Co.Design

Beware Of Following The Gospel Of Minimalism, Preached By Apple

Apple has long preached the gospel of minimalist design, and that's been a clever business strategy. But it's one that other companies would be foolish to follow closely.

The cleverest trick that Apple has ever pulled isn’t convincing us to pay $500 for a phone or MP3 player, but rather convincing the world that if you want good design, then you have to follow Apple’s template of clean lines and stripped-down details. You can see how that happened: The company has become so synonymous with both good design and minimalism that most people assume those two things are one and the same. They’re not: You can have good design that’s fanciful and wacky; likewise, you can have minimalist design that’s horrible.

The fact is, minimalism has been a business strategy for Apple—and maybe their most successful business strategy of all. While just-in-time manufacturing and a stand-alone retailing have earned it hundreds of billions in sales, minimalism built the brand that made their gadgets lust-worthy to begin with. Let’s dissect how that works.

Every Gadget Sells The Others

One of the best features of Apple’s gadgets hides in plain sight: Each one looks closely related to the others. The Apple TV interface isn’t too far different from that of iTunes; iTunes itself borrows the basic feel of the Apple OS. Meanwhile, the gadgets themselves take up that same sort of family feel: The iMac, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and iPhone are all radically different devices but they’re immediately recognizable as cousins thanks to their shared detailing and material palette.

To appreciate how unique that is, simply look at some of their competitors. While Microsoft’s new mobile OS is remarkably well designed, its design language has no relationship to the xBox UI, or the Windows OS. Not only do HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Samsung make boring black boxes, but every single black box they make seems to have no relationship with the others. As Apple has proved, that’s a massive missed opportunity. Each one of Apple’s gadgets quietly sells the others, every single day you have it. When you buy an iPhone, you’re buying into the Apple design language, and the little details you come to appreciate are details you know you’ll find in all their other products—from the laser-etched buttons to the stunningly beautiful screws to the dead-simple UI layout. When you finally decide to buy another Apple gadget—say, an iPad or a MacBook Air—you’ve already been primed to love it.

It would extremely hard to pull that off without a minimalist design language. The wilder your detailing and form-factor are, the harder they are to translate to totally different products. Not so with a minimalist palette—in that case, simply lifting a few, select details such as an aluminum case or a particular rounded corner, is enough to suggest a strong, familial relationship.

Redesigns Never Destroy Brand Equity

Brands are only as good as their last redesign: Almost every industry, from cars to computers to clothing, is littered with some cautionary tale about a run-away success that was replaced with a disaster. The goodwill that a company can build with a remarkably designed product can disappear overnight, if its successors don’t live up to expectations. Over time, and with greater and greater successes, the inherent risk that you carry with a redesign only grows.

Thus, it’s no surprise that Apple’s own designs have grown more and more conservative over time as the company has evolved from a nearly dead also-ran into the world’s most valuable company. Take the iMac. The original design announced the company’s overhaul, and its boldness was a response to the enormous challenges that the company faced in 1997. The "sunflower" design that followed that was no less radical, with its swiveling flat-panel monitor. But since then, the iMac’s evolution has slowed. Today, it’s own design language moves in lock-step with Apple’s broader design language. Much of the same thing has happend with the iPod: The original, all-white design language has given way to a larger and larger screen—which means that the canvas for the rest of the design has grown successively smaller, so that these days, when you see a new design for the iPhone or the iPad, the redesigns are remarkable in how little actually changes.

The point is, by reducing the design language to such relatively small gestures—the curve of an edge or the etching on a button—Apple has reduced the risk associated with rolling out new products.

HP’s Envy notebook computer. Look familiar?

It’s Only Growing Harder To Catch Apple

The growing screens and shrinking cases of our gadgets today mean that there’s actually very little to design in today’s products. I don’t mean that it’s easier to design these gadgets, but rather that the sheer footprint of the physical design has shrunk. Today’s CE designs aren’t much more than a glorified frame for a big black screen, and so the range of possible design gestures has become vanishingly thin.

