Three weeks ago, Apple unveiled the iPhone 4S. The phone was a tremendous leap ahead of its predecessors, yet the much of the feedback contained a tint of disappointment. Most of that disappointment stemmed from the news that Apple did not showcase the iPhone 5. Under the hood, the iPhone 4S had been drastically improved, however it did not provide the one thing so many people had been frothing at the mouth for, a new body. This response saddened me because it displayed a general misunderstanding of product design by the media and public at large. Would it be a problem if the iPhone 5, 6 & 7 looked the same? To many, yes. However, I believe the physical design of the iPhone has reached a level of quality that should make us question changing its design to meet the public’s insatiable need for new.
Good Design Removes the Need to Redesign
When you look at some of the best designed products, you will notice that their design evolution is subtle. This is not due to complacency, it is due to success. Real world examples are rare, but they are immediately recognizable. The Porsche 911 has remained remarkably unchanged through the years, yet still is considered one of the most striking cars on the road. Observing the sporadic evolution of other automobiles through the years, such as the Ford Mustang, make the 911 all the more remarkable.
The Leica M rangefinder is the most obvious example of an unchanging design. The camera has continued to be the pinnacle of photographic quality, with the camera’s body design seemingly frozen in time for 50+ years.
52 years of design of the Leica M rangefinder. From top left, Leica M2 (1957) to bottom right, Leica M9 (2009).
To this day, the Leica M is one of the most revered cameras in form and feel. While important changes have been made through the years (the most obvious being the move from film to digital), there simply has been no need to rethink the design of the body. It has continued to function and delight just as well as it did 50 years ago.
An interesting thing happens at some point with products like the 911 and the Leica M. Its form becomes its symbol. This symbol makes the product instantly recognizable and emblematic of the quality behind it. That may seem obvious or simple, but take a quick audit of products you use on a daily basis. How many product lines can be summarized in a singular, unique form? I bet you cannot come up with that many.
From Innovative to Iconic
Back to the iPhone. I consider the iPhone 4 to be in line with the Porsche 911 and Leica M in design. It is not time-tested like the two former examples, but it shares many of the timeless qualities found in them. I would have no problem if the iPhone 5 looked the exact same as the iPhone 4x. Its current design is the result of years of refinement. The first few generations of iPhones were wonderful products, but the iPhone 4 is on another plane of existence. In the all-star lineup of Apple products, I consider it to be their crowning achievement in industrial design. We should all be lucky enough to work on the product that doesn’t need to be rethought every one or two years. Let the iPhone change when it needs to change. I would hate to see Apple make arbitrary decisions to the design of the iPhone’s body just to placate the lesser nature of some consumers and Wall Street.
With all that said, I expect to see a revised design for the upcoming iPhone 5. I have full faith that it will be a beautiful product, just as we have come to expect with Apple. However, I would hate to see such a refined product be left behind without significant reasoning.