Apple Turns Technology Into Art

As I was reflecting on my first experience with the new iPad and its retina display I was intrigued with a thought. There has always been something about the iPhone’s retina display and now with the iPad’s display that has me mesmerized. When I first saw the new iPad and the screen at Apple’s event I couldn’t stop looking at it. Even today I sometimes just turn it on to look at it and shake my head in disbelief.

The thought that I was intrigued by is how the visual appeal of Apple’s devices, and in this case of the screen, causes us to be so emotionally attached to them. Even this NY Times article in September of last year points out that consumers do actually love their iPhones. I believe this affect however as everything to do with the visually appealing experience with Apple products.

In a TIME column I wrote last year, I pointed out that Apple’s desire to create products that are at the intersection of liberal arts and technology drives them to create technology products that are in essence art. Apple turns technology into art we can use. Apple exhibits an unparalleled focus in the technology industry to design some of the most visually appealing hardware in all of computing. This focus of creating objects of desire is one part of many that encompass the Apple experience. That experience, the visual and emotional experience tied to Apple products creates an emotional response in consumers of Apple products that create as much passion around a brand as I have ever seen.

The Most Passionate Community

I would challenge you to find a more passionate community anywhere in computing. I have attended many industry conferences and trade shows and the Macworld’s where Steve Jobs spoke had a level of energy associated with them that I am yet to encounter anywhere else in this industry.

The experience around Apple products is what I think many who compete with Apple take for granted and simply don’t understand. I’ve said often at industry talks I have given that consumers don’t buy products they buy experiences and that is what Apple delivers.

Consumers in droves are discovering what the hard core long time Apple community has known since the beginning and are converting in droves buying iPads, iPhones, and even Macs. It all leads with the visual experience and beautiful and attractive hardware. Believe it or not, however, beautifully designed things are easier to use.

What is Beautiful is Usable

In 2000 a scientist from Israel named Noam Tractinsky, wrote a book called “What is Beautiful is Usable.” He started with a theory and built the scientific evidence to back it up. To quote his report on the subject:

two Japanese researchers, Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura1, claimed just that. They developed two forms of automated teller machines, the ATM machines that allow us to get money and do simple banking tasks any time of the day or night. Both forms were identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked, but one had the buttons and screens arranged attractively, the other unattractively. Surprise! The Japanese found that the attractive ones were easier to use.

Noam himself then wanting to test this theory with the Israeli culture so he duplicated the experiment. He thought that aesthetic preferences may be culturally dependent. His observation was that the Israeli culture is more action oriented and they care less about beauty and more about function. However when he duplicated the results with an Israeli group of people the conclusion was the same. In fact in his research the sentiment was stronger with the Israeli sample size. So much so that in his research report he remarked in his paper that beauty and function “were not expected to correlate” — He was so surprised that he put that phrase “were not expected” in italics.

It appears that Apple has been on to something from the beginning. Perhaps Steve Jobs absolute resolve to make technology products beautiful carried with it inherent user experience paradigms that simply made products easier to use and that theme is continued today all throughout Apple. This in my opinion is truly what is setting Apple apart in the market place. They create objects of desire and out of that focus comes a visually and easy to use user experience paradigm that drives emotional responses in consumers of their products.

We know humans are visual beings, especially men, and interestingly enough a great deal of science exists today linking beautiful things to ease of use. There are companies who can design objects of desire and easy to use products and there are those who can’t. Apple’s advantage in this area is that they create the hardware and the software with this technology and software as art philosophy. We see this in their hardware and their software and will eventually see it more in their services.

Noam Tractinsky is right and his book title highlights a profound truth. What is beautiful is usable and this philosophical truth carries over into computing and human interaction with computing.

Right now there is only one company who I think truly understands it.

