cheap shot. Only Apple fanboys give a damn about that rubbish; no Android user is avoiding the Galaxy S7 because its ports don’t line up. And if symmetry was so important to Apple, why doesn’t it place the camera and ambient light sensor either side of the earpiece on the iPhone, like Meizu did with its latest iPhone lookalike? Why is the iPhone camera on one side of its back, and not in the center?

And about that protruding camera lens: Samsung listened to fans last year when they complained about it, so it shaved it down for the Galaxy S7 series — you can hardly tell it’s there now. iPhone fans complained about theirs last year, too, but Apple did nothing about it.

How can you say there’s nothing striking about Samsung’s designs? It was one of the first to use curved glass, and fans love it. The Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S7 series, and the Galaxy Note 5 have been praised for being some of the prettiest smartphones available. They’re far from half-baked — and they are better than what Apple’s producing, as I’ve mentioned many times before. What advantage does the iPhone have?

I’m not going to listen to criticism of Samsung’s UI from someone who’s never used it. You might as well be complaining about how uncomfortable it is to drive a Mercedes on the moon; your feedback on that would be about as useful to me. Yes, Samsung’s software has been poor in the past, but it’s not today. The company doesn’t attract hundreds of millions of customers every year with bad products.

Photo: Apple

Let’s turn this over to the readers now. I’d like to get a debate going with someone who’s actually used something other than an iPhone and knows what they’re talking about.

Do you think Apple’s design team needs fresh blood, and it is time to swap samey designs for something new? Or is the company still churning out the best devices available? Let us know what you think down in the comments.

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?