Has Apple Lost Its Design Mojo?

December 22, 2017, 11:30 AM UTC
Courtesy of Apple

A generation of peerless products made Apple the world’s most valuable company. Now some in the i-universe are questioning if the magic—in the post–Steve Jobs era—is still there. Don’t believe the naysayers.

The Touch ID on Victoria’s iPhone 6 doesn’t work well in the winter cold. John is tired of kneeling or sitting on airport floors to plug in his 6s, whose battery seems incapable of lasting through the day. A few months ago, Henry noticed that when he’d type an “I” into his iPhone, “A?” would sometimes show up on his screen. Nancy, who’s older, hates that Apple (AAPL) never provides instructions after upgrading her iPad to “new formatting.” Adam, who’s younger, has ditched Apple for Google’s Pixel 2 XL, because he prefers the design and uses Google apps. Tony, who thinks iTunes has gone from being a well-organized music library to a disorganized marketing vehicle for Apple ­Music, has subscribed to Spotify and Pandora.

The five people in my home use two dozen cables to power and connect 18 Apple devices. Six are frayed and wrapped in duct tape—their thin, rubberized, and attractive-till-it-breaks covering doesn’t seem designed for the heavy use these cables obviously get. Worse yet, hunting one down takes ages, because the USB, Lightning, Thunderbolt, and USB-C cables are incompatible in a variety of ways, and the little adapters I purchased after each “upgrade” have been lost long ago, probably behind some couch cushion that’s also hiding Anya’s too-tiny iPod Shuffle and the earbuds that came with the iPhone 6 that Tal shattered.

Apple CEO Tim Cook (right) and chief design officer Jony Ive look at the iPhone X at an event on the Apple Park campus in September.Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

If your friends and family are anything like my friends and family, you’ve been hearing a lot of complaints about Apple design recently. In fact, enumerating the ways Apple design fails consumers seems to have become an international pastime. Google “Apple design sucks,” and you’ll find a never-ending litany of the seemingly infinite ways that this ostensible paragon of design excellence misses the mark: The Watch isn’t out-of-the-box intuitive; the latest keyboards are annoying and fragile; Apple Pencils are easy to lose; the iPhone has been flawed ever since Apple introduced that camera lens that juts out on the back, and things have gotten worse with the “notch” on the screen of the iPhone X. Belittling headlines abound: “The Myth of Apple’s Great Design” (The Atlantic), “What Happened to Apple’s Faultless Design?” (The Verge), and “Apple Is Really Bad at Design” (The Outline), a recent screed that generated a lot of online chatter.

Highly respected developers and designers have weighed in with damning criticism. Tumblr cofounder Marco Arment admires most Apple design, but says, “Apple designs in the post-Steve era have been a little off-balance. The balance seems too much on the aesthetic, and too little on the functional.” Don Norman, a former member of the Apple design team (1993–1996) who now heads the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, beats the drum that Apple has abandoned user-centered design principles. “They have sacrificed understandability for aesthetic beauty,” he says.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Says Steve Troughton-Smith, an Irish developer of sleek iOS apps, “I have enough historical context to understand that these things have no relation to [Steve Jobs’ departure], and are not a new aspect of being an Apple user. Things like USB cables and iTunes were bad for many years under Jobs too, and I have a collection of frayed Firewire-to-30-pin cables to remind me of that.”

“I would argue that Apple design is as good as ever,” says John Gruber, the dean of Apple bloggers. “Look at the most recent products. AirPods last year, and the iPhone X this year, are quintessential Apple products. There’s a huge ‘it just works’ factor to them both.”

Design is subjective, of course. It’s entirely possible for two intelligent people to have diametrically opposite views on the iPhone X (“ten” in Roman numeral form), and it’s entirely possible for intelligent people to argue about whether Apple’s product design is better or worse than when Steve Jobs was CEO. What’s not subjective, however, is this simple business fact: Apple is a design company. Its future doesn’t rest on being first in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, or any other technology. Its future rests on design.

