Do You Think Apple Has Lost Its ‘Design Mojo’?

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Coming out of the holidays, you might need an article to get you back into the groove of browsing the web, and it looks like Fortune has just the ticket, especially if you have an opinion on Apple’s design quality recently.

Steve Jobs passed away on October 5, 2011. He was a dominating figure throughout his life, especially in the universe of personal technology, so it would certainly make sense that he would be brought up from time-to-time even today, a little more than six years later. But it’s not usually for the reasons it probably should be. More often than not when you hear Jobs’s name or see it printed, it is usually tied to some kind of variation of, “This wouldn’t happen if Steve Jobs was alive.”

You’ve seen it repeated ad nauseam through the years, just like I have, and now a new article in Fortune makes the case all over again, to some varying degrees. The goal is to ask a pretty straightforward question: Has Apple lost its design mojo? It’s certainly not a tired question, because it can’t be. As companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others release new products on a regular basis, they will be judged on the design of the hardware and software. Just the way it goes, so even if you might be tired of hearing people ask the question, it’s definitely not going anywhere anytime soon.

The article itself does a fairly good job of riding the line, showcasing quotes from high-profile names like Marco Arment and developer Steve Troughton-Smith, both of which have been using Apple products for years and are surely not timid about voicing their opinions on the matter. Here’s their opinion on Apple’s current design efforts:

“Tumblr cofounder Marco Arment admires most Apple design, but says, “Apple designs in the post-Steve era have been a little off-balance. The balance seems too much on the aesthetic, and too little on the functional.” Don Norman, a former member of the Apple design team (1993–1996) who now heads the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, beats the drum that Apple has abandoned user-centered design principles. “They have sacrificed understandability for aesthetic beauty,” he says.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Says Steve Troughton-Smith, an Irish developer of sleek iOS apps, “I have enough historical context to understand that these things have no relation to [Steve Jobs’ departure], and are not a new aspect of being an Apple user. Things like USB cables and iTunes were bad for many years under Jobs too, and I have a collection of frayed Firewire-to-30-pin cables to remind me of that.”

The article’s header image is the Space Gray iMac Pro, Apple’s most powerful all-in-one PC to date, but which clings onto the iMac design of yesteryear. No minimized bezels, for example. It’s an iMac and, maybe even more so due to the color scheme, it is easily identifiable as such. As is the goal with all of Apple’s products. It’s why I wrote about the notch design in the iPhone X, asking if you think it’s a design choice meant to define the new line of smartphones from this point on — and therefore sticking around for years to come. I don’t think the iMac Pro was going to be the device to usher in a new design philosophy for the iMac lineup, considering its main goal was just to be a workhorse desktop machine.

Still, this isn’t the first time that Apple’s design cues have been called into question. The Outline ran a piece entitled, rather to the point, “Apple is really bad at design,” after the iPhone X was unveiled, for example. And if you peruse Twitter you’ll probably see someone complaining about something Apple-branded at some point or another.

The article is long and its far-reaching, raising the concerns of software issues we’ve seen recently, to simply raising questions about whether or not the current iteration of Apple’s leadership is capable of designing products on the same level that Steve Jobs was able to all those years ago.

Troughton-Smith’s quote above really hits the nail on the head for me. This isn’t a new dilemma for Apple by any means. iTunes, in my opinion, has never really been that great, save for when it first debuted and it was just a means to store music. But yeah, maybe it is now a vehicle for Apple Music more than anything else these days, but it still serves its purpose if you don’t want to use Apple’s subscription music platform.

I like the design of the iMac (and iMac Pro, because that Space Gray is nice). I like the design of the MacBook, the MacBook Pro, but I’m not a fan of the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, because of that computer’s defining feature. I bought an iPhone X at launch, wasn’t a fan of the notch and what it did to the video watching experience, went to an iPhone 8 Plus and couldn’t stand the bezels so I went back to the iPhone X and haven’t looked back since. I love the design of the new iPad Pro with the smaller side bezels, and I’m hoping the top and bottom bits get minimized in 2018.

But, let me just say that I’m not a fan of the notch design at all. I think it sacrifices the experience of viewing content on your phone just for the sake of a design choice to make the iPhone X stand out in a sea of phones where bezels are getting smaller. This is an aesthetic choice that I feel supersedes the functional, because I want to watch things on that beautiful OLED display, but I don’t want a piece of the phone to actually jut into the picture.

That’s definitely not how the director intended for me to watch their movie, Apple.

Has Apple lost its design mojo in the post-Steve Jobs era, now under the stewardship of Tim Cook? I don’t think so, but that’s because I think Apple has always worked on a slippery slope here, sometimes hitting it out of the park with a new product, and in other cases having to work quickly to adapt to customer demands. As noted in the original piece, the Apple Watch has evolved from just a smartwatch that could open apps so you didn’t have to pull out your iPhone, to being a full-fledged fitness and health tracker, with wireless connectivity and other smartwatch features thrown in for good measure.

Apple needs time to evolve the products it launches. All companies do. Apple certainly isn’t perfect, and sometimes it gets stuff wrong. But of course what the company gets “wrong” is 100 percent up to an individual taste. I don’t mind the new butterfly keyboards after using them for a while, others still hate them as one example.

But how do you feel about Apple’s “design mojo” these days? Do you think Apple has lost its way? If so, do you think they will recover? Or are you okay with what Apple is releasing these days?

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