The trenchant irony of design

Steve Jobs must laugh himself to sleep every night. The Apple CEO has just launched the company’s next big thing: iPhone 4. It is beautiful, as is anything that rolls off the pad of Apple’s industrial design genius Jonathan Ive. And I look forward to watching his competitors run around like a herd of frenzied baboons trying to come up with screen technology even half as impressive as the new iPhone’s, just like they have tried in vain to emulate Apple’s touchscreen technology for the last two years without coming close. But it must be funny to Jobs that while his products receive every bit of the credit they deserve, and often more than that, his competitors can’t seem to come up with anything even nearly as good.

Jonathan Ive is Apple’s secret weapon – but he surely can’t be unique. Apple has been making beautiful gadgets and computers for years and even now, in 2010, its competitors continue to role out cheap pieces of plastic that look like impaled bullfrogs with stickers all over them. Really? Does this have Windows 7 on it? Well thank god you put that sticker there, otherwise how would I have known!

Any designer worth their HB pencil knows that less is more in the world of industrial design and yet Apple seems to be the only computer company that can apply this principle. Perhaps other vendors should spend less time stuffing their computers full of as much bloatware as they can get their hands on and some of their money on designers. This isn’t rocket science and yet not a single other computer or mobile phone manufacturer can put 2 and 2 together.

Beautiful technology is also nothing new. Apple certainly didn’t invent the concept. And Ive is not the only ingenious industrial designer around – just the only one working in consumer technology in 2010, apparently. His most skilled contemporaries have been put to work in the fields of automotive, luggage and kitchen utensils – and have somehow all managed to evade Apple’s competitors.

In the documentary Objectified, German design god Dieter Rams alludes to an opinion that there seems to be only one technology company on the planet today with a firm grasp of design principles – Apple. And I dare anyone to argue with Rams who is respected in his field for coming up with the some of the finest examples of industrial art during his tenure at Braun.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Apple’s competitors. Some really have made a commendable effort. When IBM first designed the ThinkPad it hired Richard Sapper to come up with the sleek, black form of the famous laptop brand. It was beautiful, but is now aging having not been updated for many years. ThingPad is also now the property of Chinese company Lenovo that likes putting NBA logos on gadgets to help sell them. ’nuff said about that.

Leica, Bang & Olufsen, Porsche Design and a handful of other companies all deserve honorable mention here – but they are all periphery to the computer and communications devices I am talking about, except for a very few that aim at the ridiculously high-end of the market.

No, seriously. Only Apple has an inkling of a clue as to how to design hardware and interfaces. Everyone else is emulating or bungling around like retarded monkeys. And embarrassingly so.

Apple users are a proud bunch and get ridiculed for it but, like Porsche drivers, they have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s also hard to communicate your stance to a chimpanzee when they lack the linguistic skills to comprehend what you’re teasing them about. We like the cohesion of form that flows through Apple’s hardware, software and services. If you think something is missing you aren’t looking hard enough.

You also realise, once spending enough time with Apple’s most vocal detractors, that their real motivation is jealousy. They were the awkward kids at school who smacked girls because they didn’t know what else to do with them. And now they ridicule Apple products because those are also beautiful and unattainable. They could just keep quiet and continue to use whatever it is they prefer to Jobs’ creations. This would at least earn them some respect for their unspoken confidence. That they feel in necessary to voice their dissent speaks volumes.

They carry on about openness, Apple’s controlling nature and how other devices had the same features so long ago. But they fail to mention that those features, while there, were rubbish in practice. And that technical specifications mean nothing when your phone or computer crashes every five minutes. I also challenge any of them to engage me about openness having myself spent nine years as a staunch Linux supporter and active open source activist. The irony is that Apple is perhaps one of the most upstanding and transparent companies in the world when it comes to open standards and industry contribution. Proprietary and open software development sit at two opposing extremes. On the fringes you find the lunatics. Meaning is created by the moderates in the middle, like Apple.

Jobs has twice said that he believes Apple stands at the intersection of design and the liberal arts. And twice the troop of chimps has misunderstood him. He is not referring to fine arts, but liberal arts – an intellectual movement that refers to humanity’s interaction with information. And he manages to stand firm in that busy intersection and look good doing it, cementing the irony.

Like a dry sense of humour, Apple products and the more subtle statements of its CEO fly over the heads of simpletons. I can even preempt evidence of this by pointing to the comments section below this post which is sure to be populated by the same monkeys I described above, along with misinterpretations of this all as arrogance.

I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.