The Aesthetic Tightrope

Published on December 3, 2019

Dogs do not care what patterns are knitted into their sweaters. They may or may not appreciate the functional warmth provided by their sweaters but only their owners derive any benefit from details such as the color scheme, a Christmas pattern, or the overall quality of the stitching. Most dogs would probably be happier to wear nothing at all, even in the depths of winter.

Human beings are unique creatures in many ways, and probably viewed as somewhat odd by other animals, including our long suffering dogs forced to wear cashmere Christmas sweaters. Ever since the first cave paintings were created over 40,000 years ago, humans have expended time and energy to beautify our surroundings in ways that have little or nothing to do with functional elements of our lives. The quality of our homes and our clothing have been important ways to signal status for thousands of years and people have gone to great lengths to go well beyond functional utility due to the intangible value provided by aesthetics.

Other species may appear to take note of what we call aesthetics, but they do so for functional purposes, such as when a scavenging animal is repulsed by spoiled meat that would be poisonous to eat or when peacocks note the beauty of each other’s tail feathers during mating rituals. Being aware of the aesthetic qualities of food lowers the risk of poisoning and noting which potential mate displays the most impressive physical attributes is a necessary impulse for animals who seek to propagate their genes. In this sense, aesthetics in the non-human animal world have functional purposes. Only a peacock that is healthy, thriving, and likely to pass on strong genetic material will have the ability to dedicate scarce physical resources to growing beautiful tail feathers.

As human civilization progressed over the centuries and societies rose beyond the subsistence level, social stratification allowed a small number of people to dedicate their entire lives to pursuing their notions of aesthetic beauty. Often such artists were sponsored by royal courts that had tremendous resources to dedicate toward the aesthetic ideals prevailing at the time. Any tour through a great art museum leaves a modern visitor in awe of the works of art created by societies in which the vast majority of people were still focused on day-to-day survival.

The importance of aesthetic beauty is now pervasive in all segments of modern society and it would be rare to encounter anyone who has no desire to be near beautiful artwork or pleasing objects, however they choose to define it. At the same time, most of us go through our day-to-day lives with an intent focus on functional utility, whether we are commuting to work, reading the newspaper on our tablets, or preparing dinner at home. Ideally, we would like the functional objects in our lives to also provide aesthetic beauty.

The Intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology

In 1995, I decided to teach myself computer programming and I needed to purchase a computer. The problem was that as a new college graduate, I did not want to spend a lot of money on a pre-built system from a company like Dell or Hewlett-Packard. Fortunately, it was easy to go to Fry’s Electronics and purchase a tower case, a motherboard, CPU, memory, a hard drive, a power supply, and a few other components and plug them all together. Voila! I had a working system with Window 95 installed and I saved some money. The system had no aesthetic beauty. Few thought computers needed to at the time. With one notable exception.

”It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” 

Steve Jobs introducing the iPad 2

Computers were thought of as functional objects for a long time. They were purely utilitarian and appearance did not resonate much with corporate or retail consumers, especially for desktop systems that spent their lives under a desk. However, Steve Jobs had long been obsessed with aesthetics. To Jobs, a computer or any other functional technology product had no soul if it did not have aesthetic virtues as well as technical prowess. Jobs famously also obsessed over what the inside of his products looked like even though customers would never see it. It was a matter of principle and pride of craftsmanship — attributes that great artists insist on.

Jobs was decades ahead of his time and suffered greatly for his obsession with the appearance of his products. And his competitors mercilessly ridiculed him for it as well. When Jobs, exiled from Apple in the 1980s, unveiled his first product launch for NeXT, he made the design and appearance of the computer a priority. Bill Gates dismissed not only the technology but the sleek, all black design stating: “If you want black, I’ll get you a can of paint.”1 Two decades later, Steve Ballmer laughed at what he considered the outrageous pricing of the first iPhone — after all, Microsoft had phones that could also “do email and internet”.

Importantly, Jobs was not a starry eyed romantic when it came to aesthetics. He realized that the beauty of the form had to be married to strong functionality to succeed in the marketplace. Additionally, he spotted areas where an aesthetic advance such as eliminating ugly physical phone keyboards could not only provide the same functionality but improve capabilities because virtual keyboards can be designed to adapt to changing contexts based on what the user is doing.

