More than a decade ago, Apple introduced the iPhone 4, with its new boxy rectangular design. It was the first time we got to experience the Retina display. Fast forward to today, and the new iPhone 12 is slowly making its way into the hands of iPhone buyers. To the joy of many, it has the same design language as the iPhone 4. You can read John Gruber’s thoughts on his blog, Daring Fireball.
A lot of commentary has followed the launch of the iPhone 12, some of it praising Apple for going back to the old design and some complaining about Apple’s inability to do something different from a design perspective. Both sides miss the point: Enduring design doesn’t need constant reinterpretation. It needs tweaking, polishing, and subtle improvement. I think of the iPhone and its design language very similar to Porsche’s design language. Or, for that matter of a classic Leica camera.
Porsche’s enduring design made it the butt of many a joke, especially from Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson. A lifelong car fan, while he appreciated the engines and power, he couldn’t come to terms with the appeal of Porsche’s unwavering love for its design language. However, I see Porsche’s design lines spread throughout the entire family of its products — the 911, Macan, the Cayman, Panamera, Boxer, and every other variant. You can easily tell a Porsche from another carmaker, even when zipping past you over the speed limit.
I see a strong design language in Leica’s manual cameras, and they are instantly recognizable. “It’s a subjective thing how people perceive brands and brand values, but it comes out clearly in the design language,” Vincent Laine, designer of Leica’s model Q said. “For Leica, there’s a very strong link between functional design and heritage.” Any product from a company is a reflection of that. The iPhone, too, needs and has that identifiability. And that is why I can only but applaud the iPhone 12’s design.
The design language is the very DNA of a product and thus defines the brand and its identity. It is not just the physical appearance and the materials, but also the indescribable but recognizable feeling the product evokes. A powerful design is a rare commodity in today’s world, where everything and everyone is programmed to move to the median. It takes a lot for something to be instantly identifiable because of its design language. And it is particularly hard in the phone business. While Porsche has had the advantage of being in business for over seven decades, the iPhone has been around for just over 13 years, and even then, it has been imitated and replicated. But it is still very identifiable.
“Like the Porsche design, iPhone is a product that is available in many variations of the original, which was so good that it can only be tuned, not reinvented,” I wrote in an earlier post. “I think like Porsche, the iPhone gets a lot of improvements under the hood. And it is hard for Apple to make the normals care about how much effort it puts into the making of the phones. The guts of the iPhone are as beautiful as the outside.”
What defined Porsche in the mind of many for decades to come was the introduction of the 911 in September 1964 — and it remained for sale till 1989. I would say that the iPhone 4 was Apple’s equivalent of the Porsche 911. And iPhone 12 is a return to those roots. Just as you could see the design elements of the original 911 in subsequent models — the 996, for example, you can see the inspiration iPhone 4 has been for newer products such as the iPad Pro and the latest edition of iPad Air. It was also the last iPhone model introduced by Steve Jobs before he relinquished his duties due to health reasons before he passed on. And it was the phone that made smartphone photography a reality and helped transform our relationship with images and self. And it wasn’t without its controversies. Antennagate anyone?
The discussion about iPhone 12’s design is as much about our relationship with the past as it is about design. “The past is everywhere,” David Lowenthal, a Cambridge University historian, wrote in his book, The Past is a Foreign Country. “All around us lie features with more or less familiar antecedents. Relics, histories, memories suffuse human experience…Ever more of the past, from the exceptional to the ordinary, from remote antiquity to barely yesterday, from the collective to the personal, is nowadays filtered by self-conscious appropriation.”
This appropriation, in modern terms, is captured in the word, “heritage.” You might have heard the word “heritage” thrown around, especially in marketing materials geared toward hipster culture. But at its core, “heritage” is a nod to the history and roots of a people, their clothing, food, or products.
“Such all-embracing heritage is scarcely distinguishable from past totality,” Lowenthal postulated. “It includes not only what we like or admire but also what we fear or abominate. ” That explains why some love the iPhone 12, while others hate it.
It might seem frivolous, to quote a philosopher as esteemed as Alfred Whitehead in something that is clearly a totem of modern consumption, but I can’t help but channel his words from his seminal work, Symbolism, its meaning and effect:
Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.
All this thinking about the iPhone 12 and the past made me think of the iPhone SE, which was the 2016 interpretation of the iPhone 4. I dug up my old iPhone SE, started playing around with it, and once again fell in love with it.
While iPhone 4 was terrific, the iPhone SE had perfected the device to the point that it felt flawless. The fingerprint reader was snappy. The camera was good enough. The battery was rock solid. The 4G connectivity was perfect across the planet. The screen was nice and crisp. And more importantly, iPhone SE was a device built for holding and using in one hand. No more thumb ache! It was not as brisk as some of the new devices, but it forced me to choose what apps I wanted on the phone. (Answer: I didn’t and still don’t need many.)
The balance and size were near perfect. But what made it such a good fit for our modern era of supersized everything was that it was diminutive, unobtrusive, and receded into the background, existing to do the job and then hide in our pockets. I used that device for quite a while before eventually switching to XS.
I still have not made up my mind about the iPhone 12, though. I am not going anywhere these days, and I get good internet speeds while stuck at home. So, 5G doesn’t seem necessary. And the camera’s not much of a draw. For photography, when I do go out, I lug around my main camera, the Leica SL. So, I am not sold on upgrading to iPhone 12 Pro just yet.
I have been to the Apple website many times over the past few days. My eyes wander to the iPhone 12 Mini. It is newer, shiner, and slightly bigger than the SE. It has more of everything compared to SE. The Mini has the allure of newness. But I can’t tell if it will be as unique as the SE.
What if they made it a little smaller? As small as the SE, perhaps. They could almost call it the iPhone Heritage Edition and charge a premium for it. You can thank me later, Tim!