How Apple Changed My Life Today, and Why Good Design Isn’t About Interfaces
A few weeks ago, my family had a small gathering for my grandmother in her personal, artful apartment in Philadelphia. My bubbe, who was just turning ninety, didn’t want anything particularly special or fantastic— only a small after-dinner meetup and a classy lunch a few days later. Even though he’s given her gifts every few weeks throughout my entire life, my father handed my bubbe a big cardboard box right before we ate my mother’s homemade cake. Inside wasn’t any new gadget, any fancy jewelry, any precious artwork. It was a shipment from a science/school supply store, and it was full of different magnifying glasses.
Sometimes when we’re so focused on the new, the innovative, the competitive, we forget about ourselves.
Even though I had been working on articulate, detailed, and tightly-designed software all summer, I had completely forgotten about why; even though my design itself is part of a clearly existentialist industry, I forgot that the questions we asked about our lives were the same we were supposed to ask about our products. When Dieter Rams writes about innovation, honesty, and our environment, he’s beyond the world of practicality and technology. He’s speaking to our habits, our nature, what we see through our consciousness (whether we realize it or not).
When my bubbe picked each small, black, plastic-enclosed device out of the box, she was delighted to peer through, and finally see the words all around her, read the emails she had been missing since her eyes had become unreliable (the details of which I’ll spare you). Not a single piece, however, was easy to use. Even the smallest, most well-built magnifier had a harsh, ribbed button that needed to be mashed twice to open it up and emit light. That’s when I knew I needed to rethink the way I comprehended design.
Even if we offer Accessibility, which thankfully my Bubbe’s Mac does so well, and opinionated design, which all mobile software boasts of, the features of our devices should mimic our lives. When did we start vying for tangible progress, instead of the consequences of our applied design, and lives?
Although I know I’m years away from touching the problems that loved ones like my bubbe endure, I can’t shake the feeling that I can do more with what I create today. Something about my focus on the pixels, on the interactions, and on the continuity made me forget about the emotions, the purpose, the reality of my life’s work. Every second I wasted in Data Structures at my college should have been spent bent over volumes recording the history of psychology, history, and philosophy. For some reason I really believed my work was new, that I was unfurling a volume that, if I penned it right, could change the world. Somewhere along the way I forgot that the world isn’t what I care to change, rather, the way we experience it. The same philosophical thoughts that danced around Renaissance oil paintings are the ones Jony Ive grapples with in his visions of user interaction.
For such an existentialist field, why has design been so motivated on changing the world, instead of the person? Shouldn’t the questions always be about our place in the world, not the world’s impact on us?
We only live so long. Our technology is so constrained to the here and now, thinking about the most impressive specs and the shiniest fashion seems hysterical to me. When Google announced Material, I felt the ripples growing. But they were all so small, and I ached for more. Even dropping out of Computer Science in school, in favor of Art History and Theory-inclined classes, only felt like the beginning.
And when I saw David’s Story, one in which a tech-head like myself, a design-oriented thinker, get barrelled off the road (and his existence) only a touch of time before the event he’d be tweeting about for weeks (his account seems to have been deactivated), I felt the importance of my realization even more. When I excitedly babbled about today’s event to all of my friends all the past week, I wasn’t obsessed with the predicated (and pretty accurate) 3x resolution, or 5.5" display, I was stammering about the impact that the release could have on my life. On the lives of all the designers I respected and followed. And through that, maybe the lives of us all.
When Jony Ive sits in his white room and gushes about his love of design, he’s speaking to more than an avid audience of consumers. He’s trying to reach our hearts, and connect with us; Ive reminds us that Apple was always around for the individual, the pirate, the misfit, not the rich or stylish.
And when I saw Jony Ive speak softly about Apple Watch, my eyes filled with tears (more so than the gorgeous video that preceded all of today’s conference). Not once did he mention the competitors. Unlike the thousands of Windows ads that I’ve been assaulted with for the past six months, which flame and utterly disrespect Apple and its products and users, this man was solely interested in love, in his creation. What he was giving to us.
Where’s the innovation? Where’s Apple blowing the top off of Samsung, and all of this year’s watches? What’s new, and why do I care about this pricey, pretty-looking device?
There was something in those words that made my heart race. Kyle, a great friend, and an incredible developer + designer, hadn’t thought about design like I had yet. And he might never. And yet we could have simultaneously created the same products at so many points in our lives, influenced and bettered consumer lives in a similar way.
That means there is so much left to do, and even if I felt that Ive explained himself so perfectly and personally, every observer heard something different. And almost everyone, in demonstration of this, feels the need to construct a chart comparing his work to the perceived “competition.”
When I (inevitably) broke down during the live-stream, after Digital Touch was announced, not a single person in the room understood. At that moment, they were thinking about price, about battery life, about the App Store ecosystem, about the water resistance, about the future of developers and iOS 8. But I was thinking about my bubbe. About David. About my friends that I love so very much at the University of Rochester. About my parents, and how all of this will disappear some day. And how I never get to value them and show them my compassion as much as I wish I could, every day.
I want my design to express my love.
And when I saw the real-time, subtle pulsing of the Apple Watch-wearer’s heartbeat on the pressure-sensitive, micron-perfected, almost window-crisp glass, I only thought of connections. Of how personal good design is, from seemingly unrelated products like the Dyson Fan (sleep better from the noise, the power, and the safety), to the ever-important Health apps that are keystone for this next year of iOS. How the -wares were consequences of the design, not the goal.
When the stream closed, and Bono and Tim hustled off stage, I finally felt like I knew what I wanted to do with my life. It felt like the details that Apple paid attention to in today’s announcements were the existentialist ones, the personal ones, the ephemeral ones, that connect us in an invaluable, temporary way. Those same ones I had been struggling with for my entire life, especially since I’d been invested in human interaction. The foundations of every bond we have with our friends, our family, and for many, our unique, personal devices. All of these things can be wiped away in one second, from a terribly unlucky car accident, or in one lifetime, which is in-and-of-itself so inconceivably insignificant in the context of the universe.
That’s what Think Different means to me.
And that’s why I want my life’s masterpiece to be an Apple Watch; a device built with compassion, with love, without necessitated care of competition or status, but one so thoughtfully and philanthropically designed that it somehow accomplishes all it needed to ($$$), while adding an abstraction to our lives that improves it in ways we never have to realize. Something that adds a medium of communication that can make my bubbe know I love her, without her having to pain over her loss of tip-top physical ability. Something that I can stare at and just think about, for hours, like I used to some nights when my father gave me his then-aging original iPhone. Something that doesn’t attempt to answer those human questions (why are we here?), but helps us to see and understand the answers ourselves (and teaches us how important we really are: to our spouses, to our friends, to our social networks, or to ourselves)— just like art, music, writing, all through time. It’s even more incredible that devices like the iPhone 6 Plus and Apple Watch can literally save and improve our lives, through Health, Security (identity, payments, etc.), and Safety.
Apple changed my life today, and I think I’ll be learning just how much for the rest of my time here, on this planet, in this habitat of culture overgrowth and awesome intellectual stimulation. For now, I’ll make sure to remind everyone in my life just how important they are to me, in the ways that I don’t have to wait a few months to buy.
Further Reading: shortly after publishing this article, NYTimes’s @carr2n wrote a fantastic editorial on the same topic: The Magic in Apple’s Devices? The Heart