The Tension Between Form and Function

The best of both worlds occurs when an aesthetic advance, such as virtual keyboards on phones, also provides important functional advances. This is a clear win-win proposition. However, in many important design decisions, there is a tension between maximizing functionality and promoting physical beauty. This is true in many areas, but let us stick with technology for now and consider certain other design decisions made by Apple in recent years.

Apple has long been obsessed with making devices thinner and sleeker. Such attributes are prominently featured in all product launch events and the “wow” factor clearly impresses a large segment of consumers. In addition, highly visible changes to the physical appearance of a product, such as the iPhone or iPad, can be important to drive product upgrade cycles. Many customers will upgrade so they can be seen with the latest and greatest device. To drive this impulse that people have to signal status and wealth with technology, products must be visually differentiated from older versions.

The drive to produce thinner and sleeker products has required tighter and tighter construction of the components making up the device to the point where almost no consumer today would have the ability to service their product themselves. In many cases, devices cannot even be serviced by Apple itself. Additionally, the desire for thinner form factors has sometimes involved removing functionality. Such was the case when Apple discontinued a dedicated earphone outlet on new iPhones. Customers must now utilize the power port for wired headphones. And, of course, many have opted to purchase Bluetooth headphones like the AirPod.

The Price Paid for Beauty

The days of ordinary people tinkering with their consumer electronics is long past. When something goes wrong with a device, it typically must be returned to the manufacturer or taken to a third party repair shop for service. Often the cost of service, for devices past warranty periods, is too high to justify repair. The clearances within the device are simply too tight for people without training to replace broken parts or to diagnose problems.

I purchased a new MacBook Pro laptop in mid-2017 and it is both the most powerful and most beautiful computer I have ever owned. And it should be based on the $2,500 price tag! Unfortunately, Apple made a decision to introduce a new type of laptop keyboard using a “butterfly” mechanism in order to allow for a sleeker design. This design backfired:

In a weird way, Apple made a brilliant new laptop keyboard — it was thinner, sleeker, and felt fantastic to type with. Unfortunately, it only worked consistently in controlled environments and ruined one of the most important aspects of any computer.

What the hell is Apple’s butterfly keyboard?

The keyboard did feel fantastic to type with and it looked great as well. Win-win, right? Wrong. A little over two years of daily use resulted in several keys not working properly – either becoming non-responsive or repeating inappropriately. One faulty key was the period, which is probably the worst key to go bad for a user who works with spreadsheets frequently.

After some initial controversy and legal action, Apple did the right thing and created a program to replace all faulty keyboards free of charge. But customers are still being inconvenienced and losing access to their computers for several days while the problem is resolved. Additionally, due to the tight clearances and desire to make everything as compact as possible, Apple must replace not only the keyboard but the battery of affected laptops since both are within a single module that apparently must be replaced as a unit.

Balancing on the Aesthetic Tightrope

What is the right balance between form and function? Who had the “right” approach – Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? Looking at that specific question from the perspective of late 2019, we can note that both Microsoft and Apple have been resounding success stories and both companies now have market capitalizations in excess of $1 trillion.

Microsoft has never been known for the aesthetic beauty of its products, but hardware was not a focus for the company throughout most of its history. Apple, on the other hand, has always been known for the form and function of its products. Both have played to their strengths over the past decade with Apple continuing its innovations in product design while Microsoft made surprising headway in cloud services. There are many ways to win in business.

Apple without a focus on aesthetic beauty would be a company with no soul. It is clearly correct for Tim Cook to dedicate significant resources toward innovations that lead to thinner and sleeker devices that will cause people to line up for product releases. It is also probably correct for Apple to make a conscious decision to accept some functional constraints in the pursuit of aesthetic beauty, including taking risks that sometimes backfire as was the case with the butterfly keyboard issue.

In rare cases, advances in aesthetics and functionality go hand in hand and this is a clear win-win proposition. In most cases, however, there is a natural tension between form and function. Apple has generally managed to walk the aesthetic tightrope skillfully over the years even though the choices they make sometimes backfire and annoy their customers.

Disclosure: Individuals associated with The Rational Walk LLC own shares of Berkshire Hathaway which has a large holding of Apple common stock.

The Aesthetic Tightrope
  1. See Loonshots, p. 122, which we reviewed in November. []
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