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I hate this article February 9, 2011

Posted by Jon Pittman in Uncategorized.
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This week, Blake Gopnik published an article in Newsweek titled “The Dirty Secret of Apple’s Design

I hate this article. Why? It conflates art and design and reinforces the flawed – but popular — notion that design is all about form, fashion, and trendiness. Mr. Gopnik’s analysis of Apple design claims that it is stuck in the modernist past and Apple products exhibit “retro chic”.  He fails to make a distinction between art – which is about self expression – and design – which is about addressing human needs. Good design is multidimensional. It addresses a balance of form, function, and performance. Mr. Gopnik evaluates Apple design on a single dimension – form. What’s worse, he values form almost exclusively on novelty, trendiness, and decoration. He admits that Apple design – as most modernist design – has a classical appeal, but seems to devalue that appeal.

Blake Gopnik is an art critic, with a doctorate in art history, and his article appeared in the culture section of Newsweek (Feb 7, 2011). His analysis is typical of such venues – which view design as a form of art, rather than a driver of innovation. Unfortunately Mr. Gopnik’s analysis is all too common, and reinforces the popular view of design as frivolous and producing only transitory value. Mr. Gopnik does us all a disservice by trivializing the importance of design by claiming design is all about fashion.

Mr. Gopnik clearly admits that he loves to use Apple products, but fails to make the connection between an easy-to-use product and good design. One redeeming aspect of Mr. Gopnik’s article is in his final description of the iPad as “an ultimate example of design that has disappeared.” His discussion provides a glimmer of hope that Mr. Gopnik may be moving beyond the self-referential and narrow view of the design intelligentsia of” design as art” to the more nuanced and useful view of design as a competitive strategy.

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1. Jon Pittman - February 9, 2011

Here is a response from my friend and colleague Phil Bernstein, an architect who teaches at the Yale School of Architecture…

Of course, the overt agenda of Modernism itself—design in the service of function (in the narrow sense) and society (in the broader sense)–was completely lost in that discussion by Gopnik. It was much more a fashion review than even art criticism. From a more nuanced perspective, one might argue that a Modernist stance that defers to the technology that it serves in these products is exactly the right approach, and thus both aesthetically and functionally appropriate. But by failing to address the latter, his argument about the former falls flat.

2. Jon Pittman - February 9, 2011

Additional comment from my friend Hugh Dubberly (yet another Yale grad), who will be a guest speaker in our class and, among other credentials was a design leader at both Apple and Netscape.

To your reasons and Phil’s, I might add:

1) Gopnik misses or misunderstands some of design history.

First, he fails to mention Dieter Rams and his philosophy.
http://www.vitsoe.com/en/gb/about/dieterrams/gooddesign. Jobs and Ive do follow in Ram’s footsteps, not just visually but also philosophically.

Second, he confuses “streamlining” with what Rams was doing.Streamlining is part of a different tradition. Streamlining owes a lot to American designers like Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Harley Earl. They were stylists trying to make old products look new. But there’s no reason a pencil sharpener needs to be streamlined.
http://www.vostok.es/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Raymond_Loewy_Pencil_Sharpener.jpeg Streamlining has nothing to do with what Ive and his designers are doing.

Third, Rams influenced and was influenced by the HfG Ulm. Both participate in a thread of design discourse going back to the Bauhaus and Louis Sullivan and forward to the design methods movement and more recently the design thinking movement.Jobs and Ive have pushed that thread forward.Their success has defined what good design is for a new generation. Their products are guaranteed a prominent place in design history.They will define the decade from 2000 to 2010.

Gopnik’s pets Droog? Not so much. Lucky to get a footnote.

2) Gopnik misses an opportunity to ask: What’s happened to post-modernism? What happened to the product semantics movement? Why is high modernism back?

3) And while Gopnik starts to acknowledge the dematerialization of design, he doesn’t seem to understand just how profound that a shift is. He doesn’t seem to see the software, services, and systems behind Apple’s products as something designed — or if he does, he ignores it, which is to mis-understand Apple.

And he misses a real contradiction. Jobs and Ive are minimalists with their physical products. Yet their virtual products — what’s on their products’ screens, their interfaces — have almost nothing to do with the visual style of the physical products. Quite the contrary; Apple’s visual interfaces have a surprisingly high degree of unnecessary embellishment, textures, glowing translucent jelly-beans, and other tricks that will look quite dated in just a few years. Ironically, it may be Microsoft and Windows Phone 7 (of all the recent entrants to the consumer electronics market) that most epitomize the philosophy (and visual style) of Ulm and Dieter Rams.

It’s a pity that Gopnik doesn’t take Apple to task for something serious — for not being true to its philosophy in its interface.

3. Jon Pittman - February 9, 2011

From Bill O’Connor, another Autodesk colleague

I think one of the most telling omissions in this article is that he never uses the word “experience,” which is the summation of our responses to the aesthetics, form, function, etc. of the designed object. He’s so focused on surface of things that when he thinks about the iPad all he sees are the aesthetics, and completely ignores the deep innovation “underneath,” meaning the technology, content ecosystem, the business systems and partnerships, etc.

At the risk of casting a regional aspersion, this is a classic example of the New York “school” of technology/philosophy—heavy on the surface/’tude, light on the deep understanding of what’s really going on.

4. Jon Pittman - February 9, 2011

From Nathan Shedroff, another of our upcoming class speakers. Posted on the Newsweek site and reposted here.

It’s 2011. It would be really nice if new media could find people who actually understand design to write about the subject. Design is not art and neither are solely about visual expression. Design is also about performance, understanding, function, meaning, experience, and business (not to mention sustainability). In particular, the design of technology products goes so much further than what they look like–especially for Apple’s products. Some industrial designers, in fact, ask “where is the design” with such minimal aesthetics. Regardless, Apple (and others) creates designs that perform and enable not merely look good and too many business people and media pundits are oblivious to this affect (which makes it nearly impossible for them to innovate).


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