All of that plays directly into Apple’s hands, because it becomes harder and harder for other companies to distinguish themselves with less and less real estate open for redesign. If you’re simply designing a minimalist case for a laptop, and that laptop barely has more to it than a keyboard and a screen, then by default, almost anything you do is going to look like a copy of an Apple product. Phones are another good example: The actual case almost comes to nothing on today’s biggest phones. So even though the Nokia Lumia 900, for example, is a remarkable bit of industrial design, it’s impossible to imagine it as a breakout hit when its form factor is such a small part of its overall experience.

The Nokia Lumia 900: Well designed, but unlikely to break out.

The Untapped Opportunity

Everything I’ve laid out above might seem like unalloyed praise for Apple. But that’s not my aim at all. I’m merely trying to point out that Apple’s minimalism isn’t just about aesthetics; rather, it’s a massively important piece of their overall business strategy. And as a result of their success, Apple has inseparable from most people’s definition of what "good design" means.

Is that a good thing? It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that Apple has singlehandedly improved the standard of design across myriad industries, simply by showing the massive profits that can result from better-designed products. That’s probably true. But I also believe that Apple might have reached a point where the company is actually bad for design, because their own example is limiting people’s imagination for what good design can truly be.

For one, it’s become almost impossible for anyone to design anything that isn’t in some way a response to Apple. Sometimes that’s good. For example Lytro, a start-up camera company, designed their product with the founding ideal of a dead-simple UI. That emphasis on simple, intuitive interactions is a legacy of Apple’s approach that should be followed forever. But more often than not, companies hoping to emulate the company’s success don’t realize that they simply can’t win by mirroring its current design strategy. They forget that before Apple became the world’s most valuable company, it bet the farm on the wildly weird iMac design.

But the broader problem with all this Apple adoration is that Apple isn’t dreaming nearly as big as it used to when it comes to design. I can think of one particularly huge gap in their imagination: The linkage between the pixels and the physical world. The design language you see on your iPad screen has very little to do with the physical design of the computer itself. While the case lives in a world of clean minimalism, the UI is filled with fussy, ridiculous details, such as the wood-paneled iBook store or the very iconography itself, which is beginning to feel dated and static. By contrast, I can see a day where the physical products are entwined with the beauty of the pixels inside—when every last physical detail evokes those within the UI, and vice versa.

It probably won’t happen soon, but eventually Apple will have to become an example not only of how you do things, but how much is left to be done. I’m eagerly waiting for it to happen.

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56 Comments

  • Zoran

    you are absolutely right about minimalist and fanciful design that they could be good and bad. For me that comparison is like comparing Versailles and buildings designed by Mais van der Rohe. Two different worlds. What message would Apple send with fanciful design, "We are from last century"?

  • Dan Whittet

    Thanks for mentioning that wood paneling in the Ibook shelves. It's as if you came into my modern, minimalist house and found all my books down in the basement game room. What would we call a continuity of design ethic that moved beyond the case into the " inner vaues" ?  Great concept... " Beauty is not just on the surface?"

  • Mitch McKee

    I think the main reason why Apple has become synonymous with both good design and minimalism is Jony Ive. Sure, you can have many different types of design, and they'll still be beautiful. But looking at the PC and electronics markets alone, you can see why Apple stands out so well by promoting Minimal design. Look at an HP and a Dell. Take the logos off, can you tell them apart? Probably not. But even HP's shoddy attempt at biting off Apple with the Envy up there still stands out as being "not Apple." The fact is, Steve Jobs was obsessed with design, and there hasn't been another consumer electronics CEO yet that understands that. Until they do, they won't push it as hard as Apple has over the years, and they'll never be able to compete.

