Apple isn't a design company, it's a fashion company

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Apple isn't a design company, it's a fashion company
One of the most commonly levied arguments against Apple is that the products don't change much, but are still sold at a premium cost. Often the counter-argument is made that the quality of an Apple device is what counts, rather than the functionality. People point to the ease of interaction, or the integration from software to hardware. We have even made the case that Apple is a design company first, but that isn't quite right. Apple isn't a design company, it's a fashion company.

If anyone out there watches the incredibly wonderful Idea Channel from PBS on YouTube, you'll have seen the genesis of this idea in a recent video called, "Is CSS and Website Design a Fashion Statement" (which we'll embed here as a primer for the ideas we're covering). But, as far as we're concerned, CSS and web design are really the same thing, it's all really a question of UI design, and there is no doubt that UI design is a fashion statement. We've seen the evidence over and over. But, an important point to keep in mind is the difference between fashion and what is fashionable or trendy. Fashion is an idea based in the intent of the creator and the marketers. What is fashionable or trendy is based on the reaction of consumers. And, because of the very high level of subjectivity in fashion, the two sides don't always meet, but that doesn't mean that an iPhone is any less of a fashion item.


Just like we can look back at the clothing fashion of a certain time, so too can we do the same with UI design. In its time, the UI of Windows 3.1 was considered great design, but it fell out of fashion, and Microsoft changed the look with Windows 95, then again with Windows XP, Windows 7, and now one more time with Windows 8. Each iteration was an attempt to make the UI more modern and contemporary, more fashionable. Microsoft saw the same opportunity when remaking Windows Mobile into Windows Phone, and developing the Metro UI (now known as Modern UI). Some don't like it, but the Modern UI is a testament to typography and minimalist design. At first it may just look like a grid of tiles, but there is a wealth of information and design variety within those tiles. And, it is no doubt a type of fashion, aimed to appeal to users and to distinguish the products from the competition.


Google hasn't been a company very well known for its design, but has been trying to change that. All of the Google web services have gotten a makeover to be more consistent, which is an easy way to give the company a recognizable style, or fashion. Just like someone may be able to look at a handbag and know the designer, if you see a Google website, you can recognize it as such. Google hasn't quite made the move into being a company known for its design, so when it showed off Google Glass at a fashion show, it came off as a very strange move, but really it was exactly how Google wants to be seen. It wants to be the company that offers the functionality you want with the fashion caché behind it. 

We have seen the same with Android, where Android 1.5 and 2.x were widely described as "utilitarian", the UI was functional, but no one would argue it was well-designed or even pretty. Then, Google hired Matias Duarte, who is no doubt a fashionable man himself as a quick Google search for "Matias Duarte fashion" (no quotes) will uncover. Suddenly, Android's UI started looking more fashionable. There were incidental animations, flashy transitions, an array of colors, and all of the small details that are the hallmark of good design (like the outline of icons on the homescreen as you rearrange apps). Android UI is attempting to become fashionable. 

Of course, Google's style vision is constantly in conflict with manufacturers who change the UI in order to create their own fashion. HTC's fashion sense is in elaborate animations and bright graphics. Samsung has taken a cue from nature with its new fashion overlay. And, Amazon has completely wiped away all of Google's work to create its own style for the Kindle Fire products. 


Apple is the thesis of this entire idea. The company was founded under principles of iconic design. The idea couldn't have been more apparent in Apple's co-founders, Steve Jobs - stylish, iconic fashion (the black turtleneck and blue jeans), and obsessive about the smallest design choice - and, Steve Wozniak - functional clothing, and obsessed with tinkering and functionality of products. Ultimately, Steve Jobs' vision won out, which is why Apple has gotten the reputation of being the BMW of the tech world. 

Most people see a comparison to BMW and jump to an argument of quality, but that's not accurate. Quality is a virtue of fashion, not necessarily the other way around. Remember, Nokia made phones that could be dropped into the middle of the sun and survive, but no one was going to give them design awards. However, if a company that strove for high-class design made a product that was shoddy, it would be widely ignored. This leads to the "label effect", which is something that Apple is most definitely trying to tap into. 

We've talked before about Apple's aim for iconic design, and how it ties to brand recognition, and all of that comes together in the idea of fashion. That's why we wan to try something out, all of the Apple haters: consider how you think about fashion. Are you interested at all in high fashion? What about casual fashion? Do you try to be trendy or do you just wear what's comfortable, and what shows off who you are?

Now, what about your choices in technology? Do you want control or ease? Customization or recognizability? It's all the same continuum of form vs functionality, or for the purposes of this discussion: fashion vs functionality. 

Fashion vs Functionality

As we have argued before, Apple has always focused more on design, and often at the expense of functionality, but the trouble is that argument isn't quite right. It implies that Apple actively removed functionality, or took resources away from building more functionality in order to focus on design. In reality, quality design requires fewer user-controlled functions. The more user-controlled functions that exist, the more UI controls necessary in order to make those functions accessible. Additionally, design choices made to aid functionality are often described as "ugly". It may look pretty to have glass or aluminum chassis on your mobile device, but it's a whole lot easier to hold an "ugly" plastic device like the Google Nexus 7 or Nexus 10 in one hand because of that design choice. 

There are users who exist across the spectrum of fashion vs functionality. The most hardcore users (and also a high proportion of our audience) tend to want more control, even at the expense of fashion, so they are the types who use Linux and Android. Those who don't want quite as much control, but still a good amount of tinkering space go for Windows. And, those who want something that has a short learning curve, and the fashion recognition may go for Apple products. As we always try to impress upon those in our audience who are least likely to be swayed by things like logic and perspective: it's all a matter of choice. Just because you prefer one doesn't make the other choices wrong. You can't defend Android's ecosystem of choice and then attack someone else for choosing Apple, that's simple hypocrisy. Some people just want a device that looks good and is easy to use, even if it costs more than reason would say it should, and those people will go for the brand name, the fashionable choice, and that's Apple. 
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