There has been much talk about design in the tech space recently, mostly from the UI/UX community on the "bullshit" that is skeuomorphism. A friend, Jon Gold has made a nice write-up of his thoughts on the topic, focused on Apple's horrible UI direction of recent years. The UI world isn't the only space with problems though, the hardware space is also facing loads of issues. The source is from something similar; the inability to create logical and cohesive metaphors. Products of the past were directly dictated by the function they fulfilled. The fork has narrow tines to poke with. The chair has four legs to support with. Things have real and honest correlation in this pure "analog" world.
Just like forks and chairs, headphones can be easily understood in terms of function. They produce sound and direct it to your ears. Therefore, the design is directly dictated by the function and use, making it much more easy for a designer to imagine such a product. And this shows. The headphone market has been filled vibrant design, from the minimal to the flashy to playful.
But things become messy with mobile phones and other "slabs" where the design has less relation to the form. As soon as you put a piece of glass in front of an LCD display, things start looking the same. Or do they? The problems faced in the hardware is worse than skeuomorphism in the UI space in that there is no alternative. There is a total lack of differentiation and diversity. Too many companies are taking the same approach, and even just imitating.
We've all heard the debate on whether Samsung is copying Apple's design or not. There has been an increasing number of people debating that it's inevitable for Samsung's devices to look like Apple's. I don't think this is the case.
Arguably, every pair of headphones look the same. They all have 2 cups and a headband. But they really don't all look alike. Every pair has its own notion on what it's trying to "be". I'm going to pick on Samsung because it's easy. The Samsung Galaxy S is clearly an imitation of the iPhone/iPod. It doesn't express anything. It's the difference between the The Hofmeister kink on the Accord and a 3 series.
Case in point. These phones are extremely similar. I think it's dangerous for people to not demand more. The excuse that a phone and tablet can "only" look like Apple products have created a market with no character. There is no soul in the Galaxy S.
Phones like the Xperia and Nexus One prove that a phone doesn't need to look like the iPhone. I'll be honest, these aren't handsome examples and don't really excite me personally but nevertheless, they don't look like like clones.
When Apple demanded that Samsung tablets look different from the iPad, there was some outrage from people saying that it's impossible. I don't think so. Even by looking at the side profiles with some recent tablets, it's easy to see that the Samsung is easily mistakable for the iPad to an untrained eye. Yes, it's hard to make something that doesn't look like an iPad. But that's the job of designers. Consumers need to demand more from us.
This is my second post criticizing Samsung. I get questioned why I do this so much. It's because they have so much uncapped potentional. They are arguably the second most powerful electronics manufacturer other than Apple. They make everything. If Samsung wanted to, they could make the best phone in the world. Problem is that their products have no emotional value. Some of the products above were ones that had caught by eyes in the past. From the laptop designed by Naoto Fukasawa to the DVD player that looks like a pebble - there is potential.
Competition is the fastest way to innovate. It's how America went to the moon. It's how we're seeing gasoline cars that go 40MPG on the roads. I want to see people challenge Apple. But I don't want a KIRF manufacturer do this.
It truly is difficult to design a phone. Much harder than a fork or a chair. It's very tempting to follow Apple but it just isn't working out. The first problem is that Apple is just too good at manufacturing. In my opinion, true minimal design only works with incredible engineering and quality. When you copy an iPhone, it just ends up looking like an imitation with poor build quality. Secondly, Apple is minimal because honest design is honestly their philosophy. If your brand isn't based on this philosophy, don't do it. I find it brilliant that Apple can create so much emotion through their products. I clearly remember the first time I used a Mac and iPod. But if your product can't do this, it just ends up being forgettable and bland. We need to step past pure "aesthetic minimalism". We need to create emotional design now. There is simply too much being produced and the best way to capture consumers is through emotion.
It's very rare to see a desirable phone with a story. Other than the Nokia N9, I don't think there has been a device I had actually really wanted. But in the mysterious land that is Japan, there is a brand called iida. I want to see diversity, emotion and spirit like this. I've had enough of iPhone imitations and Verizon phones like look like battle gear. It's time for change. It's time for diversity.