Apple's obsession of form over function is hitting some folks in the face (literally)

Is Apple sacrificing the well-being of its customers and employees on the altar of unfettered design?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Apple's spaceship campus

(Connie Guglielmo/CNET)

It isn't right to be amused by others' pain or misfortune. Even so, there seems to be some schadenfreude in the media about Apple employees bashing into the nearly invisible glass dividers in their new spaceship-like headquarters while staring down at their illuminated screens.

Here's the story as Mark Bergen of Bloomberg originally reported it. First, let's be clear that these reports are hearsay. Bergen got no response to a request for comment from Apple, and was unable to uncover any OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) reports of worker safety claims.

The core of the story is that Apple designed a fancy space to optimize collaboration and communication. The company installed huge glass window panes external to the building, but apparently also created internal glass "pods" to provide a measure of both transparency and privacy.

Workers, distracted by their smartphones (oh, the irony!) apparently keep crashing into the glass dividers inside the headquarters. In an effort to maintain the sleekness of design, post-its and other makeshift warnings applied to the glass are apparently being removed with great efficiency.

Apple's architectural prowess in terms of pure design statement matches that of its devices. But there have been setbacks. In 2011, an 83-year old woman crashed into a glass door at an Apple store and sued the company. Speaking of Apple stores, in 2014, one of the nearly million-dollar panes of glass in the Manhattan store was shattered by an errant shard shooting out of a nearby snowblower.

According to a tweet last week from CNET reporter Shara Tibken, there's been some dripping from the roof of Apple's visitor center. The water (cause unknown, it wasn't raining) caused the very chic marble floors to turn slippery -- and an unnamed woman apparently slipped on the slick, wet marble and fell. We hope she's okay.

Apple's Shanghai store is something of a marvel. The company has patented the production of a giant, 12-meter tall glass cylinder that fronts the store. Unfortunately, the glass staircase wasn't quite as marvelous. One of the steps broke just before the store opened.

Obsession with form over function

It's pretty clear that Apple has something of an obsession with form over function.

Even with the slight sales slip this last quarter, there's no denying how successful the company has been creating a nearly cult-following for its products (and yes, I'm a customer, too).

In the context of sales numbers, it's hard to find fault with Apple's design-first strategy. Architecturally, in terms of building design, we've seen a steady stream of mishaps that can be directly attributed to the company's obsession with form over function.

Apple has also made a stream of form-over-function mistakes in its product line. Here are some examples.

Apple's MacBook ships with exactly one port. One USB-C port. That's it. No power adapter, nothing. If you want to charge your MacBook, you can't connect anything else. Period.

Removing most ports from MacBook Pro. Apple's recent MacBook Pro reboot eliminated the wonderful MagSafe connector, a design that reflected a brilliant understanding of the function and challenges of power cord usage. The design also eliminated the SD card slot, so if you want to upload images from a camera directly to your computer (or move a 3D model to a 3D printer), you need to use a dongle.

In fact, the replacement of all the ports (except the headphone jack) with four USB-C ports means that while MacBook Pro buyers might have gotten a more sleek design, they're now stuck with the ugly and hacky reality of multiple converters and dongles.

Removing the headphone jack from iPhones. Speaking of dongles, Apple decided to remove the headphone jack from its iPhone line. Yes, that almost forces buyers to pony up for Apple's AirPods, but it orphans a lot of users who relied on the headphone jack for headphones, mics, and a lot of other functions.

Super-thin, slippery iPhones. Although Apple can derive some cost benefits from removing a part like a headphone jack, the real reason for its removal is Apple's attempt to continually make its devices thinner and thinner. The company also likes to make the devices quite slippery, resulting in what user experience expert Kara Pernice describes as making us all into grandmothers.

She's referring to the iPhone's slipperiness and fragility causing an almost universal need for a case, and using her grandmother's plastic-sheathed furniture covers as an example. Whether the phones are slippery, or so thin they bend, Apple's obsession with thinness is getting in the way of making a solid device.

Removing the Home button from iPhone X. In the iPhone X, Apple has removed the Home button. This means that there's no longer a tactile way for people to return to their main screens. Instead, the awkward swipe up motion is required for almost everything. Additionally, removing the Home button removes Touch ID, another feature that Apple got right, then removed. Then there's that weird notch. 'Nuff said.

Apple's Magic Mouse 2. This device is odd on many levels. Its design is sleek, so sleek that almost no one finds it comfortable to hold or use. Then there's the charging port. For some reason (most likely to retain the sleekness), you can't charge and use the mouse at the same time. The charging port is at the bottom of the mouse, so you have to put the mouse on its side to charge it.

Apple TV's horrible touchpad remote. The revised Apple TV design is actually quite nice. But to navigate the screen, you have to use a touchpad on the Apple TV's rectangular remote. First, the touchpad is almost always barely responsive, which makes jumping from app icon to app icon an exercise in frustration. Second, Apple designed the remote to be an almost perfect rectangle, so when you're watching TV in a dark room, there's no way to tell whether you're pointing the remote at the TV or at yourself.

The "trash can" Mac Pro. Do I need to say anything? Nothing about this design respected the functionality needed by pro users. Nothing.

The Apple Pencil lightning connector. The Apple Pencil is a surprisingly functional device. But if you want to charge it, you have to open up the top of the pencil and stick it into a lightning connector on your iPad. Now you have a very breakable connector sticking out in a relatively ludicrous manner. Why? Because it looks pretty if you can't see a port on the pencil.

Let's be clear

I could go on and on about Apple's weird design decisions, and even point to products where both form and function are simply terrible (iTunes, I'm lookin' at you). But the point is simple. Apple's design-centric approach produces some wonderful outcomes, but the company needs to take better care that they're not just doing design for design's sake.

Just because something is beautifully designed doesn't mean it's useful, workable, or practical.

If your products snap or bend because you wanted something super-sleek, you're not super-slick. You're just designing products that break.

If you're trying to push the architectural envelope with amazing applications of glass technology, you're not creating clarity and transparency. You're just putting your customers at risk of falling through glass.

If your employees keep bashing into your glass walls or slipping on super-slick floors, you're not accomplishing your goal of improving productivity. You're just causing your folks pain and embarrassment, producing possible OSHA and workman's comp claims, and losing productivity while your people heal.

Good design is not just about aesthetics. Good design is the overall marriage of form and function. If you sacrifice function for something that just looks good, it's not good design. It's just arrogant and insensitive.

Editorial standards