    BTW, is it that surprising that Apple fans are willing to pay so much for good design? Consider that the design field as a whole, whether it be graphic, type, product, etc, uses primarily Macs. Sure there are designers that use Windows, just as there are engineers that use Macs. But designers crave good design. So yeah, we'll pay extra.

  • Larry

    Cliff, something worth doing is reading the Apple Design book by Paul Kunkle. There the whole history of Apple's design languages can be understood.  From the "Valley" look of the original Mac and Lisa, to the "Snow White" look as promoted by frogdesign, to the "Nu-look" transitional language that was a place holder until the development of "Expresso" in the 90's by the Bob Brunner's internal design group, then onto Jony Ive's minimalism.  All these languages have rhymes and reasons for being that are quite interesting.

  • R. Yagura

    Apple Minimalism and Ives will go down in design history like Streamline and Loewy.

  • J.B. Chaykowsky

    Ives has explained his (and Apple's) theories for why things are the way they are time and time again. All you have to do is watch the film "Objectified" (you can stream it on NetFlix) and it pretty much answers the ridiculous statement of the iMac being "wildly weird". In his interview Ive's states that the bulk of the iMac was built around the cathode ray tube and since the proliferation of flat screen technology, the iMac look has progressed from the Bondi blue shown above to today's design.

    With the iPad and iPhone there is no reason to have details that are placed purely for ornamentation. Everything defers to the the screen. And while you are critiquing the UI elements that seem a bit "silly" like the book shelf and more, the use of "soft" representations of "hard" real world objects is not something new. Nor is it exclusive to Apple. And Apple's UI approach is to make people feel comfortable.

    It is my belief the iPad would not even be half as successful as it is if it wasn't for the iPhone. The iPad was being developed long before the iPhone, but you need ways to introduce technology or services to be friendly to people. The iPhone made people familiar to multi-touch interfaces and changes the way people interact with technology. Apple then released the iPad as a direct cousin to the iPhone. The Bookstore looks the way it does so people feel "comfortable" psychologically when using it. It is familiar. And with more people buying tablets for the first time it needs this familiarity.

    I can use this same logic for the "Find My Friends" app. Personally, I never use it. But could you imagine the "hardness" of a UI interface without any of the leather and paper detailing it currently has? The fact that the interface would be tracking people in a less friendly environment and could create user uneasiness. A blip on a screen, with a minimalist UI you suggest might seem a little 1984.

    I can now bring us back to the Bondi Blue iMac above and say the same thing. Before that computer... everything was beige. A scary box that was set BELOW people's desks. Now computers (And not just Apple's) sit about on the desk proud to be displayed. They broke the "comfortability" barrier of desktop computing. Think about the way it was packaged. After a consumer buys the iMac, they pull it out of the box with the handle, place it on their desk, and plug it in. Maybe 3 cables max.Turn it on and it works?! Can you understand how empowering that is for people who most often think of themselves as computer illiterate?! 

    I also see it for the future. Let's bring Siri to the iPhone that way we have a built in base of people who know how to utilize speech recognition interfaces. Then place it in AppleTV and other products. This way it is familiar.

    Apple's design strategy is not just about ease of use, quality materials, and unifying product language so it is unmistakably Apple. It is also about making computers "human" tools and seem less difficult to use. It is about empowering individuals and design is simply

  • steve michel

    We shouldn't get hung up on minimalism, (which was already vintage in the interior design field long before Apple existed as a company). My field, Interior design is as much about user space and enablers, as it is about the things that fill that space.

    I think Jobs pursuit of facilitating user experience, and the CE industry focus on that aspect, will mean, ultimately the physical design of CE will be reduced to the logo and user experience. The minimalist approach is a result of that process. Apple is halfway on that journey because the underlying technology is still evolving. So yes, i agree there is room for improvement.

  • Arshed Nabeel

    " To appreciate how unique that is, simply look at some of their competitors. While Microsoft’s new mobile OS is remarkably well designed, its design language has no relationship to the xBox UI, or the Windows OS."That, unfortunately is a gross mis-information - the Metro UI pioneered in Windows Phone has already made it's way to the revamped XBox UI and the upcoming Windows 8.

