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iPhone - the death of product design

We are two hundred years past the birth of the Industrial Revolution. In those two centuries, the main force for generating value in society has fundamentally changed three times. First, at the dawn of well-organized society, value was generated through agrarian land ownership. Wealth and power in feudal era societies as diverse Western Europe, Japan, and the Maya of the America’s depended mostly on land to fuel their activities. Innovations in shipping and transportation changed this. The Basque had salted cod, the Dutch East India Company spice, the Portuguese sugar and rum. In the colonial era, value was primarily generated by the transportation of resources. These raw materials were then transformed by people in their own homes into useful items. The Industrial Revolution changed all of that. With the advent of factories and industrial design, Ford and later generations consolidated value creation in the production of fully realized “products” sold to end “consumers”. Product design and sales as the primary vehicle for creating value in developed society has dominated for nearly one hundred years. That said, it is time for us to recognize that product design is dead. Before tackling this sure to be contentious proposition, let’s shop for a television.

In 1946, a family in the market for a new television set had several options but the top choice was the RCA 630. An immediate success when introduced (a time when you were lucky to get three channels of programming), the 630 is a classic of post-war design. Although the original selling price of $435 was more than some automobiles at the time, the large 10 inch screen, “Machine Age” cabinet, and cutting edge technology was the perfect combination for consumers. The 630’s success helped RCA become the consumer electronics leader in the United States for decades to come. As time past, screens became larger, and cabinets became less “designed”. Consider the best televisions of today. If you were given a choice of any new TV, regardless of price, what would it be and how would its product design differ from the classic 630? I suggest that it would be nothing but a frame, not unlike the top of the line SONY Bravia shown below (which, by the way, is also is more expensive than many cars at $33,000 for the 70” model). Is the design of a frame an example of product design generated value? Where is the real value in a contemporary television? Engineering? Business model? Interaction? Content?

Let’s consider another example: telephones. The Model 302 telephone subscriber set, designed by Henry Dreyfuss, was released in 1937 by Western Electric and was in production for over two decades. It was a brilliant combination of functional utility and modern aesthetics becoming iconic through its use on the I Love Lucy show. Jumping ahead 60 years, Motorola released its first then second (10 years later) mobile flip phones for which it became most well known: the StarTAC and RAZR. Both were tremendous successes, grew Motorola’s market share significantly, and are listed at number 6 and 12, respectively, on PC Magazine’s Top 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years. From Western Electric’s 302 to RAZR, industrial product design was a primary contributor to the value they generated. Enter iPhone.

On the surface, iPhone appears like the next (albeit revolutionary) step in mobile communication devices. Looking deeper, it represents the death of product design as a primary generator of value in society. This is an extreme statement, so let’s explore it and be more specific about the question we are considering. Why is RAZR the pinnacle of product design representing billions of dollars of value and the iPhone the death knoll to the discipline?

If you consider RAZR on strictly form, it is a modern marvel of complexity, sculpting, and industrial lust. The artistic, engineering, and human factors base on which the discipline of product design rests was in full force in RAZR’s creation. In contrast, while iPhone inspires techno-lust, it is not much of a “product” from a product designer’s perspective. It sort of looks like a PDA and as was noted by Peter Pfanner, Institute of Design professor and design lead at Motorola, “There’s no form to a PDA.” It’s more of a beautiful slab not unlike it’s cousin the iPod or the Bravia pictured above. In terms of a physical device, it is beautiful yet unremarkable.

But, where the iPhone does not compete well as a traditional product, it excels in terms of delivering (new) benefits as a mobile communications device. The RAZR’s sculpted beauty is also its limitation. It can only have a beautifully sculpted keypad with a set functionality. iPhone’s large touch screen elegantly transforms it into whatever it needs to be: a keyboard, a widescreen movie viewer, a random access voicemail interface. The skills needed to create it are far different from those of a traditional product designer. Much like with the Bravia example, raw engineering, integration of experience (with the “network”), and interaction design were considerably more important than product design. This shift in which disciplines create value matches the latest broad shift of how value is generated in modern society: the move from things to knowledge. Drucker’s notion of “knowledge worker” and the information technology revolution has been singularly manifested physically in iPhone. It’s not that you can’t compete on a product level as Motorola was doing with RAZR. It is just that it is more vulnerable.

At this point, product designers reading this are having one of two reactions: violent disagreement or wondering where this leaves them. This is where I have an admission to make. Product design is, in fact, not dead. We will continue to need skills from the discipline for as long as we are physical entities. There are a number of sectors where it can play a unique role in creating great new things, the health care industry and architecture being two of the most important. So what was I really saying?

Product design is dead as a significant contributor to value in most businesses and society more generally. While it has been a key driver for the past century, through the melding of human factors with the objects we use, most new products are really just aesthetic riffs on past successes. Take the chair for example. Our comfort and long term health was significantly and positively impacted by our ergonomic understanding of the human body and how we could reflect that knowledge in products. Henry Dreyfuss, Niels Diffrient, and Bill Verplank were giants in this regard. Through their work and that of their protégés, tremendous value was created. But do we really need to design another chair? Will new task chairs outclass the Aeron, Mirra, or Freedom?

This is a well-worn argument but the introduction of the iPhone presents us a singular moment at the end of the era of “things” and the beginning of an era of “information”. It is an example of creative destruction reeking havoc on how we do work and it is worth noting. Product designers will continue to practice (although much of this could and will be outsourced to locations outside of the US or Western Europe) though to really add value they will need to shift their focus. This is exactly how product designers at the Institute of Design differ from their colleagues at many other form-based skills schools. Their “core” class work is not in product design but in user observation, analysis, and planning (although at the ID they will have already had undergraduate or professional training in “traditional” design skills).

This brave new information era presents traditional designers (product or otherwise) an opportunity to move from being marginalized behind a door that says, “Creative Department”, and places us at the intersection of understanding opportunities, developing business models, and producing compelling experiences. To do so will require a humble and open attitude to how others do work, a lot of extra effort, and finally, the discipline’s greatest act of synthesis yet: that of integrating many other disciplines’ methods. As for iPhone, it represents the end of mobile communications devices as “things” but also the beginning of a whole new wave of innovation in mobile computing. Rather than just conceding defeat, Motorola and Nokia will integrate their hardware with better software, the “network”, and try to create a valuable and compelling information experience. They will indeed compete. Regardless of which company “wins” this battle, we will all win.


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