See the full Business by Design list here.

For years now, Apple has done a better job than any other company of discerning what technologies will really matter to customers, and assembling those into remarkably intuitive products that appeal to millions and millions of people around the world. No tech company has ever had such a long and consistent run of mass-market success, even if there have been a few clunkers along the way. With perhaps a billion or more Apple products in active use, there are bound to be some that miss the mark.

But the volume of grumbling about Apple design has been loud of late. And the chatter can’t simply be dismissed—because if Apple design is truly in trouble, then the world’s most valuable company is in trouble.

A central design tension at Apple has always been keeping its products clean, streamlined and easy-to-use while adding more, and more powerful, features. The best Apple designs—the best product designs, period—navigate this tension by making astute choices about when, what, and how to incorporate new technologies. Critics argue that Apple is making more poor choices than in the past.

Take the iPhone X, which was released in November. In its marketing of the X, Apple makes much of the beauty of a screen without bezels or buttons—in television ads, for instance, great swirls of red and purple color caress the rounded corners of the screen. When I interviewed Jony Ive in October for Smithsonian magazine (Apple declined to make Ive available for this story), he described the screen as an embodiment of a key Apple design principle. “As a design team, we’re trying to get the object out of the way,” he said. “We’re not denying that it’s material, but we want to get to that point where it is in no way an impediment to the technology that you care about.” The spare and elegant screen on the X is as close as Apple has come to erasing the barrier between you and the world of digital data, entertainment, and services.

One reason the X has such a simple screen is that Apple chose to eliminate the Home button. The Home button is that small concave circle at the bottom of all prior iPhones that you press at any time to get back to your Home screen, where you can access all of your most important apps. Press the Home button, return to the Home screen. It was a simple concept, and, if you ask Don Norman, there was no good reason to abandon it. “They made it harder for people by their emphasis on the utter simplicity of the screen,” says Norman. “They took away the Home button, and they added even more mysterious gestures.”

Some of Apple’s breakthrough products.

In fact, to conjure the Home screen on my iPhone X, I swipe up from the bottom of the screen. On my old iPhone 7, that same gesture took me to the Control Center, with its icons for my flashlight, timer, camera, and other basic features. But to get to the Control Center on my X, I swipe down in a diagonal line from the top right. And if I want to see and close all those apps I’ve had open for some time, I swipe up from the bottom, but press down on the screen at the end of the swipe. In practice, this all comes quite naturally: My 11-year-old, Anya, who has spent more time than makes sense with an iPad, told me, “This is the way all phones should work!” But it’s not for everyone. I tried to explain multitouch gestures to my mother-in-law, Nancy, over Thanksgiving. “That’s it!” she snapped. “I’m done!”

The tension between complexity and aesthetic streamlining is especially evident in Apple’s oldest product lines—its desktop and laptop computers. After years of complaints from heavy users who rely on its most powerful computers, Apple released a new MacBook Pro laptop in late 2016, with a brightly lit digital touch screen strip that replaced the F keys at the top of the keyboard. The strip changes as you work, offering up shortcuts to features that might be relevant to whatever is up on your screen. Called the Touch Bar, because you manipulate it with your finger, the strip looks great and is a marvelous feat of engineering.

But adding functions isn’t really an addition if the process of using those functions is confusing. “To me,” says blogger Gruber, usually a reliable supporter of all things Apple, “the Touch Bar is the ultimate violation of that Steve Jobs axiom that design isn’t about how something looks, but about how it works.” In this first iteration, the Touch Bar seems like an unsuccessful, half-baked effort to bring some of the iPad’s touch control to Apple laptops. “Apple may have just gotten caught up in how cool the engineering is,” says Arment. “I know lots of people in the developer community who use these machines, and I have heard from zero people who are really taken with the Touch Bar.”

