2016 — The Year of Stranger Design Things
A lot has been said about 2016. From the troubling political climate around the world to high-profile celebrity deaths, the consensus has been to antagonise the calendar year. Another notably odd trend of 2016 has been the perseverance of bad design.
We take for granted the belief that good design is good for business, and there are numerous studies to prove it. This thinking was reaffirmed in past politics, when presidential campaign logos were featured and critiqued by top design thinkers, with the assumption that the best-designed logo would also be a victorious one. Of course, more left leaning or democratic candidates tend to hire like-minded designers which results in better visuals. This theory was proven to be right during President Obama’s 2008 campaign, with the “well-designed” O-logo (which the President privately disliked). The 2008 campaign also spawned Shepard Fairey’s iconic Hope poster, so it felt like the design-minded candidate won at the end of that election, partially with the help of thoughtful candidate “packaging.”
This line of thinking was challenged this year when Trump’s un-designed swag-fuelled brand triumphed over Hillary’s superior and cohesive, Pentagram-designed brand. Of course, there are so many factors that lead to the election results we are now living with, but one thing is now certain: good design is not a guarantee of political success.
Another brand that came out unscathed from dubious design decisions was Uber, the most disruptive disruptor of them all. Uber launched it’s redesign in February of 2016 and has since back-pedalled on many of the more striking visual elements like patterns, colour, and most visibly, the app icon.
The new branding was received with mixed reviews — and it didn’t help that the design director responsible for the work resigned shortly after the announcement. The photos of the Uber Design Team featured the CEO Travis Kalanick, pulling back the curtain on just how involved senior management was in the redesign efforts. It is also telling how few people in the team photo are actually happy to be there.
Did this slightly ill-advised brand update slow Uber’s growth or alter public opinion? Not at all. The tech ambitions of self-driving cabs and trucks rightfully dominated the Uber press coverage, and the “design weirdness” was forgotten and forgiven. There is always other more pressing negative PR surrounding Uber’s questionable business practices drowning out aesthetic complaints.
The smartphone sector saw high-profile industrial design controversy in 2016. Samsung released and recalled Galaxy 7 Note with a design flaw that caused the phones to spontaneously explode. The bad press from these incidents was hard to escape, if you’ve boarded an plane this year, you’ve heard mentions of Samsung Galaxy 7 Note, urging these passengers to come forward before take off.
Apple rolled out the new iPhone and made a revolutionary decision to remove the 1/4" headphone jack, an output that’s been present in virtually every piece of audio equipment since 1964. The change is meant to make the phone fully waterproof but makes it incompatible with many brands of headphones and laptops, including Apple’s new MacBook Pros, which seems out-of-step with the rest of the product line for that reason.
I own the iPhone 7 and it’s a great piece of equipment, but I do carry around 2 pairs of headphones, one for my MacBook and another for my iPhone. This seems to be flawed design, but perhaps we’re in an awkward adjustment period that will be alleviated with future hardware releases or 3rd party dongles. The reaction to this design adjustment is quite tangible, as Apple is reportedly slowing it’s production of the iPhone due to lower than expected sales.
Speaking of the new MacBooks, these also came with a degree of public displeasure. Introducing a new touch bar above the keyboard and removing all but the 4 USB-C jacks did not go over well with the Pro community. Many griped about the need to purchase numerous dongles, which is legitimate, but it didn’t end there. Consumer Reports recently published a review of the MacBook, reporting that the laptop failed it’s battery power benchmark tests, making it the first MacBook they could not recommend. The consensus seems to be that Apple is moving away from its pro/creative user base towards a more general audience.
Finally, Mark Zuckerberg’s artificial intelligence pet project called Jarvis. Obviously the potential of AI in a smart home environment is not to be overlooked, but at this stage of development, it seems to only prolong the tasks that an average human can accomplish quite easily (with the exception of firing t-shirts out of a cannon and toasting bread on command. How that toast got inside the toaster is still a mystery). Of course, Facebook confirmed that this video is a humorous take on a serious personal project Mark has spent the year developing. That being said, we have to consider the subtext of the video: its subject is a billionaire who likely has an army of human assistants and values his privacy, making the viewing experience even more strained.
Overall, this hasn’t been an out of the ordinary year when design anomalies are concerned, but somehow we were all hyper-sensitive to the questionable and strange decisions made all around us. Maybe this is a trend that will keep perpetuating itself, or maybe we all went through a really odd chaotic year. One thing is certain, everyone with a Medium account is a kneejerk design critic and, for better or worse, people care about design.
Max Kaplun is an Art Director at Dynamo in Montreal and Co-Founder of Dynamic/MTL. Follow him on Twitter or get in touch.