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Design

The hegemony of good taste

In the film Wall-e (2008), the surviving colony of humans live on a massive starliner (the Axiom) traveling through space. The passengers spend their days reclining on hover chairs while waited on and cosseted by robots.

Photographing a page of a book

In one scene a voice on the public address system exhorts: “Attention, Axiom shoppers. Try blue! It’s the new red!.” The morbidly obese but perpetually optimistic passengers start pressing buttons on their chairs and their jumpsuits change instantly from red to blue.

Converting to iOS7 is a bit like that.

It’s easy in a world dominated by screens to affect push-button chameleon-like global style transitions. We are used to operating system upgrades, and ubiquitous brand transformations, but there’s something unusual about the transformation in the look and feel of such an intimately personal possession as a smartphone.

Consumers chose and purchased their phones assuming a certain appearance and functionality. Then without consultation or easy opt-outs they have to acquiesce to a radical transformation in something they’ve ostensibly chosen and already paid for.

But Apple prepared us for this risky transformation. It’s not just a change in appearance, but a “radical design overhall.” It combines “extra features” and improved functioning.

It’s “cleaner with less clutter,” and dispenses with corny metaphors, such as lined notepaper and buttons that look like — well, buttons. So we consumers were prepared for the new integrated design — and the idea that design is so much more than just appearance.

Reception theory and the hermeneutics of exquisite acquisitions

Now there’s a heading! If I had time I would elaborate on what reception theory has to say about the structuring of consumer taste. Like works of art and good buildings, operating systems fall in and out of favour with their audiences depending on circumstances, aspirations, the mood of the company we keep, and personal background.

What architect could not be enchanted by Apple’s new look, minimal, uncluttered, slightly luminescent, without serif, layered and subtly dynamic, metaphorical triumph of fully integrated graphic and functional design! It’s Bauhaus to the power of n.

Open book with abstract drawings, box files marked "hermeneutics" in the background, magnifying glass with CIBA brand mark. Pho is in square format.

Notes

  • Independent Newspaper article about iOS7
  • Also see Bauhaus geek, Countercultural values, and The reception of architecture.
  • I was raised in a household through which ran a thread of corporate good taste in the form of branding by the Swiss pharmaceutical company CIBA-Geigy. We had calendars, diaries, penknives, magnifying glasses, map books and other branded gifts designed for company clients — useful designs without fuss, or serifs. This was perfect priming for the reception of modernist design.
  • See Helvetica, the movie by Gary Hustwit.

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “The hegemony of good taste

  1. Try blue! It’s the new red!.” The morbidly obese but perpetually optimistic passengers start pressing buttons on their chairs and their jumpsuits change instantly from red to blue.

    Converting to iOS7 is a bit like that.

    I couldn’t help but laughing out loud! Thanks.

    Posted by Lemongrass Hut | September 21, 2013, 2:20 pm
  2. What puzzles me about this update is that it somehow feels less functional. Friends of mine seem to have polarized opinions about it, many saying they have already downgraded back to iOS6. Personally I don’t care how it looks, its made my iPhone slower which defeats the entire purpose. Occasionally one wonders if these “updates” are filled with code to slow down older models. Apple clearly has its claws sunk deep into my psyche (big sigh) as I find myself looking at iPhone 5s pricing. They win again…. surely by design.

    Posted by s1261009 | September 27, 2013, 10:53 am
  3. After getting over the initial panic of the severe change in UI, on the surface my update to iOS7 has made my now ageing iPhone 4 faster and increased its battery life. I have read in places that they stole the command centre from Andriod and that the new zoom animations everywhere are making people feel sick, but I’m actually enjoying it, the UI is easier on the eyes and it leaves me with hints of nostalgia for my digital past. Referring to the comment above on pricing, I have never actually bought an iPhone new, but can say that why should they not set these prices if they can?

    Posted by Tristan Meagher | September 27, 2013, 1:37 pm
  4. Yes, and I don’t think you have to work for Apple to say that. Credit where it’s due.

    Posted by Richard Coyne | September 27, 2013, 8:51 pm
  5. The hype behind Apple these days is very interesting, I feel that many people will be choosing iPhones just to go along with the crowd. I feel that Apple has become a bit like the public address system in wall-e and is controlling their consumers with one announcement. As an Android user myself, I actually do see that iPhones are definitely a better choice. Although Android does let you have the option to choose what your own phone interface looks like, there are many unnecessary aspects of the system that it could do without.

    Posted by RachelF | September 28, 2013, 1:48 pm

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