3 basic shapes explain all Apple products

Thoughts on Apple Car, Part 146

Michael Schmidt
Jul 26 · 6 min read

If you take all past and current Apple products, you find that the industrial design follows three simple rules for shaping all of them.

The principle best comes to light looking at all iPod models, which over the years have gone through all stages of the three basic shapes in iPod’s design evolution.

Image for post
Image for post

The three main shapes to be found in the image are:

  1. Extrusion with rounded corners and a sharp edge (see iPod on the left for vertical extrusion, others for horizontal extrusion).
  2. Rounded corners and edge with a sharp front (see iPod on the bottom, today’s iPod touch is missing but is the perfect example).
  3. Rounded corners and edges (see iPod on the bottom going in this direction, when not fully).

Let’s go into detail for each of the three.


Extrusion with rounded corners, sharp edge

This classic Apple shape is in use by so many of their products, but really started with the infamous Cube (introduced 20 years ago this month) and the original Mac mini that followed:

Image for post
Image for post

This shape has shipped in so many products, even the latest peripherals like the Magic Trackpad:

Image for post
Image for post

And the simple extrusion from a plain surface is what defined the iPad Pro when it really set itself apart from the greater iPad line:

Image for post
Image for post

This was a continuation of the iPhone 4 form factor, extruding towards the user. The sharp corners were its signature:

Image for post
Image for post

The principle has also been applied to Apple notebooks since the modern unibody aluminium models:

Image for post
Image for post

One noteworthy thing about the execution is that the extrusion can be vertical or horizontal. Whereas the Mac mini is extruded vertically and has its IO on the extruded side, the Apple remote for instance is has its user input on the other side, which in this case is the front.

Image for post
Image for post

The extrusion however can also be horizontal, with the UI on the extruded side, which in this case is the longer one and forms the surface of the device – see the clip-on iPod shuffle:

Image for post
Image for post

Back to the remote, there has been a variant of the TV remote that had a slight variation of the shape, sporting a bent rather than a flat surface.

Image for post
Image for post

Where a remote is a simple device, Apple’s most complex device, the Mac Pro, follows the same principle:

Image for post
Image for post

You see that this shape is classic millennium Apple.


Rounded edge and corners with a sharp front

Another classic one is the shape found in the very first iPod: It refines a simple extrusion with rounded edges in the back, a sharp edge to the front (display), and all rounded corners.

Image for post
Image for post

Also the first iPhone launched with this design: See the profile side-view photo, where the rounder back almost closes full circle to the front, but is still cut sharp in the steel frame around the display.

Image for post
Image for post

It’s a brilliant way to convey a slim and rigid design, so well done that is had been applied squarely to the iPad line, from mini to Air to the very first Pro.

Image for post
Image for post

With this design, it’s possible to make anything go away behind the display. A move the has been popularized in the post-2001 iMacs:

Image for post
Image for post

We will certainly see this shape continue to be heavily used in products that are all about the display.


Rounded edge with rounded corners

Finally, the shape that is now mostly used in the modern Apple design language, actually started in 2006 with the white MacBook:

Image for post
Image for post

All corners and all edges are rounded, resulting in a product that is as friendly and cosy to hold as can be.

The concept has been picked up for the Apple Watch case, which is almost perfectly rounded out.

Image for post
Image for post

It also extends to the Watch bands, that follow the lines of the rounded form:

Image for post
Image for post

Finally, all iPhones after generation six used this shape as the basic design.

Image for post
Image for post

iPhone 11 sports this design across the line, while we can expect that iPhone 12 Pro will adopt the extrusion shape of the current iPad Pro.

Image for post
Image for post

The question is how Apple will apply these principles in a more meaningful manner: While the iPod line went through all of them with no specific reason, the latest executions hint to a Pro use of the sharp-edged extrusion and a consumer use of the all-round finish.



What will be Apple Car’s shape?

Based on the three basic shapes discussed above, the question is which one will be adopted for an autonomous car. There are so many things that aren’t necessary in a car once it drives itself, that the opportunity to reduce to the max are profound.

The other day I was driving on the highway and saw a few of those typical black vans carrying business people to the airport. They are square-ish in the back, covering the maximum of the some 2 meters width. If you take the driver zone and engine room away (both unnecessary spaces in electric autonomy), you’d end up with a simple box.

That’s what I think Apple Car is: An extruded box with rounded corners and a sharp edge top and bottom.

(see renderings in the link)


If the three basic shapes found in Apple’s past 20 years are any indication, we can have a pretty good guess what they’re going to use in the future.

Thoughts on Apple Car

Conceptualizations on the future car, a.o.

Michael Schmidt

Written by

Director Consulting at Virtual Identity. I spent a decade on automotive brands in digital, and blog about brand strategy, #ubx and #AppleCar / #ProjectTitan.

Thoughts on Apple Car

Conceptualizations on the future car, a.o. shared by former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée, Apple/Google/Dropbox designer Ryhan Hassan, Lyft and Snap VC investor Alex Giannikoulis, Wristly founder Bernard Desarnauts, and CaminaLab/Drivania/Shotl founder Gerard Martret.

Michael Schmidt

Written by

Director Consulting at Virtual Identity. I spent a decade on automotive brands in digital, and blog about brand strategy, #ubx and #AppleCar / #ProjectTitan.

Thoughts on Apple Car

Conceptualizations on the future car, a.o. shared by former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée, Apple/Google/Dropbox designer Ryhan Hassan, Lyft and Snap VC investor Alex Giannikoulis, Wristly founder Bernard Desarnauts, and CaminaLab/Drivania/Shotl founder Gerard Martret.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store