– Don Norman, Why We Love (or Hate) everyday things, Feb 4th 2003
– Tractinsky, N., Adi, S.-K., & Ikar, D. (2000). What is Beautiful is Usable. Interacting with Computers, 13 (2), 127-145.
– Tractinsky, N. (1997). Aesthetics and Apparent Usability: Empirically Assessing Cultural and Methodological Issues. CHI 97 Electronic Publications: Papers

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

22 thoughts on “Apple Turns Technology Into Art”

  1. What manner of cloaked evil has asphyxiated the funds from our art museums and school classes; has stripped the natural warmth of humanity to expose and celebrate the cold, barren, industrial-like design of schools and business whose only accomplishment are vast wastelands filled with mindless drones and cubicle canyons.

    No one is following Apple’s lead. Their competition is more content in taking the cheaper and lazier route of tearing Apple down rather than raising themselves up. But, this is not surprising, it merely reflects society as a whole.; the worship of individual ego-centrism and its nourishment, instant gratification.

    1. “individual ego-centrism” or better put people who are “individual ego-centric” are the people who keep the motor of the world running.

  2. Absolutely true. This is why I am always astounded finding “photographers” and “artists” who are using PC’s – and hating Apple.

    Always makes me wonder.

  3. A very insightful piece, Ben, and it inspired a further thought.

    What if, because of this, Apple has another secret weapon, a drug-like appeal to the competition who become so mesmerised trying to copy the Apple look-and-feel that they can’t think outside the proverbial box. Copies are rarely art and copying enslaves the artist limiting his adventure to new styles and design. Without some broad stroke of inspired thought and nurtured sight to come up with something spanking new yet enticing, fewer opportunities will arise for those who don’t have the adventure within them to boldly go where no Apple has gone before.

    I am drawn to an analogy from the movie, ‘A Brilliant Mind’, and the idea of the beautiful woman all the young men desire but are destined in competition to lose. Apple is like the luring siren clouding the eyes and minds to the bevy of beautiful designs that may actually be within easier reach once a competitor’s eyes are open to other possibilities.

    1. I think you are right. The way I have thought about this,and I think this is especially true with the iPad and perhaps what Apple has in store for Apple TV, is to drag your enemy onto a battlefield in which they are incapable of competing.

      Art of war strategies, etc.

      1. Yes, Apple is laying out the ground rules and the others are choosing to compete within those rules. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which you have inspired me to once again pick up, was a shocking read in university. Until I can find the time, I will rely on a number of quotes I have been able to find in a search.

        • To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.
        • Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
        • Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.
        • One defends (or waits) when his strength is inadequate, he attacks when it is abundant.
        • The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities… It is best to win without fighting.
        • When the enemy is at ease, be able to weary him; when well fed, to starve him; when at rest, to make him move. Appear at places to which he must hasten; move swiftly where he does not expect you. (Google, beware)

        It may be that Steve had, and even Tim has been inspired by this philosopher. I must take a special mind to wage this kind of war succesfully in the marketplace and Apple just lucked out with Steve and Tim? Dalliance, which I think copiers practice, would not win the hearts of those around them but Steve had such a personality I doubt he had time to practice dallying.

      2. “What Apple has in store for Apple TV, is to drag your enemy onto a battlefield.”

        You also said in another post (I think) that Apple might have a Trojan Horse in the coming Apple TV.

        Ben, please explain these comments. They’re pretty intriguing, and I have a feeling you’re right.

        1. I will Rich. I wanted to make that topic my Friday column but I have a few more angles with respect to that topic I am researching. I assume you saw my article a while back when I went into how turning the TV into a platform is one of the biggest opportunities for changing TV. The concept of the TV as a platform is at the core of my thinking, Apple has multiple endpoints to get there but the Apple TV (set top box) is an interesting one.

          I will address this with more fleshed out thoughts once I form my analysis with the current research I am doing. Stay tuned..

  4. Back in the 90’s I was a tech trainer, and learned pretty quickly that the biggest inhibiting factor in students learning curve was the perception that computers were foreign, alien devices. The notion that if it came from a computer, they wouldn’t get it. Once students came to accept the idea that computers were made by people for people they instantly began to get more out of their experiences. Pretty things are more friendly (seeming), and more inviting. They break down the perception of being foreign or inaccessible, and are therefore “easier” to use. Its easier because we become more open. There’s also a flip side that I think factors in which is that things that are easier to use (clean layouts, elegant designs that say more with less and lead the eye properly, and so forth) will be thought of as prettier. Them’s my two cents, anyway

    1. I believe you are right, thanks for sharing. What I am interested in goes beyond the science, which I think is clear. I am not sure its possible to simply provide a theory or a formula for how to do this. I think it really comes down the creative orientation of the human being. Therefore there will simply be people who inherently can do this and those who can’t.

