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What Apple Gets Right: A Design Analysis of the World's Most Desirable Electronics

written by: Spanner•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 10/24/2011

Apple has access to exactly the same resources, personnel, markets and technologies as every other electronics manufacturer. So why is it Apple seems to lead the way in stunning electronic design over and over again? We take a look at how Apple approaches aesthetics.

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    Taking a Bite Out of Apple's Style

    Taking a Bite Out of Apple's Style 

    Keeping it simple isn't a new concept. Not by any means. But it's one that Apple has fully embraced in everything it designs, and the Mac creator is now synonymous with sleek, beautiful, desirable and, perhaps most importantly, highly functional products.

    However, an analysis of Apple's electronic devices begins before you ever pick up an iPhone, iPad or MacBook. If you really want to see the end result of an Apple designer's sketch book, you need look no further than their website. The official Apple website epitomizes everything Apple strives to imbue its electronic devices with.

    First and foremost, there is no clutter. Stark white expanses have become a calling card of an Apple's style. Yet everything you could possibly want to see or know or find or learn about Apple is right here on its website, and is easy to find. It's simple, for sure, but as Apple proves, simple doesn't mean effortless.

    The Website Design Depot's Dmitry Fadeyev agrees that Apple's simple approach is a genuine benefit for the user, saying, "Apple does a great job of keeping everything easy to read. [It] has always worked on unifying the look and feel of its interface across its entire product line, from the hardware to software, and their website is no exception."

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    Giving Consumers a Gift

    Giving Consumers a Gift 

    Everyone's seen the picture of a succulent, mouth-watering burger on the price list over the fast food counter, which only makes the flaccid, thin, water-logged lump of gray meat you receive all the more disappointing. It becomes evident, as we analyze Apple's electronics, that its designers have been disappointed once too often at fast food restaurants.

    The product pictures on Apple's website and on its advertisements aren't just photos. They've got personality and make the product look powerful and desirable. The difference with Apple is that you get what you see on the picture. The company is well known for an almost obsessive emphasis on presentation -- even to the cost of function, some critics might suggest -- but Apple genuinely makes you feel as though you've received a gift when you come face-to-face with the product you've fantasised about in the photos.

    John Gruber, of technology blog Daring Fireball, summarized Apple's approach to this design tactic in The Pragmatic Marketing magazine as "...the build-up of anticipation leading to the opening of the present that Apple offers is an important -- if not the most important -- aspect of the enjoyment people derive from Apple’s products."

    This sensation is by design, and it's a powerful weapon to weild when selling electronics.

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    An Apple Is for Anyone

    An Apple Is for Anyone 

    One of the major barriers electronics companies have faced is convincing technophobes to adopt their products. Too many people don't know, and don't want to know, how to use a computer, smartphone or tablet. Apple doesn't crash through this barrier, but steps to the side of it and calmly walks around to meet these potential customers with a reassuring smile.

    The simplicity of Apple electronics' outer design suggests a simplicity of use. There's no complicated setup, and its keyboard doesn't look like it's come off of a retired Concord. It's a silent reassurance that you're buying something you'll be able to use, even if you've never used one before.

    Eric A. Taub of the New York Times explains that Apple is able to confidently approach all corners of the market, saying, "[Apple's] iPod line is easy to use and stylish, and its appeal crosses generations. Apple retail stores are clean, sleek and inviting."

    Of course, this has to hold true when you do come to use an Apple device.

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    An Interface That Isn't In Your Face

    An Interface That Isn't In Your Face 

    The iPhone is undoubtedly Apple's most famous electronic device, and a significant part of its success is its beautifully stark, yet organic interface. Give an iPhone to someone who's never used one before and they'll operate it instinctively. Swiping pages, tapping buttons, turning the handset around -- these are all intuitive actions akin to turning the page of a book or pulling a lever. It requires no explanation.

    The touchscreen interface uses switches instead of computerized commands, and rolling lists instead of drop-down menus. It's an intelligent design decision that not only adds an immediately recognizable aesthetic to iOS devices, but embraces natural actions that we, as humans, want to perform.

    This can be seen in using a mouse, a big-screen computer, TV set-top box or a music player made by Apple. You don't have to read any instructions to use an electronic device from, and that's desirable for everyone concerned. Including Apple.

    Despite having once been an Apple employeed, Bruce Tognazzini has remained critical of the company and frugal with his compliments of its designs. But even he was impressed by the iPhone's public face, saying, "The fundamentals of the system have been well thought-out and deftly implemented. User-operations are smooth and pleasant, reflecting Apple's traditional attention to detail, again something unusual in the computer industry."

