You can’t buy one of Apple’s coolest gadgets: an Apple Design Award. They hand these out every year at the Worldwide Developers Conference, honoring “applications that demonstrate technical excellence, innovation, superior technology adoption, high performance, and outstanding design.”
It’s Apple’s version of the Oscar, the Stanley Cup, the World’s Greatest Grandma Mug. Like the rest of these incredible honors, the award requires an iconic trophy, and boy, did the design team nail it. The ADA is a gray cube that’s practically bare on every face, except for the side with a big white Apple logo on it. It has some electronics inside that only perform one function: it makes the Apple logo glow brightly when the cube is touched.
This object is 100 percent design and practically zero percent function, and its engineering is designed to make you think about how awesome Apple is. In the eyes of most of the company’s detractors, then, it’s the ultimate Apple product.
I love it, because it’s possibly the silliest piece of hardware Apple’s ever been involved with. (Assuming that the iPod Socks don’t count. I don’t think they do. Textiles can’t be classified as technology until it’s possible for them to fail and precipitate a catastrophe without any warning.)
I wish Apple did more things that were silly. The Macintosh Portable doesn’t count, either. For those of you who joined us late, the Portable was Apple’s first mobile Mac. It was as bulky as a concert accordion, as heavy as a concert accordion… and the masses found the Mac Portable just as unpalatable.
No, the people at Apple—God love ’em—honestly thought they were on to a winner with that one. What I want are Apple products that are pure expressions of the company’s ability to design cool things, and of the pride its employees take in producing an object that provokes a spike in an individual’s galvanic skin response.
Every Apple product has at least a component of that concept. I didn’t like the new iPod nano (I think its design is only practical if you almost never have to choose tracks or playlists), but man alive: a color multitouch media computer the size of a postage stamp is almost unbearably cool.
A friend of mine started wearing her Nano on a custom strap that turns it into a (very chunky) wristwatch that will only tell you the time after you wake the display. That’s how cool its design is. The new Nano is so cool that we Apple fans want an excuse to stare at it longingly and lovingly several times an hour throughout the day.
What if Apple decided to cut out the middleman and actually design a wristwatch?
Not an “iPod wristwatch.” Not “a watch that can also control with any device that’s streaming music or video via AirPlay.” Those concepts smack of integration. In the past, I’ve praised Apple for never introducing major products that don’t enhance and support another Apple product or service in some way. That’s great. But I’ll never win an Apple Design Award. If I want to own something that Apple designed purely for design’s sake, it has to be a wristwatch.
Or a bottle opener. Or a bookstand. It hardly matters. I just want to see what Apple’s engineers can do if they’re free from the mandates of product universes, long-range strategies, and commercial viability.
Partially, I’m inspired by the work of the artists and designers employed by Steve Jobs’ second-most-famous company: Pixar. You’re familiar with the fantastic work they do on the feature films, but naturally, they don’t stop being creative when they climb back into their cars at the end of the day. They’re still drawing, and painting, and building, taking ideas that might not be quite workable as the basis of a 1.2 billion-dollar-grossing movie but are well worth executing.
Check out the blog of story artist Josh Cooley, for instance. It’s packed with wonderful sketch work, including an awesome ongoing art series in which he draws iconic movie scenes as they would be represented in a child’s Little Golden Book version of the flick. Never has the discovery of a human head in a box or the explosive birth of a xenomorphic alien from a man’s chest been so… charming.
The difference between Pixar and Apple is that an artist can buy art supplies and knock out a killer sketch for less than five bucks. If your specialty is low-power high-density unit display technology, you can’t follow a flight of whimsy without stopping off at Dragon’s Den for $120,000 in angel funding and then spending a month touring factories in China.
So Apple’s going to have to act as their designers’ sponsors. Once a year, let someone do any silly product they want, so long as it can be sold in Apple stores for $50 or less. Let’s not lose our heads here. I’ve been replaying Apple’s product history and the only truly silly product I can think of was the 20th Anniversary Mac. It was definitely cool for coolness’ sake, but at an MSRP of $7500, it was only an impulse buy to those who happen to have their own personal air force.
I suppose Apple could afford to do a silly computer back in 1997. The company was on the ropes, desperately firing off all of its remaining ammo in every possible direction, hoping that something would score a hit. Now that it’s back on the top of the hill, every move it makes is carefully observed, dissected, and creates ripples. If it produces a new kind of can opener that doesn’t immediately grab double-digit market share and cause many people to rethink their definition of the word “can,” this whimsical enterprise will affect the stock price.
Still: I want an Apple watch. I want a baseball cap whose bill always points to magnetic north. I want an egg beater that’s sometimes gets all mopey from Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I have great faith in Apple. The iPad, the iPod, and the MacBook line show a confident team of designers who understand how to fuse human drives and instincts to next-generation technology. Underneath all that, however, I sense an absolutely barking-mad lunatic struggling to be heard.
[Macworld senior contributor Andy Ihnatko is also a technology columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.]