It seems unlikely that the design team, composed mostly of veterans who have been together for many years, got “caught up” in “cool” engineering. But we expect Apple to make perfect choices, every time, and when it doesn’t we’re dismayed. “I have friends who are driven to absolute anger when Siri tries to be funny,” says Gruber, referring to Apple’s digital voice assistant, which is widely seen as inferior to Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s eponymous version. “If you tell Siri to cancel the timer you asked her to start so that you could cook something, instead of just saying, ‘I’ll cancel the timer,’ she usually says something like: ‘Okay, I’ve cancelled this, but don’t blame me if your egg overcooks!’ It drives people nuts. I think it’s the wrong way to go. They’re trying to humanize her, but it falls so flat. It just feels like they’re tone- deaf, especially when she does something like that and misinterprets your question.”

Siri’s attempt at humor is as much a design decision as whether to include a Home button on the iPhone X. It’s an example of the complex new choices that designers at any company now face when developing a product with an Internet connection—toys, dishwashers, train engines, wine cellars, key chains, and more. So when Apple doesn’t get Siri right, it makes people worry about Apple’s future. The world of technology is growing increasingly complicated, and many people think that new product that most simplifies our life is the Amazon Echo. That can’t be a good sign, right?

For many Apple critics, the story ends right here. Siri’s not great, the Touch Bar’s kind of a mess, the operating systems are pretty but somewhat confusing, and the reassuring Home button has been killed … the list goes on. Apple’s far from perfect. Point made.

But here’s the thing: Pick just about any time in Apple’s history, and you’ll find a similar set of worrying choices and seeming failures—even during those halcyon days of Steve Jobs’ triumphant second tenure at the company. 1998: that beautiful, bulbous, Bondi Blue iMac is actually an underpowered computer with an unreliable mouse and a CD slot that few consumers could use productively. 2000: The Power Mac G4 Cube, so gorgeous it becomes part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, doesn’t deliver the power and features heavy users demand. 2001: The first iPod is released, but it’s not really ready for primetime, since the scroll wheel is clunky and the device works only with Macs, which account for just 2.6% of worldwide PC sales. 2005: Apple’s in the phone business! With something called the Rokr, a kludgy music player/cell phone that the company developed with Motorola. 2007: The iPhone is introduced, with few applications and poor connectivity. 2011: The iPad is introduced, and, as my brother-in-law Mark told me at the time, “I can’t imagine anyone ever using this for anything interesting.” (He’s bought four since then.)

Nicolas Rapp
Nicolas Rapp

In fact, Apple rarely gets it perfect at first. But over the years, the company has developed a long-term design process that regularly turns design “mistakes” into successes.

The Apple Watch was introduced in 2015. Anticipation was high: Would this be Apple’s first Next Big Thing since the death of Jobs? “Apple introduced products like the iPod that were so great and worked so well that we started to question the design of other things in our life,” says Allan Chochinov, chair of the products of design program at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. “Why isn’t my thermostat like that?” Perhaps the time had come for a watch that was as great as an iPhone.

As you may remember, the press was disappointed. To say the least. The user interface was a jumbled, layered, and unintuitive mess. The watch itself was attractive, but those who wore it to the gym found it clunky compared to established fitness trackers like Fitbit. Since it served up notifications only if your iPhone was nearby, and since it showed you the time only if you flicked up your wrist just so, I found it less useful than a Swatch—and about $300 more expensive.

Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs introducing the iPad. Since Jobs’ death in 2011, the company has grown vastly more valuable and more dependent on iPhone sales.Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Cut to present-day. The new Watch, called Series 3, works independently from the iPhone. With cellular capability built in, I can now leave my iPhone behind and keep up to date with all the data and communications we’ve absorbed into our daily routines. The interface is simpler, and Apple has made it easier for me to access the things that a smartwatch is really good for, including timer, fitness tracker, texts, email, calendar, music, Apple Pay, mobile tickets, and even voice calling. It’s great for responding quickly and simply to texts, even if it’s not for deeply felt communication. Instead of trying to cram some sort of keyboard replacement into the watch, Apple has provided a set of canned responses (“Thanks,” “BRB,” “On my way,” “In a meeting. Call you later?”) that I can quickly tap, along with a scribble pad if I want to get more specific. Nothing about the Watch is confusing any more—its design perfectly suits its purpose.

