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  • 06.29.17

10 Top Designers On The iPhone’s Real Legacy

A decade after first iPhone was sold, design leaders weigh in.

10 Top Designers On The iPhone’s Real Legacy
[Source Photos: Apple, Creative Crop/Getty Images]

Ten years ago today, Apple fans eagerly awaited the chance to buy a new kind of product–or three, as Steve Jobs had put it when onstage earlier in 2007: “A wide-screened iPod with touch controls. A revolutionary mobile phone. And a breakthrough internet communications device.” Those three products, of course, were really just one: the iPhone.

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[Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images]
In retrospect, even Jobs’s penchant for hyperbole greatly undersold the iPhone’s importance. Over the next decade, the iPhone became so powerful, ubiquitous, and usable that it birthed entire companies like Uber, Snapchat, and Tinder. It changed how we laugh, how we hook up, and how we work. 

What did the world’s designers think of the original iPhone? To find out, we talked to 10 prominent designers and researchers, ranging from the legendary Don Norman, to then-Frog chief creative officer Mark Rolston, to UX designer Loren Brichter (who worked on the top secret project fresh out of school), asking each of them the same four questions about the iPhone.

Unsurprisingly, many of them are in awe of what Apple built over the past decade. But not all of them were so sure the iPhone would be a success in its early days. And moreover, not all of them are certain that the iPhone has proven to be all that good for society either.

What was your reaction, the first time you saw the iPhone?

“Radical innovations in any domain are rare: The Apple Macintosh was one, the iPhone another. In both cases the groundwork had been laid decades earlier, so for me, neither was a surprise, but revolutionary nonetheless. The Apple’s Advanced Technology Group (I was its VP for awhile) had mockups in the early 1990s that clearly anticipated some of these features, but that were completely unrealizable with the then current technology and not nearly as adventurous. Touch technology, swiping, and pinching and expanding had been around a long time, but never like the iPhone.” —Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things and head of UC San Diego’s Design Lab

“The final form factor? I remember where I was to the day. In 2006 I was still relatively fresh out of school, working at Apple on the iPhone on the embedded graphics team. Up until that point I had been working with a development board that took up half my desk and had a chunky cable running to a funky looking plastic touchscreen. When I saw the finished hardware, I simply couldn’t believe they fit all that stuff, plus a battery and a really nice display, into something so small and thin. My brain couldn’t process it.” —Loren Brichter, founder at Atebits

“I was at CES, and Apple skipped CES and did their own event. The news sucked the air out of everything we were looking at and talking about. What did I think when I first saw the iPhone? In a word: finally! Seriously, my team and I had been rendering concepts like this for a few years up to this point. So it felt like the idea was in the zeitgeist. We just didn’t have any idea, much less any faith, that it could actually get made. Today it remains my go-to reference to gut check whether today my vision of something is possible.” —Mark Rolston, former CCO Frog, founder at Argodesign

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[Photo: Michael Nagle/Getty Images]
“As soon as I watched the announcement, I said to myself, ‘I am going to own one of those.’ It just seemed like the future. I’d be lying if I said that I knew for sure the iPhone was going to be the future for so many people, but I did recognize that it was the future that *I* wanted. I think a lot of people felt that way.” —Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe

“I just knew they got it right and they had a major winner. The mobile industry was so stuck with petty styling issues back then, and here came Apple to truly disrupt it in one swipe. All the elements were put together correctly—it was simply a home run!” —Gadi Amit, founder at NewDealDesign

“I remember the keynote and it was simultaneously amazing—Jobs was weaving an incantation right there on the live stream—but also responding: That’s not for me. In Europe we already had smartphones, and sure it was neat seeing Americans get interested, and yes it was pretty. But you know, a phone.

