Co.Design

The 3 Worst Design Details From Apple's iPhone 5 Event

Apple sold the masses on design, and then they gave us stretched iPhones, silly straps, and iPod Nanos worthy of parody. So at yesterday’s keynote, what went wrong?

It used to be so exciting. Yesterday, Apple announced what’s almost certainly the best smartphone in existence. Yet something felt off. Maybe we’ve begun to expect too much, but it was the first iPhone keynote that was a chore to watch, in which every new feature and piece of hardware seemed iterative, or sometimes just plain ugly, in which Apple simply didn’t get what was cool anymore.

Is that Apple’s fault or our own? After all, the free market demands new products, and my contract is up!

I’m blaming Apple, but I mean that as a compliment. With their watershed touch-screen interface—a window into another world that de-emphasizes the physical product as a minimal slab of metal and glass—Apple has almost designed themselves out of the design business. The iPhone was as perfect and timeless as products come. Then, after a few updates, Apple solved its critical usability issues and changed the way the world communicated on whole. At that point, I’d argue that the iPhone was complete. So maybe that’s why, yesterday, the company that once sold us all on design instead focused on the iPhone 5's specs—megahertz, megapixels, a bigger screen, and wireless data standards. It felt like a geeky ode to Moore’s Law rather than an homage to Dieter Rams.

With the shiny bands at the top and bottom, the iPhone 5 looks like a half-finished stretch-limo conversion.

Apple screwed up. They refused to put the chisel down. They stretched iPhones, added more icons, and generally did things just for the sake of doing them. It’d be easy to finger a missing link—Steve Jobs—who was notorious for quality control and honing products. And indeed, the appearances by so many faces—not just Tim Cook, but heads of divisions across Apple—seems to signal a shift in responsibility, from one stubborn opinion to a Sony-esque confused collection of departments.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with technical iteration. Everyone appreciates sharper photos and longer battery life. But while we’ve come to expect a bit less from the off-years, the 3GSs and 4Ss, this was the iPhone 5. It was the flagship. The public is demanding another great flagship, yet when you begin altering its great design just to alter it, that’s when you’re trying too hard. That’s when you stop being cool. And that’s where Apple went yesterday.

Ultimately, that sick feeling we all have in our guts right now is only being exacerbated by our own peer pressure: Apple has built their iDevices too well to keep modifying without doing some damage to the original work. Michelangelo wasn’t expected to make a thinner, faster, and all around more handsome David 3. But Apple is. And in light of that fact, here’s the worst of what I saw in Apple’s presentation yesterday:

The Paper Shredder
"Here’s a ticket for a baseball game. Here’s one I’ve gone to—so I tap the trash button … and we’ll shred that for you."
- Scott Forstall

Yesterday, Apple proudly demonstrated their new paper shredder animation, which "shreds" some of your most personal documents, like boarding passes, stored within the new Passport app. Of course this is a silly metaphor. You can’t shred bytes, you merely delete them. And even when deleted, they’re not really gone from a hard drive until they’ve been written over. Shredding is actually more secure than deleting.

But there’s a deeper worry I have about this whole shredder reference: How many of us still use shredders? How familiar is this visual metaphor in 2012 to a population that receives paperless bank statements and buys toilet paper on Amazon? What’s next, dialing numbers via swiping a rotary phone?

We’ve talked a lot about skeuomorphism, and how it’s plagued Apple since the rise of Gamecenter and Jobs’s insistence that the OS be stitched like the seats in his private jet. Still, why does this one tendency bother us so much? Apple’s been wrong before. When Apple refused to make certain design concessions, as in famously building the G4 Cube computer that couldn’t cool itself or refusing to add iOS copy and paste, the impulse seemed like that of a maniacal artist, or a mad scientist with no morals and a penchant for aesthetics. They thought they knew better for us. It was commendable in a way.

But this hands-over-the-ears, salt-in-the-wound shot by Forstall had an entirely different vibe to it than Apple’s stubbornness of yore—one of tone-deaf singer insisting they had the melody correct, and turning up the microphone in gleeful protestation to a groaning audience. In all honesty, it would have been kinda funny, if all this skeuomorphism weren’t becoming so difficult to tune out.

The New iPod Nano
"It’s the biggest display we’ve ever put in a nano at 2.5-inches. And it’s multi-touch."
- Greg Joswiak

When Apple gave us the iPad, and it was really just a big iPhone, they changed the world. When Apple gave us the iPad nano, today, and it was really just a super tiny iPhone, they lived up to every single "it’s even smaller!" iPod parody ever made. There’s no reason to mince words: The iPod Nano is hideous and appears borderline unusable. Its "biggest ever" 2.5-inch screen was touted for supporting "widescreen video" with a straight face. Roughly 20% of its footprint is dedicated to a button—the Home button—in an age where Apple’s touchscreen technology has made virtually any interface imaginable possible.