  • Studioflex

    A very eloquent article. I was reminded of the inspiration Apple's designs are on my theories about the nature of design. My own view is that design has no real value until it makes an object safer and easier to use. Apple design works and has always worked because it has always succeeded in making computers safer and easier to use. The minimalism was the logical outcome of this single minded effort. 
    I do not believe that the "look" of Apple products was the intentional result of a marketing strategy. It was, instead, the evolving development of a design effort directed towards making many kinds of devises easier to use. At a certain point this effort crosses over to other platforms. The same things that make a computer easier to use, can make a music player easier to use, and then also a cell phone, and then also an e-reader. 

    Then that cross-fertilization can be reversed. Apple's Ipad software inspired the development of OS lion; which rendered the Mac computers even easier to use. 

    My own field of effort is urban design. I have observed over the years that where cities are most successful they are the most efficient in their design. As a city contributes to the productivity of its citizens it succeeds. If we devote our design efforts to making objects like computers easier to use, then we can devote urban design efforts to making cities easier to live in. 

    These ideas lead me away from the notion that design is some decorative process we subordinate to the process of building something that will make us money. Design to make peoples lives easier, and the product will likely make money. Apple products are the best example of how that process works.

  • Donal Cullen

    Cliff,

    A great article, If you design as well as you write you must be kept busy.

    Good point regarding the disconnect between the physical and the media / UX of the devices and apps.

    It seems to me that the next big wave is the abondoning of the keyboard and replaement with gesture. This battleground for ownership of CE market will be fun to watch and designers and in particular UX designers are going to be mega important.

    ..Donal
    Dublin Ireland

  • MC

    Interesting article, written with a fair amount of critical thinking
    skills: Asking provocative questions like, does good design have to be
    minimal the way Apple does it? This is a tough nut to crack—and a broken logic we've heard too many times before—and its
    interesting because few design writers question it. Kudos for that.

    ON APPLE'S LEADERSHIP ROLE IN MINIMALISM...

    An even more interesting question would have been, didn't Apple appropriate Dieter Ram's minimalist aesthetic from the Braun days? And, considering the entire Modernist aesthetic and focus on simplicity—of which Rams was one participant of many—Apple is hardly a minimalism leader; simply the most recent "variation on a theme" that has gone mainstream lately. Let's face it, the Apple iPod is a direct copy of the Braun T3 pocket radio. Jesus Diaz wrote an interesting piece about this copy conundrum for Gizmodo called "1960's Braun Products Holds the Secrets to Apple's Future" back in 2008. So I'm assuming the Apple-Braun connection is no surprise to Fast Co readers—as it seems to be familiar to commenters of this article, like Hagay Vider.

    I'm not mentioning this to get stuck in the copy-vs-original mud, but it's pretty obvious where the "inspiration" comes from and that Apple was far, far, far from being the first. Apple has been an innovator in other areas (hype, production, commoditizing), just not the minimalism category. And let's not forget about Apple in reality: Both minimal and kitch. In October 2011, James Higgs wrote an interesting article that looked at Apple's decorative designs, including the iPad calendar application with fake leather trim graphics. "Skeuomorphism" is the word given to this by Higgs and readers can look up the "Apple's Aesthetic Dichotomy" article on the Made by Many blog.

    ON APPLE'S PROFITS BEING LED BY "BETTER-DESIGNED PRODUCTS"...

    "It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that Apple has singlehandedly
    improved the standard of design across myriad industries, simply by
    showing the massive profits that can result from better-designed
    products."

