Redesigning the iPhone – is it Necessary?

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.

7 thoughts on “Redesigning the iPhone – is it Necessary?”

  1. First off, I have to admit you are making a very interesting point. but, as a brand designer I want to suggest a different explanation for the “to redesign or not to redesign” question.
    The reason we care and love apple is because they always challenge the statues quo. If they would be the kind of company that would say “ok, this design is good enough, let’s move on”, they would probably not be apple. the reason everybody was waiting on IPhone 5 was not only to see the new look. We wanted to see “everything changes, again”. That’s the spirit of apple. Reinvent. Innovate. and sadly, it didnt happen. 
    Some companies redesign to stay “fresh”, but not apple. That is why, I think, people were disappointed, and why we still wait for the next big leap.

    1. I agree Ran, it’s a good point. What I would personally like to see is that reinvention and innovation focused in areas that can create greater impact. I feel Apple could effectively state, “We’re good with the casing, let’s spend our resources coming up with completely new ways a mobile device can be used”. The most apparent example I can think of is making the iPhone self-powered (or dramatically less battery-dependent) through a combination of kinetic and solar power. I see your point, but there’s something to a product that carries its aesthetics through generations because it’s just that damned good.

  2. You just need to drop the iPhone down to see that it needs some tweaks in the design. It has no protection for that glass unless you keep it into a case. It may look nice.. but it lacks practical use. Yes, a product like this is exposed to this kind of events.

    1. I completely agree with that. Again, those are the things I would like them to focus on. I am uncertain if the design makes it inherently more fragile – if so, that makes a good case to rethink the casing.

  3. wickedpixel raises a good reason as to why this particular design may need revising. Not having dropped mine I don’t know how prone to damage it might be, I have had the same Breitling watch for some 20 years now and it’s glass is still pristine. But surely the same criticism could be made of cars, “Yes it looks shiny now but what if you bash it against something? Perhaps the body should be encased in an all-over rubber bumper?”. Perhaps the iPhone is intended for grown-ups who can be expected to look after their toys?

    For me the principal design limitation of the 4/4S that if you place them on a flat damp surface (freshly wiped glass table) it can be very difficult to get them off again.

    The furore over the 4S design sprang from 2 camps, the witless anti-Apple-fanboys who could chorus “Ha! it’s the same case? Lame! Fail!” And the even more witless people who wanted their purchase to be immediately recognised as new and shiny – which harks back to the “Buy the new ’58 Ford” product differentiation days. Both groups should be directed to the nearest “Hello Kitty” emporium where they will find a variety of merchandise more suited to their tastes and guaranteed to change every week.

    1. I do think wickedpixel has a point though. We are depending on our phones to do more and more. Soon, they will begin to supplement our wallet. A device which carries such weight in our lives needs to be durable enough to survive a fall. Because, if we do make the mistake of dropping it, we lose our phone, our information (and in a few years) our wallet. I just wonder if durability issues are directly tied to the design of the device, or if there are engineering solutions to the problem.

  4. One could also argue that Leica is like the Rolling Stones. They keep on turning out he same old stuff because the audience mainly come for the nostalgia/back catalogue (the lenses) and would be resistant to anything new.

    But again, if you have a successful formula why mess with it?

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