From Apples to Weeds: Design, Experience and Product Narrative

futurelab default header

by: C. Sven Johnson

The MIT Technology Review site has recently been carrying a surprising number of articles discussing Industrial Design and I wanted to pass them on to those of you who may not regularly surf through.

The first article, “The Secret of Apple Design” (Link), is a decent piece worth reading if you’re unfamiliar with some of Apple’s history in regards to Industrial Design. Most designers are probably familiar with what’s written, in which case I’d recommend to them a book that’s mentioned in the article, AppleDesign. Aside from the abundance of visual resources, some of the stories are particularly informative… and they make for great ammunition in combative product development meetings (c’mon, we all know it’s not always a love-in).

The second article, “The ‘New’ Apple” (Link), is interesting not so much from a design perspective as a branding perspective… in relation to Design (big “d”) and Experience. I thought this sentence from the beginning of the article worth note:

Apple wants us to believe that it is no longer a computer company but, rather, a digital “lifestyle” company, building a set of high-tech experiences around a core of technolo­gies and designs that are warmer, cleaner, easier to use, and more enjoyable than what its competitors in Seattle and Japan have to offer.


Any wonder why Apple doesn’t fall victim to the same fashion issues apparently hitting Motorola (which has been getting hammered in the press lately – e.g. “Why the RAZR is killing Motorola” over on Mobile Gazette)?

After those two you might want to look through a gallery of objects with associated commentary in an article called “Objects of Desire” (Link). Notice how many of these products are actually about Experience.

– That Polaroid SX-70? The immediacy of having the photograph develop before your eyes instead of sending the film out for development.

– The Atari 2600? Easy and affordable access to videogames.

– The Sony Walkman? More than just taking your music (almost) anywhere. Recall the scene in “The Terminator” where the girlfriend of the female protagonist is in bed with her boyfriend… listening to music on her Walkman? That scene was unthinkable just a few years prior and I suspect seeing it caught a few viewers off-guard. It caught me and my friends off-guard. The device didn’t just untether people from their home stereos and car players, it created and altered Experiences.

Finally, last week I happened to watch a short video on the MIT site featuring Bruce Sterling. It’s called “Hostile Objects” (Link) and at only five minutes long I highly recommend taking the time to view it. I particularly enjoyed it because one of his first examples – the public pay phone – happens to be a device the design of which led to my first epiphany regarding Industrial Design.

After you’re finished watching it, ask yourself what narrative the objects you own tell you. Ask yourself how your behavior is, perhaps unknowingly, influencing their design. Ever slammed a public phone down in anger after dropping your last quarter and getting an answering machine on the other end? Ever ripped a page out of the directory tethered to it? Ever tried to change clothes in one or use one as a public latrine? If not, can you imagine others doing those things? Industrial Designers often can. It’s part of the job.

On the other side of the wall, if you’re involved in product development – any product – ask yourself the same questions about what you’re developing. Ask yourself both what story your products tell consumers and what narrative they’re constructing as people engage them. What experiences are people having that will contribute to the product’s story? Is that story good or bad from the consumer’s perspective? How will the experiences they have effect their behavior and in turn, how will their behavior affect the DNA of the product line which evolves through the input coming from an increasing variety of feedback channels?

– To use Sterling’s analogy, how many of us are growing cacti? (Something users want is inside, but the exterior is hostile to them.)

– How many of us are growing roses? (It’s only desirable for its beauty and users are willing to ignore the hassle of avoiding the thorns… until its beauty fades and something else catches their eye.)

– How many of us are growing apple trees? (Attractive, friendly, nutritious and easy to consume.)

– And how many of us are growing weeds? (Remarkable only in the fact that they’re everywhere… whether users want them or not.)

– Finally, how many companies are only fertilizing an engraved block of stone? (I’ll leave the analogy to you.)

Original Post: