Gadget design is in a pretty good place these days. Even companies like Sony and Dell — known to commit many a design atrocity in their days — are starting to make devices that look pretty. But there's still one crutch companies and designers lean on when they want to make something they think people will lust after.
They make it glossy. Ugh. Stop it.
Why do I hate glossy shit? Because it's lazy and cynical. Product marketers think that if they take a piece of crap and polish it until it has a layer of high sheen, the masses will fawn over it without question. They assume that we're crows, drawn inexorably to the nearest, shiniest object. It's bunk.
Honestly, it wouldn't be so bad were the glossiness not actively hurtful; glossy gadgets tend to be bubbly and maximal and overly fond of displaying your fingerprints. Their designs don't serve their functions in any meaningful way. Gloss is a visual trap, either coming at the cost of quality or meant to disguise the lack thereof.
Making a shiny device in 2011 is the equivalent of painting it silver in 2008. It was once a way to break away from the utilitarian pack and give a product the look of luxury. Now it's just a way to give something a look of tackiness. And a large part of the blame lies with the most common material used in this scenario: plastic.
There's a disconnect between the glossy plastic abominations that clutter our shelves and this concept of luxury product designers chase after. Plastic is fine, but plastic is not luxury. Even when something made of plastic is not cheap, it still feels cheap (case in point: the Nexus S). Durable, yes, but also supremely prone to scratching. That's not to say all things glossy are terrible. Glass is a very good material that has to be glossy to deliver a good user experience. Do you wanna look at something through frosted glass? No.
But glossiness in 2011 also speaks to a huge disconnect with the world we live in now, and not only in design. The last 10 years have seen economic decline on a global level. Consumer culture is not the same as it once was. Sure, we all still buy stuff — and expensive stuff at that — but now we at least think twice before doing so. The days of truly frivolous consumption are long gone (for the 99 per cent, at least). For the most part, we aren't trying to use flashy new toys to publicly signify our post in life. We've all scaled back our lifestyles and inevitably, design aesthetic and taste have started to reflect that. Bling is dead.
Things have become increasingly understated, but never boring. Reclaimed and sustainable materials, like wood, are more and more in demand. Graphic design has become increasingly flat and tonal. In the world of furniture, people love designs that are rustic and/or industrial. Fashion has trended into rugged, blue collar looks. Gadgets? Gadgets have started to go matte and metal. And it is wonderful.
Matte, in particular, is one of the better things to happen to gadgets in awhile. By matte, I don't just mean anything that isn't glossed out. I'm talking about materials which are downright anti-reflective. With the wrong form factor, matte can make something look insufferably boring. But coat a sharp-angled object in a flat black (or grey or green or blue or whatever) and it takes on a wonderful subtlety.
AiAiAi's TMA-1 headphones are my favourite example of how you can take a piece of all-black plastic and somehow make it stand out from all the other pieces of all-black plastic. Its materials and matte coating are uniform across most of the headphone, and it almost looks like a 3D mockup. But place someone wearing the TMA-1s next to someone wearing Beats and the former ends up looking positively civilised.
And know what the favourite iPhone design is among many Gizmodo staffers? Not the slim, sleek, machine-like design of the iPhone 4/4S. No, it's the original design with the brushed metal back. No gloss, just pure, unadulterated opacity.
In the larger scheme of things, are glossy gadgets some harbinger of the apocalypse? No. But they're slowly making me want to gouge out my retinas, one smudge at a time.