is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
The response to my post yesterday about the durability of Apple’s products has been much more robust than I expected.
A lot of people have challenged me to name at least a few modern electronic devices that age well in the manner I’m describing. I admit: it’s very difficult to do that. Many people have cited Moore’s Law, the principle that guides every digital product’s life cycle, as being so thoroughly in opposition to designing and building products that last that it renders my argument inherently flawed. You just can’t build digital devices for the long haul, they say, because “planned obsolesence” will always do these devices in, make them irrelevant even if they do survive the ravages of time.
This is true to some extent. As I said above, I’m certainly not advising Apple on a purely business level that it would be a good idea to reverse course and make new devices user-upgradeable and repairable.
But I would say that just because these devices might no longer be wanted in their eighth, ninth, tenth years of their lives and so on, that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to build them more ruggedly, and it certainly doesn’t mean they can’t be built so that they acquire an emotionally appealing patina as they age, increasing their desirability if only to a select few.
There’s very little keeping Apple from making an iPod or iPhone or iPad that would last for a decade or more, even if to do so would mean its software could no longer be practically updated at some point (in fact that already happens, which is totally fair, but almost invariably, the hardware begins to break down at that point too). And there’s very little keeping Apple from engineering their devices in such a way that they get better looking over time. Their margins are certainly healthy enough to impose this kind of challenge upon themselves.
It’s true, there’s not necessarily a business case to do this, but that is not the only thing Apple will be judged on in the decades to come. And that’s what I’m talking about here: how will future generations look back at Apple, and by extension its customers? Did we all live our lives by more than just the bottom line? Or were the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the decades in which we irrevocably decided that everything should be disposable (or even recyclable) after just two or three years?
It may sound like I’m picking on Apple, but I think that’s a specious criticism, too. Apple regularly claims exceptionalism in the kinds of products they build; it’s fair game then to at least raise the issue of doing things their peers clearly won’t. This is the brand they built: a company that makes truly great products, products that make a dent in the universe. To me, doing even a little bit to counter the notion that everything is disposable is right in line with that.+