Why Design Should Take Over the World: Part 1

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Why Design Should Take Over the World: Part 1

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Good design constantly pops up more and more in everyday life. Since forward thinking companies such as Umbra and Apple based the core of their businesses on product design, a more mainstream appreciation of aesthetics & function has happened. More talked about around the dinner table, if you will.

As our friends, family and coworkers now all have options on how their iPads “should work” – we’re seeing more well thought-out beauty in our day to days; even mundane things are becoming more designed. A company like Umbra for instance, takes literally the most mundane things and ads a healthy dose of a designers’ brain to the formula, making a beautiful and functional… wastebasket, let’s say. Or even a new place to put your iPhone, maybe you didn’t even know you needed it.

Visually, design certainly has that effect on people, that “shiny-object” or “must-have” kind of effect.

Apple took that a step further and normalized UI/UX (user interface and user experience) right down to the hardware. Oh the Apple hardware. Remember when the brightly coloured iMacs came out in the 90’s – this was the first instance of a designer looking at a personal computer and thinking something like “this… could… look… better”. Not to say Compaq didn’t have a say in the industrial design of the laptop – they did for sure, but Apple takes the cake when it comes to designing personal computers that look, well, really good!

Apple only got better too. It went on to influence the way other companies presented their hardware. With a level of intention and thought that hadn’t been seen before. It was a game changer.

The design team at Apple didn’t stop there. In fact, while Apple is a technology company they typically make decisions more like a design company. Looking at problems like software and hardware consolidation and finding creative solutions, ultimately giving them greater control over their own products. These kind of decisions lead them to open their own minimalist retail stores for instance, a model totally untested by their direct competitors. One that remained untested until their competitors saw them start to succeed.

Finally Apple sealed the deal as one of the most influential design companies (that’s not a design company) in the world, with the introduction of the iPhone. Something none of us knew we needed or wanted, but most of us can’t live without now. Let’s get the obvious out of the way, no surprise – the hardware was beautiful. A bit garish by today’s standards, the iPhone 1 was unlike any phone or any MP3 player the world had seen before. More importantly, in my opinion, than the hardware, the software was where design shined through in a more tangible way. Yes, it starts with the hardware and the choice to include only one button and a full touchscreen – and kudos to that! But everything else that came after that is total magic. Apple had provided digital designers and developers with a blank canvas to create any interface they could imagine, and imagine they did.

Developers asked themselves what can this do? While designers asked themselves what can I do with this? Seemingly similar questions that would have to be answered in tandem to successfully change the world. Developers worldwide tested the limits of the software and the hardware, more often than not at the request of a designer with a crazy idea in their eye. This lead to countless applications (apps) for everything from recognizing songs to eventually ordering a car and even exploring the solar system in A/R.

Designers also had a more daunting task than ever before in software design, with a much more active roll than before the touchscreen was normalized. This was simply because there were more decisions to make. Those little examples that Apple included in the first iPhone photo gallery and iTunes interface, well once more Apple produced a game changer that blew our minds. Why just scroll through a list when you can flip through a virtual CD catalogue? Why hit a button to zoom into or out of a photo when you could pinch it? These beautiful, simple gestures mixed with a visually stunning on-screen presentation, created a new kind of experience and a new kind of interface. These were all designed by what were, arguably, the first user experience designers and user interface designers. This simple everyday thing, we now take for granted, came from design and design thinking.

Nowadays all the tech companies are in on design thinking, consistently re-imagining what their new device can do differently or better. While the gestures are still quite familiar, new standards of the overall experience are set with each new generation of software, the good bits are kept and the unwelcome bits are dropped, for the most part.

But I digress, the point is the real digital design revolution started with the endless software possibilities the hardware design presented. The level of thought involved in creating flawless user experiences, based on sometimes very simple ideas, snowballed into more inspired ideas. Ideas that would have never been possible without the modern smartphone but still surpassed the initial intentions by leaps and bounds. Most notably we could talk about the use of the smartphone screen in accessible VR headsets, which prompted the New York Times to make a VR series that is among the best content ever produced. Period.

That’s the first bit I’d like you to remember, design can change the world in very big ways. It has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and even create.

So how exactly did this happen and more importantly what does it mean for the future of design?

The iPhone, or something like it has been inevitable since the 60’s when all across America, presumably also in Steve Jobs basement, the world watched Captain Kirk flip up his communicator and request Scotty hail him a Lyft.

That said, I think this particular design based revolution started because designers at Apple had spent such a huge amount of time on the design, branding and presentation of first, the iPod and then the iPhone. Remember, there were MP3 players before there were iPods and there were even “semi-smartphones” before the iPhone. There was even an MP3 player and headphone jack built into a Blackberry handset a year or two before the iPhone became a thing – if I recall it was terrible to use and only held a few tracks. The design of the iPhone, both the handset itself and the user interface that ran the OS, was revolutionary, because it was fun and easy to use.

The iPod was fundamentally an MP3 player, it was also a really good MP3 player that held a whack load of music and, you guessed it – really fun to use. That wheel on the front was great.

Both of the aforementioned Apple products were successful because of good design. Simplicity and being intuitive are the name of the game. The designers likely looked at MP3 players and a cellphone respectively and tried to totally re-imagine what both of these products already were. Once the designers did this the next step is to establish constraints – in this case the functionality of each product. A phone needs to be able to make phone calls after all. Then to design, test and adjust to make the new model as intuitive as possible, making the product itself a pleasure to use.

Well thought out design is irresistible.

What gives a design that “shiny-object” effect? Usually it breaks down into two complementing components, it looks good and it works well. When a design works beautifully we can’t help but fall in love with it a little bit.

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