But maybe none of that is the worst of it. The new Nano is also one of the first Apple products that’s ever incorporated me-too design at its core. Look closely at the bi-layered bezel. It’s the Nokia Lumia 900—an iPod that was placed inside of a gutted Windows Phone, like Rambo hiding from the cops in the gutted carcass of a deer.

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The Loop
"Five choices, and each one comes with its own loop—color coordinated."
- Greg Joswiak

The new iPod is the thinnest ever. It’s so thin, in fact, that it apparently needs to have a Wiimote-esque iShackle tethering it to your wrist at all times. This strap is technically called the Loop, and yes, Apple bragged that each color of iPod will be coordinated with its own matching Loop. Apple knows design; they can even match.

The Loop embodies the complete irony of Apple having no idea how to improve the design of their touchscreen products. The iPod never needed a strap before, but now it’s evolved to be just 6.1mm thin—which seems to be the precise dimension that a corporate beancounter realized could slip out of enough hands to cause some ridiculous class action suit. (Remember the fallout during Antennagate?)

Why didn’t Apple just make the iPod as thick as the iPhone, maybe using that extra internal space to place a larger battery in lieu of the 4G chipset? I can only assume that they’d rather sell us on an impossibly thin device, then just add a big ole strap to fix the problem because a big ole strap is another piece of plastic that people with too much money will buy.

The Loop is not like the iPad’s magnetic cover, which brilliantly—magically, even—wakes the iPad up and puts it to sleep within a natural, human motion. It’s the new bumper, an "accessory" that only has to exist because faulty iterative design necessitated it.

And One More Thing: The EarPod
But if there’s one thing that makes us truly depressed about Apple’s state of the union, it’s the new EarPod, the successor to the famous white Earbud. Because in the face of utter mediocrity, design driven by largely meaningless iteration and matching meaningless peripherals, someone in Apple is still crafting beautiful things. The EarPods will be hidden inside your ears, but its lines are flowing. The mini speakers have inertia and personality and a hint of "you ain’t seen nothing yet" futurism.

The EarPod is also entirely overdesigned, showing that some contingent—maybe Jony Ive’s closest brethren (or at least their spiritual successors)—are still holding out from a foxhole deep within Apple. Maybe they’re so focused on something new—the next paradigm-shifting thing—that they couldn’t care less about iPod straps and ugly Nanos. Let all the cheap crap pad the war chest for Apple’s next big market risk.

But either way, the true design talent within Apple has begun to feel vastly outnumbered. Even with a bajillion songs in their pockets, this playlist of hits has to come to an end some time, doesn’t it?

[Thanks to The Verge and gdgt for several details.]

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114 Comments

  • hettingr

    The loop, or at least a way to attach a string, strap, bracelet or lanyard is one of the key things missing from Apple's iPhone design. (Unless you don't ever want to take a photo from a bridge, an open airplane window, or asphalt surface.) I always cobble together a strap for my iPhones.

    The other issue I wish they would address is to add a bit of a lip on the front so that the device can't fall flat on a hard surface and shatter, and a back that is not glass so it won't shatter.  Then we don't need any cases at all.   Why build something beautiful and practically force people to cover it?  

  • Joseph Rasero

    I agree Apple hit it's peak with the 4/4S design wise.  The glass and steel combo is legendary and much more durable compared to the new aluminum but I disagree that the iPhone 5 is a disappointing.

    Remember the phone is thinner and lighter.  Is the design that much different no, but there is no doubt that contrast is slate and black and white and slate pop.  

    Also to add .5" on the screen shouldn't be taken lightly.  Was it needed?  Simply yes, because why should users still be using the same size screen that was released in 2007?  I don't think Apple sold out and made a 5" Galaxy Note size screen.  

    The reason Apple doesn't talk specs is because dual-core 1ghz and 1400mah are meager on paper.  We all know Apple is very efficient and pumps the most out of these specs but if you compare them to Android phones on paper there noting 

  • Eddy P

    I think you've been slightly over cynical about the paper shredder, I totally see your point, although in terms of it's modern relevance, let us not forget how many people use instagram and hipstamatic to add the vintage back in to our photos... perhaps a paper shredder is still in dated mode and hasn't hit retro yet...

  • mintslice

    On the whole a great article, but some of the Apple rhetoric was a little strong. For example, the author says, "Apple screwed up. They refused to put the chisel down. They stretched iPhones, added more icons, and generally did things just for the sake of doing them."

