Apple’s Creative Block

Apple is not a technology company. Wait… what?

Apple is a design and marketing firm that uses the latest technology. Google is a technology company that uses the latest design and marketing techniques. Do you see where the difference lies?

Apple is run by brilliant designers and marketers. Google is run by visionary technologists.

Since its early days, and especially after its late nineties renaissance, Apple has developed a unique design and marketing competency, which in large part, is what helped make it the brand icon it is today. Apple knows that technology only provides it with a competitive advantage if it is non-repeatable or if no alternative can be found.

As they matured, and as Steve Jobs took back the helms, they realized that in order to survive, solid design and creative marketing had to take center stage once again. When technology is ubiquitous, replicable, or replaceable, your brand is what your customers will gravitate towards. Examples abound: Coke vs Pepsi, Microsoft vs Apple, Lyft vs Uber, etc.

However, and I hate to link it to the change in leadership from Steve Jobs to Tim Cook, but the creativity and innovative design bets at Apple have not been the same since that transition happened. Even the ads that blanket the US 101 road from San Francisco to the South Bay are showing signs of that creative slump. I can’t remember an iPhone ad that was not about how wonderful the photos produced using it are. Yawn…

1 | Feature increments, not design leaps.

Above the fold

I have been lucky to direct large and small campaigns globally, so I can appreciate Apple’s long tradition of communication excellence, ever since the iconic ‘1984’ Mac ad, the ’Think Different’ campaign, and the colorful and musical iTunes ads. Apple has not had a pure branding campaign since the ‘switch’ ads.

Most ads produced in the last five years are product-related (iWatch, Apple TV, iPhone, Apple Music) as if Apple didn’t have to prove itself anymore, in a sort of brand arrogance that takes the customer for granted. The last three generations of the iPhone have had only one advertising point of differentiation and focus: its camera, as if the iPhone was the only phone out there with a good lens and image processing software. The iPhone 7’s main go-to-market visual communication versus its older 6s brother was the new double camera and black glossy finish, hardly disrupting. That creative lethargy translates a stagnation that has been happening on the product side as well.

If Apple were taking an elementary interaction design class, it would fail. - Don Norman & Bruce Tognazzini

Under the hood

On the software side, Apple has been consistent with its roll-out pace. One iPhone, iOS update, OS X update, iWatch OS, etc. update a year, roughly. We also noticed that these updates are more small incremental feature updates rather than real design leaps, as they once were. Sadly, the latest recent changes even felt like steps backwards or in the wrong direction. Even the legendary Don Norman, Apple’s first User Experience Architect (and probably the first person to ever hold that title), has been writing profusely about the company’s fall from design graces.

The latest and long awaited MacBook pro has seen the appearance of the much touted ‘touch bar,’ Cupertino’s latest “breakthrough” that Apple is trying to sell us as a game changer. Methinks not, and neither does CNET who said “The Touch Bar is a fun add-on, but not a necessity, and the move to USB-C ports means potentially carrying a bag full of dongles.”

2 | Instead of design faith leaps, forced conversions.

Even if his refusal to support Flash will never be forgotten by the hordes of passionate developers, Steve Jobs’ legendary arrogance was often forgiven because of his spot-on insight into human interaction design and adoption. Today’s Apple has kept the arrogance and let go of the insight.

3.5mm audio

I have been a passionate music fan and DJ since my teens, and one of my tech gear sins is for headphones of which I own at least five pairs, from from Apple’s bland earbuds to the famous semi-open AKG K7XX. Even if very skeptical about the removal of the industry standard audio 3.5mm input, I was one of the first to acquire the iPhone 7 and give the audio lightning port a try. I have to report that it has been a real pain to use, and the audio gain is not noticeable to human ears. More importantly, I doubt the audio industry will get rid of the ubiquitous 3.5 mm input just because Apple decided to add it. Bizarrely, the latest MacBook pro showed up with one…

USB C

This is yet another example of technology winning at the expense of experience. Apple also removed the mag-safe connector, which I still think is one of the most brilliant and practical ways to physically connect or power… just about anything. Don’t get me wrong, the USB C is a great upgrade on the existing standard and a clear technological improvement. Unfortunately, Apple who used to be great at integrating design, tech, and hardware, has not yet figured out a way to make the transition seamless. For now, we have to lug around an ugly, bulky, and expensive adapter because the new MacBook cannot both recharge its battery and use an existing USB 3.0 device at once.

3 | what next?

All of the above begs two questions: why did it happen? And what can Apple do to reverse its latest (mis)fortunes?

There is no one harder to disappoint than a true fan, and no one harder to convince to come back than a heart-broken fan.

For better and worse, Apple always had an odd insular culture. We never faulted it as long as it kept producing fantastic user experiences, beautiful machines, and inspiring ads. They went from underdog to master in a spectacular way. It is now only a matter of time before another underdog fills the innovation gap and creates another grassroots design and lifestyle movement. Will it be a rejuvenating Microsoft, a stealthy Tesla spinoff, Android, or another group of gifted individuals prototyping in their garage?

Soul searching?

Hubris coupled with inertia are probably the single biggest causes of stagnation and downfall for humans and companies alike. Does Apple have the intellectual courage to engage in inner healing and soul searching? Apple’s DNA is strong. Better than that, it’s legendary. Can a company with such an insular culture open up to an outsider’s perspective, and hereby gain some objectivity and a different insight? If it still believes in ‘thinking different,’ it is worthwhile to stop, reflect, and chart a road back, in what should be the company’s largest employee driven exercise in years, right in time with the inauguration of their new “spaceship” offices.

Reviving the “blank slate” design culture

Creativity is at its highest in children and declines with age as we internalize more rules, dogmas, and other societal constraints. Designing from scratch, with a fresh mind yields many more options, some outlandish, and some that give birth to innovation leaps. Apple’s design philosophy has often been one of a “blank slate.” When designing the first iPhone, Apple did not take the Nokia 3310 and ask “now, how can we make this better?” Instead, they threw all preconceptions out, and asked themselves “how do we communicate better as humans by leveraging the existing technology?”

I switched to Apple back in 2008 and have never looked back… I have converted both my parents and my brother. Will the Cupertino company humble back to its core creative roots, and spark its own mini-rebellion? I certainly hope so, for their sake and those of the fans. There is no one harder to disappoint than a true fan, and no one harder to convince to come back than a heart-broken fan.