Design Test Note: Fragile Beauty

Design Test Note: Fragile Beauty

iPhone 4, you’re the most beautiful thing. Holding you – so solid, so smooth, your zowielala screen glowing – makes me greedy. My precious. I want to lick you. I can’t stop looking at you. But your industrial design is a failure.

Don’t get me wrong. Like I said back when we found you, you are oh so pretty. But after holding you, after seeing some of the glaring problems you have, I have to surrender to the facts.

Your industrial design sucks because, despite your sheer beauty, your blazing speed and having the best software in any smartphone today, Jon Ive and his team didn’t completely follow their beloved Dieter Rams’ guidelines for good design.

First and foremost, the rule that good design has to be durable. Good design has to stand the pass of time both aesthetically and physically. Good design has to age gracefully. The object, whatever it is, can’t get easily get scratched. Its surface can’t easily shatter. It has to perdure. It has to arrive to the future and feel at home and natural.

Then good design also has to be thorough. Nothing must be left to chance. And good design has to make a product useful. It has to show respect to the user by providing the function it claims with perfection and accuracy. Its form has to follow function to its final consequences.

And your function, dear iPhone 4, is to make calls flawlessly, to transmit smiles and tears through video chat, to show newspaper headlines like they were printed on the real paper as fast as possible. And for that you need a steady, strong signal. Not a signal that drops if the user holds you in a certain position – which just happens to be the most natural position you can imagine. Wireless signals are the heart of phones. They should come first, always. The form should follow its functions.

This is why the iPhone 4’s industrial design is not good:

The material problem

Despite being glossy and shiny, the undeniable fact is that glass is not a good material to make products that are constantly being moved around, under stress and in the hands of users. Glass breaks. That’s why you never see products made of glass around you, except when it’s completely necessary because the product itself needs to be transparent.

It doesn’t matter that it is strengthened, like aluminosilicate glass, the one Apple uses in the iPhone 4’s. In fact, strengthening glass to avoid scratching – which is what Apple did – makes it more prone to extreme shattering on shock. The reason: Aluminosilicate glass has a much higher internal tension than regular glass. What makes it harder also makes it more fragile.

Cases of broken iPhone 4’s backs are already appearing. One of Gizmodo’s interns broke his iPhone 4 after accidentally dropping it while testing it. This hasn’t changed from previous generations. Hell, I broke my iPhone display twice. The fact is that, at the end of the day, dropping the phone while handling it is something that everyone will suffer sooner or later.

But the difference is that the iPhone 4 is all glass. If you drop any other phone, you have a 50 per cent chance of breaking its screen. With the iPhone 4, the risk will always be there, no matter how it falls. It’s just more exposed to damage because of the material choice.

Some people argue that the shattering doesn’t matter. That the important thing is that this glass is hard to scratch. But, as GDGT editor Ryan Block showed, this doesn’t mean it’s scratch-proof. He scratched his iPhone 4 accidentally, without even noticing.

Why? An expert on the matter who wants to remain anonymous, may have a good explanation:

I saw your article about the glass scratches on the iPhone 4. I work for [a major watch company]that uses the same Chinese factory [as Apple’s] . We had a huge problem with a similar “chemically treated” glass from the same manufacturer.

The glass passed all of our tests. Drop tests, steel ball impact tests, etc. but the glass started chipping and we couldnt figure out why.

Eventually we found that when the glass was hit against another piece of glass of similar strength they both broke very easily. I would be willing to bet money that if you took 2 iphone 4’s and tap the glass edges together with light to moderate force you would get an instant chip on the edge. We found this same problem when the watches were hit onto a glass coffee table, or hit into a glass door when entering a shop.

Could be a major problem for apple. This caused us to stop production and redesign so that glass edges werent exposed.

Perhaps this is why the glass is surrounded by a black plastic rim. But even if you ignore the above – we don’t even know if it is the same glass or not – what practical proof has showed us is that the iPhone 4’s glass scratches and shatters. At the end of the day, glass is not a good material choice to make phones.

The handling

The material choice also affects handling. The all-glass surface feels more slippery in your hand than other smartphones including the iPhone 3G. Talking with fellow Gizmodo editors Matt Buchanan and Mark Wilson, they agree (both have their own iPhone 4s). Matt says that it is more slippery than his 3G, and Mark that the sharp edges make it uncomfortable to handle. I don’t agree on the latter, but I can appreciate his opinion and I know that others will feel the same way. In a way, in its beautiful Germanic minimalism, the phone has lost the humanity of the cheap looking, even naff, but more organic, iPhone 3GS.

The alternatives

While you can’t avoid glass on the front, you can certainly use other materials for the back. Steel, aluminium, ceramics, teflon-coated materials, even wood – there are plenty of alternatives that would have been more resistant and as pretty. Like glass, all those materials can be scratched too. But unlike glass, all those materials age more gracefully. Scratches in steel or wood give the surface character. The same scratches makes glass look bad.

Look at this design by Dieter Rams & Hans Gugelot, the Braun SK4 record player and radio from 1956:

Like the iPhone 4, this design will travel to the 22nd century and remain beautiful and timeless. Unlike the iPhone 4, however, this the SK4 will age beautifully, even if gets blemishes on its wood panels. For the next iPhone generation, and for other products, Jon Ive and his team should explore other combinations. Preferably one that would make their designs to have better wireless performance, one of the major sins of the Cupertino house.

The damn antenna

That’s precisely the other major problem of this design: The wireless reception. The iPhone 4’s reception is flawed by design. Holding it in certain positions will degrade the signal dramatically, sometimes completely breaking it. It’s not a matter of the AT&T network – which is bad as it is – but a problem of the steel band that serves as the antenna. According to Apple, the antenna was supposed to enhance communications. In the practice, it causes the signal to drop for many people while they are holding the phone exactly like Apple shows in their ads and web pages.

When asked, Apple offered a very simple solution: Hold it in a different way. Minimising what could be the iPhone’s biggest functionality flaw, industry pundits like David Pogueare saying that the problem is sweaty hands and the solution are insulating cases. That’s what Apple is saying too.

No, that’s not the solution. Those are lame excuses for bad industrial design and engineering decision. The fault is not in the user and the usage of the product. This goes completely against Rams’ guidelines. Design should help the user, it should enhance the experience. Good design is unobtrusive. It can’t limit the user expression, much less obligate him to act in a certain way.

Jon Ive, do you think Dieter Rams would have asked people to place his T 1000 world receiver in a certain place of the house to have a clear reception?

Do you think he would have asked consumers to hold his Braun T3 pocket radio in a certain way in order to listen to the latest David Bowie with perfect sound quality?

The answer to both questions is no.

This time, despite creating perhaps the best smartphone available and one of the most beautiful industrial objects in their history, the Apple industrial design team has failed. This time, Dieter Rams won’t be happy, just like consumers won’t be happy when their iPhone’s back break or the signal drops just for holding it.