What happened to Apple’s industrial design team?

It seems as though every major division at Apple has been running at full-power for the past couple of years–the raw technology coming out of the company has been truly remarkable: its A-series chips are the fastest and most secure smartphone SOCs in the world, the iPhone has the best smartphone camera in the world, the iPad has one of best computer displays ever shipped, and iOS 10 is a huge improvement over its predecessor. For most of Apple, the slow march of technological progress continues on unrelenting. But one team hasn’t been pulling its weight, at least publicly: industrial design.

The first time I held an iPhone 4, I knew it was something magical. A group of people had clearly spent an incredible amount of time obsessing over its design and construction. The iPhone 4/5 series felt less like a piece of obsoletable technology and more like a well-made tool that should last decades; when the iPhone 4 was released, many compared its design to a timeless Leica camera. I agreed. In fact, I still have an iPhone 5s laying around simply because I find it inspiring to hold and feel.

I did not get the same feeling from the iPhone 6 series. It is boring and I think one of the uglier phone designs Apple has shipped. The 6’s intrusive antenna lines, poorly integrated camera bulge, and careless rounded corners are totally at odds with Apple’s history of releasing increasingly beautiful and innovative designs. The iPhone 6 looks and feels like every other modern smartphone. It is unremarkable. So I was incredibly surprised when Apple released the iPhone 7 last week, which, from an industrial design standpoint, is essentially an iPhone 6 with a new coat of paint. The iPhone has been committed to at least another year of sporting an unremarkable design.

Unfortunately, this industrial design stagnation did not start with the newly released iPhone. It has been happening for years, and is even clearer when you look at the iPad, which has not seen a case design update since 2013–not even an update to integrate the materials and casing technology improvements from the newest iPhones–or the MacBook Pro, which has been virtually untouched for more than five years, since 2011. Even the newest iPad Pro models simply reuse existing iPad industrial designs, including the same chamfered aluminum edge around the screen, which can be traced back to the iPad 2, also released in 2011.

The last truly staggering piece of industrial design work that Apple released was the Mac Pro, in 2013, which I think is a work of art. But that was more than three years ago. Since then, none of Apple’s core products have seen major design improvements, and even minor evolutionary updates have not occurred at the same cadence they did in the past. (The new 12-inch MacBook could be argued as an exception, but even that computer maintains almost all of the same external design motifs and case construction technology as the existing MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.)

There was a time, not too long ago, when Apple used to test radically new designs all of the time–the iMac used to change almost every year, the iPod changed even more often than that, and though some of those changes were failures (remember the iMac’s swivel screen?), most led to groundbreaking improvements that were eventually adopted by the whole computer industry. The G4 Cube was interesting, if short-lived. The Titanium PowerBook was a statement. But Apple’s recent designs have been much more reserved, much more careful, than designs of the past. I fear they’ve become more boring.

So what is going on? Maybe Apple has lost the ability to experiment due to rapid growth and unprecedented scale. Maybe the team itself has become too complacent, or too scared, to make radical changes. No matter the reason, it appears from the outside that Apple’s industrial design team has slowly lost its genius–or at the very least its cadence–over the past few years. But there is one other potential explanation: maybe Apple has taken the enormous–one might even say courageous–risk of spending all of its resources on far-future product designs to the severe detriment of current products. I sincerely hope so.


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