“I don’t remember where I was when I first touched the iPhone but I remember what it was I touched: It was a pool of fish swimming and I could tap the water and make ripples. It took my breath away. I spent a long time tapping and running my fingers along the surface of the water and watching the fish dart away and become calm.” —Matt Webb, former cofounder Berg

“I saw an iPhone on a local train in Inner Mongolia in China, from the hand of someone seemingly rich. I didn’t have a chance to see the interface, but I thought the shape and material options were great and unique.” —Lining Yao, assistant professor at Human Computer Interaction Institute, Carnegie Mellon University

[Photo: Flickr user Alex C]
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful, but who’s going to pay that much money for a cell phone?’ I was still in school at the time, and the thought of shelling out something like $1,000 over the course of a year for the phone plus service was just mind-boggling. I thought it would be similar to the iPod (which I had at the time)—beautiful, expensive, and not something that most people would need.” —Jason Chua, project executive at A³ by Airbus

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“I remember my first reaction being, ‘Well, of course, it’s the next evolution of the iPod.’ When the iPhone was released, I was in grad school researching and writing a paper about people’s relationship with their phones. It would have been a very different paper if I had the assignment a year later.” —August de los Reyes, head of product design and research at Pinterest

“I was working at Ideo Palo Alto when the iPhone launched. I was disappointed that I had gotten a Samsung Blackjack when I started the month before, and it was going to be TWO WHOLE YEARS before I could upgrade to an iPhone for work. There were long lines outside the AT&T stores in Palo Alto, even people camping. A couple of people went to wait in the lines and brought their new iPhones into work. I didn’t get to see the unboxing, but I thought the device looked impossibly fragile and unlikely to fit in my pocket. The screen really looked like it needed to be covered. Pockets in women’s clothes is an ongoing problem, but in 2007 all the women I knew carried their phone in their purses and got them out to make calls.” —Ame Elliott, design director at Simply Secure

[Photo: Flickr user blakeburris]

Is the iPhone more or less successful than you anticipated?

“The iPhone is far, far more successful than I ever expected, and that’s not because I thought the first iteration was anything less than impressive. At the time, being an Apple devotee meant accepting that their products would be beautifully designed and well-crafted but also that those products would always be most popular with a smaller group of people. Even the runaway success of the iPod, which *should’ve* taught me that Apple would no longer be resigned to the edges like it had with the Mac, didn’t prepare me for the possibility that so many would want the iPhone—and not only that, but that they’d buy it again and again, model after model. That was inconceivable then.” —Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe

“I was completely surprised by the success. I predicted that the iPhone would fail unless it had a physical keyboard, pointing to the love business people had for the Blackberry keyboard. Hah. Today the iPhone is a huge success despite its lack of physical keyboard. Blackberry? What is that?

“In my opinion the real success of the iPhone is not the iPhone: It is the invention of the App Store. When Apple unleashed the power of developers all over the world to expand the capabilities and power of this portable computing/communicating device, everything changed. Suddenly the phone was doing things nobody had ever contemplated, not even the phone’s inventors.” —Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things and head of UC San Diego’s Design Lab

[Photo: Flickr user Scott Schiller]

What has the iPhone accomplished that you couldn’t have imagined?

“It seemed obvious that it was going to be successful. But I didn’t foresee how much it would change. It’s so successful that society seems to be reorganizing itself around it, which is a super complicated thing to control. With most products it’s almost a linear process where you can design a thing to address a problem and that’s it. With the iPhone, you design a thing, and the world you designed it for changes in response to it, and it’s this nonlinear process with all sorts of feedback loops, and now you have to deal with the issue of unintended consequences. Real existential shit.” —Loren Brichter, founder at Atebits

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“The fact that we can’t sit quietly anymore, walk down a street without staring down at it, or have a dinner without it as part of the social dynamic tells us everything we need to know. It’s not merely measured in business impact. Like the invention of fire, gunpowder, electricity, and the telephone, it has changed how humanity behaves and interacts. And it’s not all good. We didn’t predict that the persistent connectivity would give rise to social challenges such as trolling, fake news, tracking, phishing, FOMO, etc. Some of these weren’t new but the ubiquity of this new platform meant that these problems because pervasive and exaggerated.” —Mark Rolston, former CCO Frog, founder at Argodesign

