Size zero design

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Size zero design

What do I mean by size zero design? If you look at the product design of Apple’s most-hyped products: the Apple MacBook Air, the iPod Touch and the iPhone all have one attribute: being thin. I am picking on Apple just because they have some high-profile designs feature it and Steve Jobs seems to obsess on it, but they are not the only sinners.It’s just that Apple happen to be taste-makers for other consumer electronics and technology manufacturers.

Before size zero

It used to be back in the day that things were about small. Owning a cellphone in the late 90s and early noughties saw my handsets shrink dramatically in size from 1999-to-2001:

Handset                          Size                                             Mass

I888                                130 x 49 x 22 mm                    195 grams
T39                                  96 x 50 x 18 mm                      86 grams

However there is a limit to how small a phone can get from a usability point-of-view. Secondly, more functionality meant more powerful electronics which gave out more heat and larger screens for email, web-browsing and other smartphone-type functions.

Size zero origins

There were hints of size zero design back in 1999 with the Palm V and Vx PDAs. These pioneered the use of glued one piece devices and a metallic slim look. In 2004 Motorola released the RAZR clamshell mobile phone and could be considered the inciting incident driving the current fad for size zero design. It had sales-floor sex appeal and stood out from the competition. In reality it was a crappy cell phone with poor battery life that felt wrong when you held it. But it became the best-selling clamshell phone ever. By contrast Motorola’s PEBL which was designed to give the consumer a more tactile experience was a more modest sales success, good enough for Motorola to make a second version but not enough to echo through the product design of the Motorola’s phone range.

Handset                          Size                                             Mass

PEBL U6                        86.5 x 49 x 20 mm                    110 grams
RAZR V3                        98 x 53 x 13.9 mm                     95 grams

The apparent lessons where not lost on the industry. Steve Jobs used to have a RAZR. Despite the fact that it was Sony Ericsson who was the handset manufacturer who led compatibility with Apple’s iSync software at the time. I had to buy adaptors from a German software company to get iSync to work with my Nokia devices. Jobs experimented with size zero design on the first iPhone and iPod Touch and then rolled it out to the MacBook Air. By the time that the iPad came about, size zero design was encoded into Apple’s tablet DNA.

The MacBook Air is notable because unlike the iPhone, Apple did have a product to judge it against. Delving back into the Apple past products the MacBook Duo series of the early 1990s set an aggressive product design to match in terms of size and functionality. That the MacBook Air decided not to have a dock is a discussion for another time, what is more interesting is how the MacBook Air is actually bigger in every way except depth than the Duo series of devices.

I call this obsessive size zero design because I believe that it is an unhealthy design language. Jonathan Ive’s recent work at Apple owes a lot to the works and thinking of Dieter Rams. How does these size zero designs stake up against Rams’ ten principles of good design?

  1. Good design is innovative.
  2. Good design makes a product useful.
  3. Good design is aesthetic.
  4. Good design makes a product understandable.
  5. Good design is unobtrusive.
  6. Good design is honest.
  7. Good design is long-lasting.
  8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
  9. Good design is environmentally friendly.
  10. Good design is as little design as possible.

I think that the Apple’s size zero product range break rules: 2, 4, 6, 10.

Good design makes a product useful

Tell that to iPhone owners who are stuck with a device with an inadequate battery life. I can get just over one working day out of my phone if I nurse it carefully and use a mophie 3G juice pack air. The slimness of the product makes it awkward to hold and cuts down on the amount of battery that can be crammed into the case. Slimness was also responsible for the iPhone 4’s controversial antenna design.

Good design makes a product understandable

The iPhone 4 antenna debacle was partly down to people holding the device wrong, hardly an example of good design makes a product understandable.

Good design is honest

The first iteration of the MacBook Air has complex beveled sides to make it look thinner than it actually is.  Then there is the alleged gorilla glass failures on the back of the iPhone 4.

Good design is as little design as possible

Rams last principle is like a zen koan. On the one hand it could be talking about materials, on the other side it also means a lack of customisation and a lack of awareness from the user that the product has been designed. Instead it must be seen as the only obvious way that the design should have been done.

Users of Apple iPhones and MacBook Air devices, by contrast are conscious of the products design. They are also conscious of the fragility of their devices, which is the reason why an eco-system in cases and protectors has been built up around mobile phones for the first the first time in a decade.

In conclusion

In conclusion, I think that size zero designs are leading technology product design up a blind alley, one that doesn’t benefit consumers in the longer term. Product usability has been sacrificed and the consumer is not free to alter any part of the device such as memory capacity the way they would with a normal laptop.

All phone dimension data came from GSM Arena. More design related content here.


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