“The purely aesthetic form”

I’m about halfway through Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products. So far, it’s a good read. It portrays Ive as someone with exquisite taste who was in the right place at the right time, willing to work harder and care more than his competitors. It never descends into hagiography (in spite of the sub-title), as many tech bios tend to do.

Author Leander Kahney goes to great lengths throughout to express Jony’s distaste for “skinning” a product (applying surface-level design to something engineering had already created). In Ive’s design-centric mind, the “inside-out” method lead to compromised products.

But let’s square that with this tale from the design of the original Mac Mini:

The decision about the size of the case might seem trivial, but it would influence what kind of hard drive the Mini could contain. If the case were large enough, the computer could be given a 3.5-inch drive, commonly used in desktop machines and relatively inexpensive. If Jony chose a small case, it would have to use a much more expensive 2.5-inch laptop drive. </br> </br> Jony and the VPs selected an enclosure that was just 2 mm too small to use a less expensive 3.5-inch drive. “They picked it based on what it looks like, not on the hard drive, which will save money,” [former Apple product design engineer Gautam] Baksi said. He said Jony didn’t even bring up the issue of the hard drive; it wouldn’t have made a difference. “Even if we provided that feedback, it’s rare they would change the original intent,” he said. “They went with a purely aesthetic form of what it should look like and how big it should be.”

This is… well, it’s not design.

Design is solving problems within constraints. The characteristics of components, including price, are constraints. Without having a damn good reason to make the case 2 mm too small to fit a much less expensive 3.5-inch hard drive, you’re just decorating and playing artist, not designer. This is even more surprising, given that Ive is notorious for knowing and waxing rhapsodic about every last detail of his materials.

Outside-in product development is just as problematic as the inside-out approach that Ive despised. In this case, it may have led to a product that was more expensive (or less profitable) than it needed to be. Given that one of the Mac Mini’s core benefits as an entry-level Mac was its low cost, this is baffling.

Great product development is a true partnership between engineering and design.

Yes, I know. Jony Ive is perhaps the most celebrated industrial designer in the history of the field, and rightly so. And Apple has a track record of ignoring practical decisions in the pursuit of a product's true essence. That doesn't mean we can't examine a particular design challenge they faced and learn from it.