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Apple Never Designed the iPad - They Undesigned it

Written by on December 5, 2011

You have probably heard about the continual struggle between Apple and Samsung over similarities in their designs. Apple is suing Samsung and asking the courts to block the sale of the Galaxy Tab in many countries (and succeeding).

Saturday, The Verge reported that Apple, in their usual arrogant way, felt they needed to tell Samsung how to design their devices. The list is quite humorous and completely outrageous.

Apple has told Samsung that, in order not to infringe on their design, Samsung should create a design with:

  • Front surface that isn't black.
  • Overall shape that isn't rectangular, or doesn't have rounded corners.
  • Display screens that aren't centered on the front face and have substantial lateral borders.
  • Non-horizontal speaker slots.
  • No front bezel at all.
  • Thick frames rather than a thin rim around the front surface.
  • Profiles that aren't thin.

And the two really silly ones:

  • Front surfaces with substantial adornment.
  • Cluttered appearance.

Yes, the Galaxy tab looks very much like the iPad, but they couldn't really design it any other way.

Apple never designed the iPad. They undesigned the tablet. They focused on creating the simplest form possible. Every single decision is based on usability, readability, comfort, and focusing your eyes on the content itself.

To illustrate this, let's create a tablet from scratch.

Designing a tablet

If you design a tablet, the first thing you need to do is to decide on its overall shape. Apple told Samsung that their tablet couldn't be "rectangular" but that is of course absurd. Every single form of media that we have is rectangular, going back to the stone tablet several thousand years ago.

The rectangular shape is determined by the viewpoint of our eyes, plus our ability to scan lines of text horizontally. This is why every book, magazine, newspaper, TV, laptop and desktop screens are rectangular. You cannot make it round or triangular, because our eyes see the world as a rectangle.

The only usable format is a rectangle. And this is also the only format that fits the content.

The point is also that with a touch based device you don't need space for any other elements than the screen itself. So we start off with a simple rectangle that contains nothing but the screen.

The shape of a tablet has nothing to do with design. It is simple logic.

Of course, a shape like this doesn't work. There are a number of problems we need to solve.

Margin

The first problem is one of margin. The main reason why every book has a margin, is to allow you to hold the book, while reading, without having your thumb and hand obscure the text. This is a simple readability concern. Without a margin, you would be forced constantly to move you hand out of the way, causing a rather intolerable reading experience.

Also, on a touch based device, you don't want the hand holding the tablet to touch the active part of the screen. That would create a conflict in the software as the tablet would constantly be trying to figure out if you hand is actually touching the page, or just holding the tablet.

The solution to both problems is to create a margin that is exactly the width of your thumb. Any more, and the tablet would be bigger than it needs to be. Any less, and you obscure the content.

Again, this has nothing to do with design. The width of the margin is an engineering problem with only one solution.

The margin also has to be both uniform and symmetrical. If the screen is positioned off to one side (As Apple suggested Samsung should do), you are limiting how you can hold it. The tablet needs to work at any orientation, and as such, the screen has to be completely centered.

Corners

Next, we take a look at the corners. Apple told Samsung that they couldn't use rounded corners, but that is just silly. We need rounded corners for comfort and usability.

Sharp corners are uncomfortable to hold and use, and you are constantly poking yourself with them. The rounded corners make the edge of the tablet a smooth and comfortable experience.

There is also another reason. Most designers know that a sharp corner forces your attention outward because it acts like an arrow, whereas a rounded corner focuses your attention inward.

Again, none of this is a design problem. It is all about usability.

Front color

What about the color of the margin? Apple told Samsung that they couldn't use black, but what other color could they choose?

If there were to make it bright blue and you visited a red website, you would probably throw up by its sheer ugliness. You don't want the colors to clash.

Optimally speaking, the color of the margin should be the same as the background color of the content. That way, the margin would be there but not attract your attention. But that is not actually possible with today's technology.

The only solution you have is to choose a neutral color. And the color of the margin also needs to more subdued than the content on the page. The reason being is simply that you want people to focus on the screen, not the frame around it.

With a white page, the color of the frame could be light gray (like the Kindle), but since a tablet has to work with any content, the only color that is both neutral and more subdued than any other...is black.

Note: This is also why every TV has a black frame.

Thickness

What about its thickness? Optimally speaking, the shape of a tablet should be something like the image below. The edge should be thick enough to fit the natural curvature of your hand, while at the same time slope inward to facilitate a firm grip.

Like this:

But there is a problem with this design, and the problem is the batteries. If you open any tablet, you find that the majority of the space is taken up by its batteries.

The batteries make it impossible to create the optional shape for gripping. Instead, the back is shaped to be slightly thicker to fit the batteries, while keeping the edge as thin as possible.

Again, this has nothing to do with design. This is an engineering constraint.

Flat back

Another point is that you cannot make the thickness of the back uneven. While it might work great at one orientation, it forces you to tilt you head at any other orientation. The back (and the front) of a tablet needs to be flat.

Sony, for instance, seemed to have forgotten this simple usability factor when they designed their Sony Tablet S. Their tablet only works in one orientation. And true enough, when you visit Sony's website, they are not showing a single image of their tablet in portrait mode.

It simply doesn't work.

The final tablet

The result is a tablet that looks like the image below.

  • It's rectangular to fit the viewpoint of your eyes and the content that is all around you.
  • It has a margin to prevent your hand from obscuring the content.
  • The thickness of the margin is exactly that of your thumb. Nothing more, nothing less.
  • It has rounded corners to make it more comfortable.
  • The color of the front is black to focus your attention on the content.
  • It has a thin, slightly rounded edge, with a slightly bulkier back to fit the batteries.
  • It is uniform, flat and symmetrical to make it work in any orientation.

Note: This is not a photo of the iPad. This is the same shape I made six slides ago with a black background + a thin light gray frame.

Apple never designed the iPad. Instead, they undesigned it by creating the simplest shape possible. The iPad is the core essence of what a tablet *can* look like.

Apple is really good at this. Look at the Cinema Display, the Apple wireless keyboard, the Macbook Air, the iPod, and all their other devices. The reason why their "design" is so successful is because they are not actually designing their products. They are reducing them to the simplest form possible.

It is beauty through simplicity.

The problem is, of course, that everyone else has to do the same. They have to make it rectangular, they have to make it black, they have to use rounded corners, and they have to make it flat. Anything else would cause a distraction.

Case in point, because of the lawsuit Samsung has decided to "give in" and change their design. The new tablet is asymmetrical, with slightly thicker borders at one side, with speaker ports clearly visible at the front.

What has happened here is that Samsung has been forced to add design elements that don't need to be there. The borders and speakers distract your eye. It stops your eyes natural flow and forces your attention away from the content.

Note: Apple doesn't think this is enough, and have sued again to stop Samsung from selling it.

I'm all in favor of companies trademarking their designs. But Apple didn't trademark their design. They trademarked the natural shape a tablet could have. It's like the New York Times trademarking the shape of the newspaper.

It is just as silly as Amazon's patent on "one-click-shopping", which also is not an invention, but pure common sense.

Samsung is saying that there is no other way to design a tablet, and they are right. They could have used different materials, but the overall shape is not Apple's design. As I demonstrated in this article, the shape of an iPad is the logic progression of simplicity itself.

You cannot force people to add design elements that don't need to be there. You can trademark design, but not simplicity.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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