    One could argue that a myriad of attitudes, elements and strategies have impacted Apple's profitability. One being budget-crunching from California and sub, sub, sub-standard factories in China, including the infamous Foxconn City. Charles Duhigg and David Barboza from The New York Times have done incredible investigative journalism on where Apple's productivity comes from. And, sadly, it's not only from "better-designed products". Of note are their articles "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad" and "How the U.S. Lost Out on iPone Work" from January 2012.

  • David J. Kordsmeier

    The antithesis of minimalism is our desktop model of computing.  A general device that has a port for every IO, a set of programs to tackle every challenge, and compatibility with nearly every device that you plug in.  That's what we have with the x86 architecture when paired with Windows or Linux (when the stars align).  It's not the Apple experience, in terms of desktop computing.  Arguably, Apple gets by without needing to have every possible device supported because it controls it's hardware designs and software ecosystem, and one can say, this model has proven  superior for a company that doesn't need to interoperate with competitors and instead work well within its niche (though Apples niche has expanded rapidly in recent years).

    In the world of multitouch tablet user experiences, Apple's model of minimalism has limited functionality artificially, such that extremely capable hardware such as that found in the iPad2, paired with what is essentially a derivative of Mac OS X (iOS), is held back in terms of functionality in the name of __ ? __.  Maybe it's minimalism.  Maybe its part of this careful training of the Apple consumer that they will need an iPad, and iPhone, and a MacBook in order to be productive and feel good.  

    I would argue that the barrier between multitouch tablet user experiences and desktop computing should collapse, and there is no longer a reason to carry a laptop, other than the tablets don't yet seem to have the software we need to be fully productive in the model of desktop computing.  That's an artificial barrier.  The iPad2 is powerful enough, and iOS, like Apple TV's hamstrung OS, under the hood is a derivative of Mac OS X.  Why can't I run my Mac apps under a universal binary on my iPad2?  

    The barrier of productivity and this "follow Apple" minimalism cannot continue.  Look at what a year of Honeycomb tablets delivered.  We are almost there.  Someone will build a tablet that delivers most of what you need, with the other 20% obtained from the cloud, which is where we spend our time anyway.  Maybe ASUS or Samsung will figure it out.  Maybe a new startup that isn't burdened by Apple Minimalism or the Desktop Computing model will deliver something equally powerful.

  • Hagay Vider

    Unifying the design of an entire product range is ranges beyond Apple. Companies with a unified design concept don't necessarily go towards a minimalist direction. AlienWare for example, makes products directed towards gamers. Their products have a sci-fi alien look, the image their target customers are attracted to. Also, Alpha Romeo, BMW, Land Rover, and other European auto makers have also maintained a unified and evolving design philosophy since before Steve Jobs was born. Even Steve Jobs himself stole his design philosophy (and industrial designer) from Braun.

  • pdbagne

    Prepare for a bold stroke of new design across all product lines, starting perhaps with the iPhone 5 or iPad 3. The knowledge was not lost on Mr. Jobs that others would copy the Apple design, as with the HP Envy, making it no longer unique and diluting its branded style. He was aware of a material cooler than aluminum with technical advantages, sculptable, black like a sleeping screen and shinny. In May, five months before his health utterly failed, he saw the hiring of Kevin McKinney to a new position, senior composite engineer, as an expert in carbon fiber.

  • giorgio789

    Cliff:  plenty of valid points, but "wildly weird iMac design"??  Really???  I remember the day those "wildly weird iMacs" came out back in the late 90's.  Television media was in shock and awe mode, with Ive's colorful new designs taking it by storm in a big way.  Bright and bold new material exploration with delightful textures like the 2nd surface ribbed design seen through translucent glossy surface is something that belongs in a museum, and wildly weird in the best sense, leaving competition in follower position again and again.  And talking Ipad's UI, your take on those "fussy, ridiculous details" is of course highly subjective.  As an industrial designer myself, I find those details delightful yet again, with the very abundance of detail, color, and texture in them boldly contrasting with the ultra-minimal hardware which houses them.  Isn't that what they always talk about when they say good design gets out of the way?