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Has Apple Lost Some of its Design Mojo?

Several weeks ago we wrote about the Apple Watch, and our confuzzlement over how Apple can be successful selling the high-end versions in a consumer category known for rapid obsolescence. While in many respects the watch is indeed jewelry (it would be hard to call it anything else, given its likely $4K+ price tag), its appeal will still draw largely from its utility and its integration with the iPhone. Unlike a pricey handmade automatic Swiss timepiece that has an heirloom-quality patina, in ten years the Apple Watch will likely look rather like the original iPhone does now: chunky, clunky, and squarely locked in an inescapable moment in the history of technological innovation. Interesting? Yeah, in the way a Mac II is interesting. Still retaining its $4,000 heirloom shine? Not so much. 

The thing is, we’ve always thought of Apple as a company that succeeded during the Jobs era because of its interest and flawless execution in Design. As soon as Jobs slashed the insanely complicated product catalog and essentially replaced it with the iMac, it was clear that this was a company that was once again going to be driven by Design. It understood that design was much more than “styling”; it was a critical strategic differentiator, and central to the company’s culture. As designers, we can always look to Apple as that proud example of how successful a company can be when it has an unwavering commitment to the importance of design in nearly everything it does. And once Steve Jobs left the building, we knew Jony Ive would carry the mantle into Apple’s next chapter by keeping design front and center. 

But what if that’s just wishful thinking? What if the “era of design” at Apple is, in fact, over? We had this thought after reading Ian Parker’s interesting and entertaining profile of Jony Ive last week. Clearly Ive has dedicated his life to designing amazing products, and has put together a masterful team at Apple. But there’s one thing the profile made quite clear: he likes the bling thing. Whereas I like to think of Apple as embracing the same design principles as luminaries like Dieter Rams (who flatly stated “I hate everything that is driven by fashion”), I’m starting to wonder if Ive is in the same camp. This is a guy who likes $3,000 briefcases, and is chauffeured to work in the back of a Bentley. He just bought Steve Jobs’ famously leather-stitched jet so he can zip over to his Hawaiian villa at a moment’s notice. He’s “trading up” from his two bedroom San Francisco house to an eleven bedroom mansion on “billionaire’s row”, now in its second year of renovations. While he says his reasons for owning a $250K Bentley are “entirely design-based”, we just wonder if this preoccupation with material symbols of wealth aren’t indicative of something broader. Like, maybe Jony is turning his attention to the deep and blingy “luxury goods” market. This is the market Angela Ahrendts, former head of Burberry and now head of Apple Retail, knows so well. So does Patrick Pruniaux, former VP for sales at TAG Heuer, who plays a critical role on the Watch team. 

We know Jony’s sidekick on the watch project, Marc Newson, is certainly interested in luxury goods. He came up with some doozie designs for Ikepod, including platinum watches with relatively simple chronograph movements that sold for prices in the $100,000 range. Marc is no doubt a design genius, as is Jony, but I wonder if their primary interests may lie outside the boundaries of devices such as “the computer for the rest of us”. While there has always been a streak of fashionability in Apple’s designs (who can forget the original crappy round iMac mouse), but at their core they speak to minimalism, beauty, and functional precision “for everyone”. Sure, the Apple product will be a bit more expensive than the competitor’s computer or phone or tablet, but not by much. But introducing true electronic jewelry, that costs up to twenty, thirty, or forty times more than a competitor’s watch…this is new territory. And as designers, it’s territory we’re not so excited about. We’ve loved using Apple products for over thirty years, and have always bristled when someone accuses me of being an “Apple snob”. Personally, we like to think of Apple products as being superior because they’re just designed better. Hardware to software, they’re thoughtful, beautiful, and (usually) simply great to use. But a ludicrously expensive gold watch designed to appeal to those seeking “exclusivity”? For us, that takes some of the shine off the Apple.

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