Does Apple’s design team need fresh ideas?

iPhone's face now looks a little too old-school.

Apple has a very clear design ethos: simple and elegant. No unnecessary buttons, colors, corners or materials. Macs are all Aluminum, and have a black bezel topped with glass. iPad is the same. The iPhone likewise, is constructed from glass and metal. But, am I the only one that finds it a little dull and plain now? The first generation iPhone came out just over 4 years ago, and we’re now on our 5th generation, I have to say the evolution from 1st to 5th gen has been pretty minimal.

Notice the similarity? (image via: IntoMobile)

The first iPhone was a little chunkier, was made of – you guessed it – glass and Aluminum and had the same front panel as what we see now. Same sized display, same looking earpiece, same home key. iPhone 3G/3GS looked virtually identical from the front, it was only when you turned it over that you noticed any difference. Then the iPhone 4 was released, to change the world “again”. But when it first launched, it underwhelmed me from a design point of view. My first thoughts when the prototype appeared were “but that’s square, and ugly, I hope that’s not the finished article.” The face, yet again, was the same. It may well be that Apple’s trying to solidify its brand identity somehow by keeping the same look on the front, but to me it appears lazy. It’s like Porsche cars, they’ve looked the same for the past 50 years.

Let’s look at Android, and its “pure” Android handsets. The difference between the G1 and the G2 was pretty striking. Different materials were used, different mechanisms to reveal the keyboard. It had obviously evolved. The G1 had a tracker ball, physical menu/back buttons, a weird swivelling display. G2 had an optical trackpad and replaced all its hard keys with a set of touch sensitive ones. The display slid up and over with its “Z” hinge.

The Nexus range has also had a pretty major makeover. Since the original Nexus One was designed by a different manufacturer, we’ll just compare the most recent Samsung made devices. Although the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus are vaguely similar, the difference between them is immediately apparent. The newer device is bigger, slimmer, and sexier. Its display dominates the front as all touch-sensitive keys have been replaced with virtual, on-screen ones. This means the bezel is slimmer, and makes for a much more minimal look.

How is it, that Apple, a company known for wanting simplicity and minimalism, has been beaten to a button-free front panel by Palm (Pre 3), Samsung and Nokia (N9)? I can’t stress how important the look of a phone’s face is. It’s the one part of your phone that you look at the most. It’s your first impression of the handset, and your last. Looking at any of the iPhones face-on, there’s no difference. (Unless you get a white iPhone 4/4S, even then, the color is the only unique feature – ignoring the front-facing camera.) Then there’s the back of the device. It doesn’t need to look as pretty as the front, it just needs to feel good in your hand. iPhone 4/4S certainly doesn’t, it’s slippy, sharp and uncomfortable.

Apple clearly innovated the smartphone space in 2007 when it launched a phone with only one key on the front. Back then, it was incredible. Every touch screen device at the time came with at least 4-5 keys on the front for various tasks. Fast forward a few years, and Apple’s kept exactly the same design. It now looks dated, old and irrelevant. Apple’s next iPhone needs to put design back at the heart, making it more minimal. Be bold, designers, get rid of that home key and lets see if you can make a handset controlled only by intuitive gestures. Sometimes we feel like having a big, shiny device, not one designed with arrogance, but one that wows. If Palm, Nokia and Samsung can do it, why can’t you?

Here endeth the rant.

What do you feel about Apple’s design policy? Does the iPhone need an extreme makeover? Or are you perfectly happy with the way it’s always been?


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  • Fatasiangeek

    Quite true… Nice article.

  • David McClellan

    Yo dawg we heard you likez virtual buttons so we took away your virtual buttons and put virtual buttons where your virtual buttons used to be. 

    Not to mention the other numerous typos and spelling mistakes ;)

    • Cam Bunton

      lol! Thanks David. You say numerous, I spotted two. ;-) 

    • Anonymous

      Haha…you do realize they did that so the buttons are customizable per app and can go away for bigger viewing of apps and media, right? :P

  • Anonymous

    I think apple needs to change the look of the OS. It hasn’t really changed since 07 when it was introduced. I could see them keeping the same similar design because that is how people know it is an iphone by that. Maybe increase the screen size, but the OS is what needs a new look.

  • Am I the only person who loves the iPhone design and doesn’t want too far of a deviation?  I love the look of the 4 too.

    • Troll

      You definitely are.

