Invisible Design & Apple

By this time tomorrow, we will all know if Apple is releasing a wearable device, a smart watch, a combination of both or some other variation that will transform it from a computing company into a lifestyle company that uses computing to create new user experiences and interactions. Apple won’t be selling computers in the conventional sense. Instead it will become the company that offers objects powered by computing and connectivity.

And whatever those objects of desire might be, one thing is clear: they will have less in common with Apple’s roots (the personal computer). Rather they are likely to be physical manifestations of what Charles Eames once said a long time ago: “Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects. . . the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” This connected future is going to bring with it the era of invisible design.

“As computing becomes even more immersed in our lives, embedded in our homes, and worn on our bodies, these user interfaces will become even more invisible, operating through gestures, voices, and even expressions,” we wrote earlier this year, when we announced our Roadmap conference. This idea of invisible design has been somewhat of an obsession for me and Katie Fehrenbacher, who is co-chair of the 2014 Roadmap conference.

One of our Roadmap 2014 speakers K.K. Barrett, the production designer for Spike Jonze’ movie, Her, in a recent interview pointed out that Her is “all about someone falling in love through a window of technology, but the technology does not stand in the way. The technology is an enabler, or a comfort.” The future of design is to make technology invisible and become an enabler.

Technologies today touch our lives deeply in ways we don’t even know. Facebook can influence our state of happiness. Twitter makes us angry. The whoosh of a message interrupts our dinner. A rough count of every step we took today can make us feel good or bad about ourselves. That invisible experience of emotions is the future of design.

Apple, the company that gave us the Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad, has often redefined our expectations and ideas of what something means. The Mac redefined our expectation of a PC. The iPod changed our relationship with music. The iPhone shattered the old keyboard-driven idea of a phone. And the iPad has shown us the future of personal computing — touch sensitive, unshackled by keyboards or wires, free to roam. Sure, it isn’t the perfect replacement for your PC, but imagine a five-year old growing up with this tablet of imagination.

So perhaps, when Jonny Ive says that “Switzerland is in trouble,” what he really means is that Apple is going to come up with products that will fight for the same real-estate — the wrist. Apple’s challenge is not in making great hardware — we know they can do that — but instead it will be in creating a high level of emotional quotient for the data streams that emerge from wearables.

I don’t care as much about the hardware as I care about the software and the experience of these wearables. Why? Because I want to see if Apple can retain the Jobsian philosophy of omission as the ultimate enabler of wonder. I want to see if Cupertino’s software can move beyond icons, apps, flat design or something equally fashionable — something where perfection can emerge from the invisible.

Till tomorrow!

Some design related posts from my archives:

A letter from Om

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