      This is why I am very interested in Nokia in the long run. I have spoken with their design heads and they are very smart creative people with design philosophies that I think follow this. Their challenge is that they are bound to Microsoft, who does not understand this, but hardware wise I think Nokia can make objects of desire.

      That being said it means that anyone who wants to compete in this area in the long run needs to find the right talent in order to be able to do so.

  5. “Both forms were identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked, but one had the buttons and screens arranged attractively, the other unattractively. Surprise! The Japanese found that the attractive ones were easier to use.”

    Calling Apple products “attractive” or “beautiful” may sound like subjective and superficial ways to describe those products. In fact, many people who have never used Apple products, or don’t have any understanding about the importance of design, sneer whenever these types of adjectives are used… as if excellence in design has no real world value.

    The truth is that beautiful design is subjective, but it is also universal and utilitarian. When we say that a product is “attractive” or “beautiful”, we are recognizing tangible connections to ourselves and the way we perceive and experience life though our five senses.

    If something is designed well to interact fluidly with our sensory expectations, we call that thing “attractive” or “beautiful”. If something is designed poorly, and it conflicts with our sensory expectations, we call that thing “mediocre” or “ugly”.

    Apple is one of the few consumer companies in the world that truly understands the importance (and value) of design excellence. Apple spends more time and consideration to refining the design of their products than their competitors. This results in products that are not only engineering marvels, but also offer the best user experience enhanced by hardware and software design excellence.

    1. “The truth is that beautiful design is subjective”-Jurassic

      I’m not so sure that beauty is as subjective as we think it is.

      For example, men are attracted to women who have symmetrical feature. There is also a “golden ratio” between breasts, waist and hips that men find attractive. As sexist and non-essential as these things sound, it turns out that women with symmetrical features and the “golden ratio” are also more capable of bearing children. That which men found beautiful was also functional. Or was it that what was functional, evolution conditioned us to find beautiful?

      Perhaps we have it all backwards. Perhaps beauty is objective. The more functional we make something the more we reveal its inner beauty. Or the more beautiful we make something the more we reveal its inner functionality. Or perhaps those two statements are one and the same.

    2. Maybe Plato’s Theory of Forms has something to offer even the material world, which if I am interpreting correctly, is what Jurassic is suggesting. In our days of manipulative advertising, the natural draw of biological beauty has been corrupted, such that Beauty in the modern eye becomes different from what other senses find stimulating, as in FalKirk’s example of the “golden ratio”, and in the darkened boudoir of natural imagination. This is one laboratory where function, experience and the state of objectivity supplants subjective visual senses and supports scientific objective interpretation.

      If the perfect Form exists for a product, based upon function and usability, then there should exist the perfect design that adds visual delight whilst satisfying all practical functions for the superior user experience. Such is where Apple usually gets things right, with neither too little nor too much in the final design and function, and how we are recognising, in Jurassic’s words “tangible connections to ourselves and the way we perceive and experience life through our five senses”. This balance might be seen by Apple patrons’ loyalty, which appears so consummate. To be experienced truly and universally, however, would demand that we be willing to step away from our biases.

  6. My masters thesis was on a related subject: I created to websites representing a single fictitious company that presented itself as being in the business of providing consulting services to small companies. The content on each site was identical. One site was visually quite monochromatic and rather pin-striped and corporate; the other was bright, colourful and casual. Those who took part in my research were randomly sent to one site or the other, and overwhelming, the colourful site was preferred, even to the extent of some respondents saying that they did not trust the company on the monochromatic site. Amazing stuff.

  7. Thank you, thank you Ben for the inspired article and to the commentors for your insights. These have in turn confirmed that I am on the right track in my own work and have inspired me as well as given me more confidence to remain on the general course.

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