That’s probably why it’s selling so briskly now. In a recent blog post, Asymco’s Horace Dediu estimated that Apple is now selling 16 million a year. Dediu believes Watch sales will eventually grow bigger than sales of iPods at their peak, which would make the Watch Apple’s second most popular product ever.

How did the Watch get so much better so quickly? What happened in the two years between the first and third editions of the Watch? I asked Ive this question during a November interview at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. “Mostly, we spend all our time looking at what we can do better,” Ive responded. “Sometimes we are very aware that there are technologies that aren’t ready. We’re very aware of where the product is going. Then there are things that you don’t truly know until you’ve made them in large volumes, and a really diverse group of people use them.” In the case of the Watch, the loud and ample criticism from Apple customers clearly shaped the way Ive and his team improved the product. The iPhone X, on the other hand, seems more the creative brainchild of a team integrating new technologies to build something new on the foundation of an already successful product.

The flaws in the first iteration of the Touch Bar don’t tell us anything about the state of Apple design. (MacBook Pro buyers may disagree—but they tend to be early adopters, who know that the cutting edge isn’t always pretty.) What’s more important is how Apple develops the technology in the years ahead.

This creative process is Apple’s secret sauce. Its goal—innovating and improving simultaneously, delivering both annual updates and the occasional brand-new product—is commonplace. But few companies have done it as well as Apple, at mass scale over a long period of dramatic technological change. Chochinov cites Nike and the New York Times as two that have, but many of the sources I interviewed for this story couldn’t think of any comparable peers. “Apple design is so far ahead of everyone else,” says Arment. “Apple has so many products and so many services and so much software out there, and most of it is great—or at least fine. The reason people like me can nitpick is that we have been spoiled.”

If you are one of those people who believes there’s been a slump in Apple design, you might attribute some of that to the many distractions Apple has faced since the death of Steve Jobs in 2011. The six years since Jobs’ death have been marked by outrageous growth and continual change. Under CEO Tim Cook, annual sales have more than doubled, and almost tripled in Asia. Besides introducing new products like the Watch and AirPods, Apple has opened 160 new stores (including 45 in China), acquired dozens of companies (including several focused on artificial intelligence and, most recently, the music recognition app, Shazam), and launched its own content creation arm.

Some outside observers sensed that the explosive expansion appeared to put a strain on resources for a while. “Apple seemed to struggle with its newfound scale,” says Troughton-Smith,” and appeared to not have the engineering practices in place to support the new status quo.” That’s improved in the past couple of years, he says.

It has been a period of big transitions for Ive personally too. During the last seven years of Jobs’ life, Cook had performed many of the duties of a standard CEO, leaving Jobs free to develop products with Ive. As Ive told me at the Hirshhorn in November, “You know how sometimes something just clicks with someone? [Steve and I] had a bizarre way of looking at the world, but it was the same. When you feel odd and bizarre, it’s nice to feel odd and bizarre with a friend.” Now Ive is without his old friend and yet charged with greater responsibility than ever. An industrial designer all his life, Ive now oversees software design as well. He is Apple’s product guy.

Apple products are mostly “great—or at least fine,” says one techie. “The reason people like me can nitpick is that we have been spoiled.”

There’s been one other serious distraction, something Jobs set in motion shortly before his death. Ive has been a central player in the creation of Apple Park, the company’s new campus, fretting every detail. When I took a tour of the place in September, my guide took pains to point out many of them: the concave elevator buttons in the same brushed aluminum used on Apple laptops, the rounded edges of the rail on an Italian limestone staircase, the single-piece sneeze guard that will protect the food in the new café.

