Disruptions: Design Rivals Technology in Importance


Last year, at Apple’s event to announce the iPad Mini, I was wandering around the gadget petting zoo the company sets up after each product unveiling. As I turned a corner, I bumped into Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, who immediately wanted to show me something. 

“Nick, just look at this,” Mr. Cook said as he held the miniaturized iPad in the air, brushing his hand along its edge as if he were about to perform a magic trick. Then, his index finger stopped, standing to attention as it pointed to two flat black buttons on the side. “Just look at those volume buttons. Have you ever seen anything like it? Aren’t they just outstanding?”

I took the iPad Mini from him, examining the buttons, which were the size of a grain of rice. “They sure are, Tim,” I replied in all seriousness. “Beautiful.”

What struck me about our brief conversation wasn’t that Mr. Cook was talking about two teensy buttons – this is Apple, after all – but that he never once mentioned the technology in the iPad Mini. Instead, he talked about one thing: design.

To this day, I’m not actually sure how many megahertz my iPad operates on. And frankly, I don’t care about the technology inside the technology anymore. It just works – for the most part – and therefore consumers no longer need to think about it.

“We’re on the tail end of technology being special,” says John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design. “The automobile was a weird alien technology when it first debuted, then, after a while, it evolved and designers stepped in to add value to it.”

Walk into most car showrooms in America and sales clerks might spend more time explaining the shape of the heated seat than the engine that moves the car along. Several decades ago, he might have been heralding pistons and horsepower.

Now, Mr. Maeda said, this shift has happened to technology, be it computers, smartphones or the iPad Mini.

“We have this exciting next step for design,” he said. “Now that we have enough technology to do anything, design can now begin to be better than the technology itself.”

This, for example, is what happened with the Nike FuelBand, the bracelet that can track a user’s daily activity and connect to a smartphone.

“We want to make the product emotional for the person using it, and that happens with the design of it,” said Stefan Olander, Nike’s vice president for digital sport, who worked on the wristband. “You have to create a visceral, emotive experience around the design, which is something everyone cares about.”

Mr. Olander said that people did not look at the FuelBand and ask what technology powered it, they looked at the design of this device that, once on your wrist, disappeared.

“You try to make it smaller, you try to make it lighter, you try to make it go away,” he said.

As a result of the technology slipping into the background, Nike has become one of the most advanced companies for wearable computers.

The worship of design has also taken designers out of the back offices and into top executive jobs. Engineers are still in the mix, to be sure. But they don’t rule the roost in product development, which may also be why tech products are easier to use, more human. “Design used to be the gravy at the end of the meal,” Mr. Maeda said. “But now the quantity of design needed to be increased because of all of these screens, and we now metabolize this design for much longer.”

Now, the entire business is a Web site. Or an app. Or something else that is made to just vanish.

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