On Tuesday, Apple released something unique: not a phone or a laptop or wireless earbuds, but a coffee table book. Designed by Apple in California features exquisite photographs of iconic Apple products, beginning with the iMac in 1998 and culminating with the Apple Pencil. In true Apple fashion the book comes in two sizes: a 10.20 x 12.75-inch copy for $199 and a 13 x 16.25-inch copy for $299. Predictably, I chose the coffee table book Pro edition.
The Verge bought the “small” version of the book which arrived in the office yesterday afternoon, and I realized that Apple may have been slightly disingenuous with their description: the “small” is pretty damn big and weighs a figurative ton. I could probably have saved myself the extra $100 and reduced the potential for injury to my lower back.
Nevertheless, I am so glad I ordered this book; it is a thing of great beauty. Like all Apple products, the attention to detail is meticulous: the tightly bound pages are edged in silver; the paper is Apple-specific Heaven 42 Scheufelen from Germany — as is the Bamberger Kaliko linen with bespoke dye. The printing is simply astonishing: custom low ghost Epple inks and 8 CMYK color separations (4 is the norm) with 280 line screen printing give the photographs deep, rich blacks and colors so bright as to make a grown design lover weep.
As for the photographs themselves, they are of course impeccable. All were shot by Andrew Zuckerman in a typical “Appley” minimalist style, bathing Apple’s older hardware in the modern “press shot” aesthetic.
Perhaps the most interesting photographs are the “teardown” shots of MacBooks, iMacs, and the 2007 iPhone. I’ve lingered over one shot of the back of a first-generation Phone which has been scratched and dented through use. It wears a patina of rugged awesomeness with pride.
Flipping through the 450 exquisite photographs of Apple favorites such as the 17-inch MacBook Pro, or the 2003 iSight camera — not to mention the colored iMacs of the late ‘90s and the original iPods of the early 2000s — I confess I was overwhelmed by a nagging reality: this is a tome crafted in honor of nostalgia.
As I reached later pages featuring the Apple Watch, the iPad, and even the brand-new MacBook Pro, I felt something lacking. The design of these newer products is certainly beautiful, but Apple’s look no longer resonates with me in the same way it once did.
Perhaps I’m over exposed to the imagery. We are now very used to seeing photographs of the Apple Watch or iPad on glorious 5k screens; we never saw a blueberry iMac that clearly. But I think that the real reason for this book feeling nostalgic is that although Apple’s industrial design under Jony Ive has been consistently great, Apple’s competitors have improved dramatically over the last 18 years. Apple’s design doesn’t feel like a message from the future; it feels like one part of the conversation of today.
As Steve Jobs famously said: “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” Back in 2003 when I bought my first iPod and iSight camera, those products were a beacon on the hill in terms of industrial design. They were astonishing not only because they were beautiful, considered, and almost perfect in every way, but because they were the embodiment of Apple’s belief that technology didn’t have to be ugly to be utilitarian. By the early 2000s, Steve Jobs, Jony Ive, and the Apple design team were leading us out of our world of beige boxes and onto an undiscovered country where milled aluminum and candy-colored plastics were the new normal.
In 2016, the beige box has been well and truly consigned to the garbage pile of history and is nothing more than distant memory. That’s not to say that all the tech products of today are designed as well as those by Apple — they are most definitely not. But they are undeniably a hell of a lot better. Just look at the Microsoft Surface Pro (and especially the beautiful Surface Studio); just look at the new Google Pixel phones and Daydream VR headset; and just look at the Galaxy Note 7, which despite a proclivity for pyrotechnics is undeniably a beautiful work of industrial design.
Good industrial design is no longer an ideal, it’s a basic requirement
Good industrial design is no longer an ideal, it’s a basic requirement. High-end products simply don’t succeed without it. And that’s Apple’s fundamental problem going forward. Chamfers precisely milled to a thousandth of a millimeter now count far less than seamless usability across a variety of connected devices. We are living in a post-hardware-centric world where the new frontier for design perfection is software — and good design is assumed.
But that’s for tomorrow. Without the visionary design sensibilities of Steve Jobs and Sir Jony Ive, I doubt we’d be where we are today. The book Designed by Apple in California shows us the path they took to get us all here. And the book is like that path: big, bold, beautiful, and unapologetically self-indulgent.
It is also really heavy.