The idea that the project may have caused Ive to drop the ball on product quality was alluded to in a Washington Post column in late November, shortly after Apple had to issue a series of operating system updates to repair a security flaw. “While the company should have sufficient resources to obsess over both its headquarters and its software and hardware,” wrote the paper’s former personal-tech columnist, “the reality seen by Apple customers suggests otherwise.”

There’s simply not enough evidence to prove that Ive’s focus on Apple Park distracted him from regular product development. However, there is this bit of context: When Ive was given the title of chief design officer in 2013, his two lieutenants overseeing industrial design and software design started reporting directly to Cook. Then in early December, Apple, which is usually very reluctant to discuss internal corporate machinations, surprised observers by issuing the following statement: “With the completion of Apple Park, Apple’s design leaders and teams are again reporting directly to Jony Ive, who remains focused purely on design.”

The message seemed clear: If there had been any distractions for Ive (something Apple would never admit), there won’t be any going forward.

One thing hasn’t changed since Steve Jobs died—the power structure of the technology industry. Facebook, Amazon, Google (now Alphabet), and Apple dominated tech in 2011, and they dominate it today.

Back then, conventional wisdom forecast a battle royale between the four, with each trying to grow by attacking the others’ strongholds. Instead, each has grown outlandishly by becoming even more entrenched in the field it dominates. Google is still the behemoth in online search advertising. Facebook has dismissed all challengers in social media and become an even more-powerful revenue generator on mobile than it was on the desktop. Amazon’s business model for efficiently attacking new business sectors is so potent that every large company worth its salt now strategizes about how to avoid getting “Amazoned” by an unimaginable competitor from some unlikely industry.

Apple was supposedly the most vulnerable of the four, doomed without the unique genius of Jobs. But over the past six years, Tim Cook has grown into a widely respected CEO, while Apple has become the world’s most valuable company, and has introduced two hit products—AirPods and the Watch—that don’t have even a wisp of a Steve Jobs fingerprint on them.

Like Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook, Apple continues to rely on its unique strength—design. “If anything, Tim Cook and his team have doubled down on design,” says Neil Cybart, a former research analyst who now pens his own astute Apple blog. “The companies that are saying that the world is changing and we’re moving into a post-device era are the companies who haven’t figured out that design is the missing ingredient. It’s never just about the technologies, like machine learning, A.I., voice assistants—it’s never just about those things. It’s about how should we use those things. That’s design. And no other company in Silicon Valley has a design focus and culture like Apple.”

One way to understand the competitive power of Apple’s design is to shift from thinking of the technologies of the future to the market opportunities of the future. Health care; the software and design of autonomous vehicles; wearable computers; the connected products in our homes. Each market will need different technologies. But every market will depend on design.

Apple will explore how it can make its mark on each of these markets. That process entails years of research—at the Hirshhorn, for example, Ive regaled the audience with a distilled history of the miniaturization of timepieces, from the single clock in big cities to grandfather clocks, pocket watches, and the tiny thing on your wrist. And it entails a catholic receptivity to new ideas and technologies. During the same interview, Ive described the design studio at the new campus. The new space is so large that, for the first time, everyone involved in product design will be gathered in one space. The user experience experts will be mixed in with the industrial designers, and the haptics specialists might find themselves sitting next to a graphic designer. It’s a conscious, visible acknowledgement that Apple’s future—its present, too—depends on so much more than just the industrial design that Ive, whose father was a silversmith, was raised on. Ive believes that the new space will expand and spark Apple’s internal design conversation, leading the company once again to products we can’t quite imagine now.

The prospect, he told the audience at the Hirshhorn, gets him “uppity uppity jumpy.” How odd and bizarre. How promising.

A version of this article appears as part of our “Business by Design” package in the Jan. 1, 2018 issue of Fortune.