By Peter Bonac
Aesthetics are critical to the success of most consumer products. Understandably, functionality is of primary significance with electronics. It would be impossible to ignore the role Apple’s iPhone aesthetics played in its enormous success. I have been designing mobile aesthetics since 2004 and can say without question, aesthetics matter.
A Brief History of Aesthetics
In 1983 Motorola released the DynaTAC 8000X, the first truly portable phone, which was also known as the brick phone. From there, mobile design evolved at a tremendous pace. Clamshell designs, sliding covers, internal antennas, QWERTY keyboards and cameras are only some of countless design innovations, each changing mobile aesthetics in its own way. Since the invention of the first mobile phone, year over year design innovations have accelerated — that is until the 2007 release of the original iPhone, with the first truly usable touchscreen phone, replacing the need for QWERTY keyboards.
Rise of the Clones
Since 2007 there have been no real changes in aesthetics, and it's important to understand why has this happened, especially considering how phone technology has been exploding with greater functionality every year. A reasonable explanation is that touchscreen phones are limited in design. There is a functional desire to maximize the surface size the of the screen. This means one side of the phone will be a screen without design possibilities. A designer is left with minimal design options of the few buttons on the sides, and “playing” with the back of the phone or choosing materials.
When all mobile products look the same, it has a damaging effect on brand recognition. If you were to remove the logo from the newest phones from Apple, LG and Samsung, would you be able to recognize the manufacturer? It's unlikely. However, you probably would be able to recognize the latest BMW, Rolex, or Louboutin even with their logos removed. This is because of strong brand aesthetics, which has all but disappeared from the mobile industry.
A Direction Forward?
Now that we are aware of the aesthetic issues with touchscreen phones, is there a way forward? Technological developments such as "smart contact lens" and "chip implants" point toward greater integration of the phone and the user. The advancements in AI are already automating personal tasks, and if future concepts prove to be correct and smartphone technology becomes more integrated, there will be even less interaction between the user and the phone. This will result in even more aesthetic limitations, ultimately arriving at a stage where nothing can be done for aesthetics and all purchasing decisions will be software-based. This is true for a mobile phone as the display becomes integrated with the user.
However, an opportunity arises for wearables when this happens. As interaction decreases with the phone, the appeal and possibilities increase with wearables. This is because wearables can then begin to replace the functionality of the phone in an integrated way.
Wearables are not constrained by shape and size in the way mechanical watch manufacturers are, so design possibilities can become much more interesting. Where wearables design will excel is where it is useful to the user with minimal intrusion. So, all non-electronic wearable products (watches, clothing, handbags, shoes, etc.) that we currently use can become electronic wearables. As this happens, all fashion and luxury aesthetics can be transferred from non-electronic to electronic wearables. The direction of technology is towards becoming completely hidden, with minimal interaction with the user. As wearables become the method of integrating technology, the aesthetics will once again be a critical factor in mobile tech success.
Peter Bonac is a Canadian designer who has become known since the start of his career in the 2000s for his product design work.