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    Tracking Success

    Tracking Success 

    Apple's outward thinking challenges expectations and conventions at every turn. Trackpads, for example, have been the domain of laptops and notebooks for a long time, but there's no reason they can't be just as useful to a desktop computer. But it took Apple's inspired designers to figure that out when they released the super-sleek Magic Trackpad, as Endgadget's Joshua Topolsky pointed out.

    "It's easy to see that touch input is increasingly becoming an important part of how we interact with technology and the Magic Trackpad does an admirable job of transmuting that experience to the desktop."

    When you look at something like the Magic Trackpad you'd be completely forgiven for not knowing exactly what you'd do with it. But that doesn't change the fact that Apple's beautifully minimalist design makes you want one. A lot.

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    Accessible Accessories

    Accessible Accessories 

    The Magic Trackpad isn't the only accessory Apple has made inexplicably desirable through a delicate and inventive design process. Items such as the magnetic cover for the iPad 2, the multi-touch Magic Mouse and the staggering Thunderbolt display have provided a secondary market for Apple that keeps you blissfully spending after you've bought a computer, tablet or smartphone.

    "[With] their unique quality, user-friendliness and fantastic features, the Apple accessory designs have become so popular among customers that they have left behind all other brands," electronics design company Detekt Design happily admits on its own webpage.

    This perfectly demonstrates Apple's astute use of intelligent design. Its accessories are not cheap, but by placing so much emphasis on great looks and usability, the secondary market competition is neutered before it even gets a chance to publish its first eBay listing.

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    Multi-Touchable

    Multi-Touchable 

    Touch is the human body's primary form of interface with external objects. Apple's designs exploit this notion to its fullest, with more than just smartphone touchscreens using your fingers to control the electronic world. The Magic Trackpad, Magic Mouse, Mac monitors and more all beg you to fondle them not only out of tactile desire, but for functional purposes.

    "I'd always felt that playing the piano was so much more graceful and expressive than using a computer keyboard, and I thought how great it would be if I pulled some of that expression from the piano to the computer experience," explains Apple engineer Wayne Westerman, pioneer of Apple's multi-touch technology.

    Putting all your fingers to work on its touch technology engages the human interface profoundly, and is a cornerstone of Apple's inspired design work.

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    Good Designing is Redesigning

    Good Designing is Redesigning 

    Just because Apple has refined a design into a highly attractive and desirable product doesn't mean the work is finished. Where another company might milk a product for evermore, and keep it limping along until its curves become old an unappealing, Apple doesn't sit still.

    It might appear that a simple, but popular device like the iPod nano was all it could be, but that doesn't stop Cupertino's dream team from bending our perceptions around an all new, and even more seductive design. A miniature touchscreen that costs almost as much as a full-sized iPod touch doesn't sound too appealing; until you see it. Then you wonder why you're not wearing one on each arm.

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    Know Your Audience

    Know Your Audience 

    Apple knows what it does. While this might sound obvious, it's worth noting that this is a company that chose its audience carefully, and caters for that tech-savvy, fashion conscious media user. It's not trying to snare each and every one of us, but those who do fall into its web are generally stuck there.

    Why? Because Apple has everything that demographic needs. When Apple users began drifting away from the video rental stores, Apple was ready to fill the void with iTunes and Apple TV. When laptops became cumbersome and pedestrian, the iPad was ready to take their place. Cellphones were everywhere and a vital lifestyle accessory, so Apple produced the iPhone: a designer accoutrement that royalty, celebrities and Average Joe could all call their own.

    This prophetic approach to new and revamped product designs has taught the world to look toward Apple for the new lifestyle electronic trends, because everyone knows that's where they're going to come from. Like it or not.

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    The Design Competition

    The Design Competition 

    Although Apple has opened a court case or two, suggesting that its competition is blatantly copying its electronic designs, it's difficult to say whether this is intentional, or innocently reactionary. Yet it's impossible for any electronics designer to ignore the impact Apple's innovation has had on the world, and this inevitably changes the starting point for any competitor that wants to survive.

    As inspiration guru Simon Sinek says in a presentation for TED, "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. [Apple] believes in challenging the status quo in everything it designs. This explains why [everyone] is perfectly comfortable buying a computer from Apple."

    There are always technical differences in electronic devices, but browsing the iPhone's competition, it's quite clear that the innovative design process employed by Apple has dictated what companies like Google, Samsung, BlackBerry and HTC must now do to stay afloat in what has become Apple's market.

    This has nothing to do with functionality, as there are plenty of technically superior electronic devices available from Apple's competition. It has everything to do with getting the design right, and that's the reason Apple leads the way time and again.

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