    I'm confused. For the most part Apple seemed to make changes that the masses were asking for - bigger screen, LTE, etc - and clamoring the masses were. And yet your statement suggests that the iPhone was just right, and "they refused to put the chisel down." Why would people clamor for bigger screens if the iPhone was just right?

  • wesh

    The comment "earpod is over designed" is purely subjective especially when the style of the earpod is defined by the technical and "ergonomical" innovations behind it. Now I haven't tried it yet, maybe those innovations are just marketing argumentation. The earpod was actually my moment of happiness :)

  • Mickcreates

    The Nokia Lumia iPod Nano is quite amusing.
    Nokia are clearly doing something right, but eugh, those rounded glass buttons look so tacky!! And people say Apple are at the forefront of design? I'm not seeing any evidence of it here.

  • Juan Trillo

    Skeuomorphism is what I allways thought was wrong in apple products. Is not even close what they argument in product design, just the opposite. Their SO UI is so outdated as the lisa one. Regarding product design, I totally agree with the looping effect, they just don´t know what to do. They are just doing "the newest  thing on the earth". Ohh!! and the "biggest tinniest ipod nano in the world" that´s so hilarious. By the way I have an iphone....

  • nikunj15

    The guy who was responsible for the new iPod Nano should be fired. The idea of Nano is small, not lets make it bigger! why don't you add a coffee machine into it while your at it!  "This is our new iPod, since the world loves coffee we wanted to revolutionize the coffee industry and though we would add a coffee machine in it!"  

  • satxbrad

    Mr. Wilson, were you at the Sept 12 Apple event?  Did you have your own hands on with the products?  Or did you just wait to see what The Verge & Gizmodo report.

    If you didn't experience the products yet, you have on right to report on them till you do. 

  • Scritti Politti

    "Why didn’t Apple just make the iPod as thick as the iPhone, maybe using that extra internal space to place a larger battery in lieu of the 4G chipset?"

    That requires common sense and being in touch with the real world.  Apple refuses to go there.

    And the skeuomorphism doesn't just look bad; it's unusable garbage.  Look at the disgraceful UI in Address Book and iCal on the Mac.  And wait until you see the implementation of groups in Contacts under iOS 6.  It's absolutely baffling as to how anyone could find it acceptable. 

  • orbitly

    Hate the new nano, although it sure isn't copying Nokia.   http://img.ly/nkRE

    They could have had something with the watch thing. Made it into an iPhone accessory in which you could view messages, accept calls, control music, etc. Would've been extremely cool, the next big innovation in watches. Instead they made it into a iPod nano 4th generation with a touchscreen and no games. Not even matching the capability of the 5th generation.

  • yas

    I thought the whole idea with the ipod nano, at least with the last one was that it was so small that you can use it as a watch, which I know a lot of people do. Imagine having that massive new nano as a watch. Feels like they are kinda going backwards. Specially in regards to the design og the ipod touch. It reminds me of the old macbooks, that were shaped as a shell and you could get the in different colours. 

  • Glassvalue

    The earpods is magnificent, as well as the Ipods ! I think you are Apple hater. They are all great products. Although, i expect something radical on Iphone 5, i expect it would be a radical new design, like when Iphone 3GS renewed by Iphone 4. Afterall, Apple had done a great job

  • scott_carlton

    Larger isn't always better. If you remember back Steve Jobs said there was a reason for the size of the iPhone. It's so that the user can easily navigate the screen with their thumb. Now with that said, this could still be the case, but we'll see once people use it. 

    Secondly the iPhone has had it's width and height in balance with each other. This one feels out of balance. I believe Apple missed the boat on this one. Apple is know not only for being innovative, but also for their design. As a designer they failed. 

    The ergonomics of this phone are less than acquired and the back of the phone being some two tone distortion breaking the beautiful lines that the iPhone 4/4s had. With out Steve Jobs there it has become a design by committee. Even their UI design is starting to drift in the wrong direction in many regards. 

    Apple doesn't need to compete with Android as it seems they are doing with this iPhone. I have hope that the next time will be better though you will not see me with an iPhone 5.

  • Ash

    I dont like the propotions of the new iPhone, the UI looks unbalanced, see the caller screen. I think the have lost the touch.

  • QZAV

    100% with you. Apple missed innovation in this product release. May be they are keeping somthing for the next iteration. I just hope they don't wait a year. It may be too late!!!

  • André Machado Silva

    I really like the new iPod Nano and I don't see any way how it could ever be an imitation the Lumia. Remember that Apple 2ª generation iPod was made in aluminium and vivid colors have ben the Nano's DNA for years.
    I think it's pretty although not perfect, I think there's something going wrong with the button, but it's far from being an iPhone.
    All-in-all, I think it's great device and a nice evolution compared to the old one. I really like to see the "classic" Nano's silhouette but in a all new way.