The real problem with Apple's design has precious little to do with Apple and a lot to do with a failure of imagination.
Thomas de Monchaux asks 'Is Apple bad for design?' De Monchaux concentrates largely on industrial design and specifically the impact of the iPod and likely effect of the iPhone, but the question is well worth asking.
Central to his argument is the idea that Apple's economical approach to design of both software and hardware is not only limited, but ultimately compromised. It's an interesting argument and I won't rehash it here, but what of Apple's influence on wider design?
The release of the Apple iMac in 1998 saw not only the release of obvious cloned designs such as the eOne from eMachines or the Daewoo-owned E-Power but also a bizarre fad which saw computer manufacturers add translucent blue fins to their otherwise typical beige boxes.
For the next few years the iClone design market expanded far beyond the design of computers - telephones, random consumer electronics and other unlikely items quickly took on transparently Apple-influenced, er, transparent styling. At one point a friend mocked my translucent blue plastic kitchen mop, dubbing it the 'iMop' (I bought it because it was cheap, not because it was iMac-like).
In the realm of graphic design Apple has a huge influence too. Apple's user-interface is oft-copied and elements of Mac OS X have made their way not only into competing computer operating systems but into the much wider world of web design. Shiny widget-like graphics, pulsing blue buttons, pinstripes and virtually any other visual aspect of the Mac OS you could care to mention, past or present, has made its way onto a web site somewhere.
Perhaps it is a fanciful idea to blame Apple for its effect on design. If designers and their clients want to play copy-cat games that's their business. That it's a failure of agency and imagination is true, but it can hardly be blamed on the progenitors.
What is interesting is how this related to de Monchaux's argument. He says that though Apple's products are well-designed what people mean when they talk of Apple design is actually styling:
What is unique to Apple is more accurately called “style”: a clear signature vocabulary of forms and materials, superabundant to the mere requirements of function, that convey a certain sensibility, atmosphere, association, vibe. Of course, all those rounded corners may aid in manufacture and structure, but they also say in a comfortingly Jetsonian way: “I’m from the future, and so are you.” It’s the familiar tension between Modern and Modernist, in which a particular high style is mislabeled as “design,” and a corrupted understanding of the phenomenon of design is misrepresented as an additional “feature” of an object.
Worth noting is the fact that Apple's much-lauded successes with the iMac and iPod are not the starting point for Apple's design culture. I for one am in possession of a coffee table book called Apple Design that predates the iMac and iPod and barely contains any work by Jonathan Ive other than the long dead Newton andeMate. Instead the book delves into the work of Frogdesign and the others who contributed to the Apple design languages Snow White and Cappuccino over the years.
Nevertheless, it is the Apple of Jonathan Ive, the iMac, the iPod and Mac OS X that has most clearly influenced design in the world outside Cupertino.
In so liberally enjoying the influence of Ive's hardware and Mac OS X's user interface designers or their clients - or both - have clearly failed to make a distinction between styling and design. In an industry that strives to be taken seriously by business this is an obvious mistake turning the designer into, at best, his master's voice or, at worst, an optional extra.
And does Apple have any lesson for us on this? A few. Perhaps it might be worth revisiting the company's pre-1998 design and not how, despite its lack of superstar status and the ubiquitous platinum (grey) and, prior to that, beige, the majority products were nevertheless well - and coherently - designed in any way one could care to measure. And measure one should.