“I couldn’t imagine then how Apple would manage to bend the carriers to their side, and how strong the app economy would become. I also couldn’t see how Google would manage to keep up so successfully with Android. And the last element, while I immediately knew the iPhone was a true personal computer, I am thrilled and amazed that everyone recognizes it as such now. The first pitch sounded like a phone with new interface, which was far from the true value, a personal computer in your pocket.” —Gadi Amit, founder at NewDealDesign

[Photo: Flickr user Eli Duke]
“The fact that such a robust ecosystem of software developers and businesses emerged around the phone once the SDK was fully opened was nothing short of transformative, and really gave me the sense of how smartly crafted platforms could enable anyone (even students like myself) to make an impact and some money if we had a good enough idea. Throwing into the mix the way smartphones created a new distribution of sensors and computing power, the iPhone created a world in which individuals were no longer passive consumers of goods and information, but rather active contributors to and in some cases architects of networks of shared knowledge. These democratizing network effects were something I very much did not see 10 years ago.” —Jason Chua, project executive at A³ by Airbus

“I really didn’t expect the kind of market domination that’s led to so much centralization and homogeneity. On the hardware side, my Razr and Blackjack were REALLY different. The software of course had totally different ambitions and mind-sets. There were years when it looked like the tele-cos of the world would be credible places to get music, entertainment, and content from, so there were actual questions about getting a product from AT&T or whomever because of their music store. So much of the centralization, DRM, way the music industry evolved in really closed and harmful ways is from the iPhone’s success. In 2007, I imagined a world much more diverse. And when I see what’s happening on the Android side in places like the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, that feels so, so far and so, so distant from the pretty monotonous and boring world we live in today.” —Ame Elliott, design director at Simply Secure

“The interaction of multitouch, the concept of apps, and the idea of the iTunes store are so revolutionary! It sets the standard for our phone of today. From experiencing the iPhone, I start to realize that the ‘phone’ is not about the tangible shape, it is about minimized physical form but maximized virtual content.” —Lining Yao, assistant professor at Human Computer Interaction Institute, Carnegie Mellon University

“What surprises me is the willingness with which many would upgrade to the latest model despite the former model being perfectly functional. The impact is that it moved the purchasing of this device into the category of other emotional purchases such as cars and houses.” —August de los Reyes, head of product design and research at Pinterest

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“My biggest disappointment is the continual deterioration of usability due to a misleading emphasis on clean aesthetics rather than intelligibility, understanding, and good interaction design. The most interesting aspect of smartphones is how seldom they are used as phones.” —Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things and head of UC San Diego’s Design Lab

[Photo: Flickr user Matt Biddulph]

In another decade, will we use iPhones more or less? And if not iPhones, then what?

“I think we will probably still use some form of iPhone in a decade . . . yet we will use other computing platforms as well. We are moving into a new and mixed platform environment with multiple ways of interacting with computing. The iPhone era has a lot of momentum behind it, and successful tech platforms have a lot of inertia.” —Gadi Amit, founder at NewDealDesign

“I do believe that the world will continue to become more personalized and connected. I also believe that the smartphone form factor will remain dominant over wearables and VR/AR devices. I think the smartphone form factor achieves a hard to top balance between portability, information density, and discreetness as it applies to IRL interactions. I think the wildcard here (especially with regard to discreetness) is input technology (voice, haptics, mind control?!) rather than the method by which information is displayed (e.g., in your face, on your wrist, etc). So in short, more connected, more personalized, more context-sensitive.” —Jason Chua, project executive at A³ by Airbus

“I have no idea—I’m not sure it’s possible to extrapolate. It’s certainly not going away, but there’s definitely a trend (and social pressure) to make the the smartphone less overt, less visible. I don’t think we can ever go back to the brief period where it simply made life a little easier; we’re probably going to be blindly, iteratively searching for the next metastable state of symbiosis between people and technology.” —Loren Brichter, founder at Atebits

“Smartphones have taught the world the power–and dangers–of continual connectivity. All the world at our fingers and all of us at the fingers of all the world, including friends, crooks, spies, and bad guys.  

“The success of pocket-sized smartphones has taught us the virtues of different screen sizes. Large screens for work (desktop), smaller screens for travel (tablets), smaller for the pocket (phones), and even smaller for the wrist (watches). We glance at our watch to see if the arriving item is important, use the phone for a quick response or examination, and then turn to the tablet or office computer for a longer, more detailed exploration. I see this as a continuing ubiquity of service, moving seamlessly from device to device, collaborating with others on the same document at the same time, no matter where they are in the world. Entertainment, work, learning, life–all seamlessly intertwined, making the boundaries among these activities increasingly fuzzy. Unless, of course, this same continuous connectivity gets taken over by the bad guys, we the rest of us forgo the benefits in order to maintain privacy and security.” —Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things and head of UC San Diego’s Design Lab

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“Communication is the theme of all ages, future included. Physical form, interaction modality, and efficiency will be changed and diversified–but the role of connecting the ecosystem in both the virtual and the tangible world will stay.” —Lining Yao, assistant professor at Human Computer Interaction Institute, Carnegie Mellon University

“Even in a world where augmented reality, virtual reality, and voice-based assistants run rampant, I just don’t see us giving up our iPhones. Those experiences will either complement or be powered by smartphones. It seems counterintuitive to say this because the iPhone fueled the explosive growth of the immaterial, digital world, but a smartphone’s physicality is maybe the most important part of why it has succeeded so thoroughly. Being able to *touch* it gives us grounding, being able to hand it over to someone else allows us to share our experiences, and being able to put it down allows us to maintain a segregation of our digital lives from our ‘real’ lives. Those are qualities that are deeply important to people, whether they know it or not, and I feel confident that they will ensure the iPhone will be with us for a long time.” —Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe

“The now is half the future and half the past. Today our world now is half smartphones but still half PCs and the web. Give it five years, the PC and the web will be gone. No more personal computers. So it will be half smartphones and half . . . something else. I’m not willing to place a bet on what that is! But I hope that what’s coming down the pipe continues the trend of computing acknowledging the everyday world, the human and group situation.” —Matt Webb, former cofounder Berg

“I’m very much on record saying that I believe the iPhone is the end of an era in computing. It’s an era marked by a symbiosis of one person-to-one device. In this era, beginning with the PC and ending with the iPhone, we extended ourselves with these devices. The iPhone is, to this point, the ultimate symbiotic extension of ourselves. Need to know something? Look it up. Lost? Find it. Hungry? Order it, etc. etc. This has been fantastic. But the next generation of computing has to do better by integrating into our world, and to do that it can’t be a little machine in our pocket. It can’t be a personal device. Instead we must imagine a world saturated with machines in and around us that we encounter and use as we go. We’ll essentially be inside the computer. Rooms, buildings cities, etc. That’s the future that the Amazon Echo represents.” —Mark Rolston, former CCO Frog, founder at Argodesign

“What we’re doing now doesn’t feel healthy or sustainable with so much individual attention on each person’s phone. I’m curious how voice will get our eyes off our screens and out in the world.” —Ame Elliott, design director at Simply Secure

“I would not dare speculate what the future of devices would be a decade from now: Would anyone have predicted the ubiquity of such devices 20 years ago if asked the same question about the forthcoming decade? My only hope for the next decade is that there be more thoughtfulness in how such devices and their attendant experiences impact our social relationships and the world’s ecology.” —August de los Reyes, head of product design and research at Pinterest

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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