You can’t buy one of Apple’s coolest products: an Apple Design Award (ADA). The company hands these out every year at the Worldwide Developers Conference, honouring “applications that demonstrate technical excellence, innovation, superior technology adoption, high performance, and outstanding design”.
It’s Apple’s version of the Oscar, the Stanley Cup, the World’s Greatest Grandma Mug. Like the rest of these honours, the award requires an iconic trophy, and boy, did the design team nail it. The ADA is a grey cube that’s bare on every face, except for a white Apple logo on one side. Electronics inside make the Apple logo glow brightly when it’s touched.
This object is 100 per cent design and practically zero per cent function, and all of its engineering has gone towards making you think about Apple and how awesome the company is. In the eyes of most of the company’s detractors, then, it’s the ultimate Apple product.
I love it because it’s possibly the silliest piece of hardware Apple’s ever been involved with. Assuming the iPod socks don’t count. And I don’t think they do. Textiles can’t be classified as technology until it’s possible for them to precipitate a catastrophe without any warning.
A touch of silliness
I wish Apple did more things that were silly. The Macintosh Portable doesn’t count, either. For those of you who joined us late, the Portable was Apple’s first mobile Mac. It was as bulky as an accordion, as heavy as an accordion… and the masses found the Mac Portable just as unpalatable.
No, Apple – God love it – honestly thought it was on to a winner with that one. What I want are Apple products that are pure expressions of its ability to design cool things, and of the pride it takes in making an object that provokes a spike in an individual’s galvanic skin response. Every Apple product has at least a component of that concept. I didn’t like the new iPod nano (I think it’s only practical if you never have to change tracks) but man alive: a colour, multitouch media computer the size of a postage stamp is almost unbearably cool.
A friend of mine started wearing her nano on a custom strap that turns it into a (very chunky) wristwatch (that will only tell you the time after you wake the display). That’s how cool its design is. The nano is so cool that we Apple fans want an excuse to stare at it lovingly several times an hour throughout the day.
What if Apple decided to cut out the middleman and actually design a wristwatch? Not an ‘iPod wristwatch’. Not ‘a watch that can also control any device that’s streaming music or video via AirPlay’. Those concepts smack of integration. In the past, I’ve praised Apple for never introducing major products that don’t enhance and support another Apple product or service in some way. That’s great. But I’ll never win an ADA. If I want to own something that Apple designed purely for Design’s sake, it has to be a watch.
Or a bottle opener. Or a bookstand. It hardly matters. I just want to see what Apple’s engineers can do if they’re free from the mandates of product universes, long-range strategies, and commercial viability.
Pause of inspiration
Partially, I’m inspired by the work of the artists employed by Steve Jobs’ second most famous company – Pixar. You’re familiar with the fantastic work they do on the feature films but naturally, they don’t stop being creative at the end of the working day. They’re still drawing, and painting, and building, taking ideas that might not be quite workable as the basis of a $1.2 billion-grossing movie but are well worth executing.
Check out the blog of story artist Josh Cooley, for instance (cooleycooley.blogspot.com). It’s packed with wonderful sketches, including an awesome ongoing art series in which he draws iconic movie scenes as how they would be represented in a child’s Little Golden Book version of the flick. Never has the discovery of a human head in a box or the explosive birth of a xenomorphic alien from a man’s chest been so… charming.
The difference between Pixar and Apple is that an artist can buy art supplies and knock out a sketch for next to nothing. If your specialty is low-power, high-density display units, you can’t follow a flight of whimsy without stopping off at Dragon’s Den for £120,000 in funding and then spending a month touring factories in China.
So Apple’s going to have to act as its designers’ sponsors. Once a year, let them do any silly product they want, so long as it can be sold for £50 or less. Let’s not lose our heads here. I’ve been replaying Apple’s product history and the only truly silly product I can think of is the 20th Anniversary Mac. It was definitely cool for coolness’ sake, but at a retail price of $7,500, it was only an impulse buy to those who happen to have their own personal air force.
I suppose Apple could afford to do a silly computer back in 1997. It was on the ropes, desperately firing off all of its remaining ammo in every possible direction, hoping that something would score a hit. Now that it’s the king of the hill, every move it makes is carefully observed and dissected. If it makes a new kind of tin opener that doesn’t immediately grab double-digit market share, this whimsical enterprise will affect the stock price.
Still, I want an Apple watch. I want a baseball cap whose bill points to Magnetic North. I want an eggwhisk that sometimes gets mopey from Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I have great faith in Apple. The iPad, the iPod, and the MacBook line show a team of designers who understand how to fuse human drives and instincts to the latest technology. Underneath all that, however, I sense an absolutely barking-mad lunatic struggling to be heard.