  • Andrew

    The design is ok, just bigger screen

  • G2xUser

    design is boring, but i’m fine with that. they need to update their OS. that’s the only reason i haven’t gotten an iphone. I love apple, i have an ipod, and a macbook pro, but i will not get an iphone because there phones are not up to par with android.

  • Mrd

    Most phones all look alike. I mean, their phones. What more can you do and still make them function as a phone? Some are rounded at the corners, some are squared but they are are small rectangles. Besides, I rather drive a  Porsche then a Kia any day.

    • Cam Bunton

      Nice! ;-) 

    • Grammar

      They are becomes they’re, not “their.”

      • GrammarIdiot

        F**k you! Is that better douchebag?

      • Photog

        What a moron. Mrd was just trying to give an honest opinion.

  • Bratty

    The Apple design sentiment is minimalistic. To call it boring is simply incorrect. That is the beauty of design – people like different things. The ip4/4S is amazing to me. A bigger screen? Sure. But that is not a “design” metric.

    • Cam Bunton

      Front face without buttons is more minimalist that front face with a button. What I’m saying is boring is that the design has not changed one bit since 2007. We’re due a redesign. 

  • Digitaltouch

    Like everyone is saying there’s not a lot that can be done. The only thing I could think of is a virtual screen and who knows maybe that will be there huge new thing. But that’s with time.

  • Popperlewis

    The phone in the top picture on the left looks stupid; it’s way too oversized and ugly. I think some phone companies are getting a bit carried away with the size, I’m not saying that it wouldlnt be good if apple put a 4 inch display on the next gen iPhone, that would be great, but any bigger is ridiculous. At the end of the day it’s a phone. And the iPhone 4S is the best looking phone out there by miles. The glass is beautiful and the lovely stainless steel bands look incredible. Nothing comes close to it and nothing ever will.

  • Jonny

    I love the design. I dont know if a bigger screen would do any good. When i have a android phone with a big screen on my hand i feel like I’m holding that cell phone thats made for old people, the one that comes with huge buttons lol it just feels stupid to be honest.

  • Ddm08711

    I love the design. It is pure apple. When you see an iPhone you know immediatly that its an iPhone.  Apple has done an outstanding job with its branding.  The iPhone 4/4s is a work of art. Simplistic,elegant.sophistcated.  You say porche has looked the same for years, true but again when you see a porche you know its a porche not a ford or chevy.  If you dont like the look of the iPhone then dont buy one!

  • Zach

    “If you don’t want an iPhone 4[S], don’t buy it; if you bought one and you don’t like it, bring it back.”

  • i’ve had em all, q9, touchsmart, treo700wx, pixi, g1, hd2, evo, with all carriers………i switched to iphone 3gs first time this past june….none compare….had the iphone 4s since release, none compare…’s by far the sleekest, most remarkable piece of technological art i’ve ever seen, and i suspect will continue to be a step ahead….the person who said you know instantly when a person has an iphone, hit it on the head….there’s no mistaken it, it’s the coolest thing out there, including gns, razor, and anything else coming down the pipe…by the way, until 5 months ago, i couldn’t get enough android, and now look at me, just saying!

  • you shouldn’t have to be a supernerd to get the cool outta your phone…….phone should be cool all on its own

  • Eroc369

    I think that changing their design would be like shooting their self in the foot. A couple of months ago TIP wrote about a study that was done. All different phones were arranged on a screen and the computer analyzed their eye moment patterns and they found that people had a hard time taking their eyes away from the iPhone. It’s gorgeous! Have you ever heard the saying if it’s not broke don’t fix it? Well I think that applies here. It just doesn’t need to be changed

  • The iPhone is a work of art, the reason why it has one button is because Steve said so. It’s going to be hard for apple to live up to the chorus of people asking for change. Apple has had an unique ability balance design and useability, mostly because Steve would stand his ground and not compromise. Too many phones are compromise.
    The only obvious easy request is a larger screen, i.e. iPhone 4XL

  • Anonymous

    It sounds like someone is still bitter that they got duped by the leaked teardrop design.

  • Dileep K Ram

    I feel, Apple is on the right way..
    There r billions of people uses iPhone. The OS & it’s simplicity is the most attracting points of an iPhone.. I’m using iPhone last 2 years..Earlier I was nokia fan.. And during this period I Tried to use some other handsets of nokia, samsung, htc etc.. No way, im addicted to this.. Yes the simplicity is the most attracting point of an iDevice.. I love apple & iPhone!!!!

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