“We need to have a classic look that won’t go out of style, like the Volkswagen Beetle.” — Steve Jobs, referring to the original Mac
Apple has masterfully tapped into the emotional aspects of design since its inception, and its human approach has helped it become the most valuable company in the world.
In terms of subtle emotional touches, the original Macintosh was the gold standard upon its launch. Its clean, simple case was taller and narrower than most, and its screen was placed high in the frame to avoid what Jobs referred to as “The Cro-Magnon forehead.” If its well-proportioned face was designed to mirror a beaming child, then its disk drive, perfectly placed to the bottom right of the screen, was its smirking mouth. The base of the Macintosh even recedes to reveal a sturdy neck for its slightly reclined head.
A computer that possesses conversational attributes is fairly commonplace in 2016, but when Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984, it was a huge innovation. This was a pivotal and extremely influential moment in the history of computing. Not only was the Macintosh capable of saying hello, it suddenly had a personality. It was shy, intelligent, funny, and it was a hit.
Apple’s ability to incorporate human details, understated or otherwise, did not cease after the original Macintosh. Present day Apple products feature a treasure chest of emotional touchstones. In 2003, Apple secured a patent named Breathing Status LED indicator.
If you own a Macbook, you’re familiar with this feature: a gently pulsing light that indicates when your laptop has switched to a standby state. What you may not realize is how precise the indicator’s pulse is. Designed to mimic human breathing rates during sleep, the light slowly pulses 12–20 times each minute to provide a calming effect.
To illustrate just how difficult it is to integrate these delicate touches, take Dell, whose laptops also feature a sleep indicator. Instead of mimicking our breathing rate during rest, their 40 cycles per minute is closer to the average respiratory rhythm of an adult during exercise. While Apple customers openly praise their Macbook’s soothing glow, Dell’s version is quite jarring. It’s not enough to incorporate human traits; it’s important to isolate the attributes that provide a desirable effect and integrate them thoughtfully — something that Apple has mastered.
Another subtle human integration can be found on the iPhone’s passcode screen. If you incorrectly enter your passcode, the four dots above the number pad will shake from left to right several times, mimicking a negative head shake, a universal human gesture.
Despite the myriad of ways in which Apple uses form to create an emotional bond with its users, it has not been without its functional hiccups. Indeed, the original Macintosh was a sight to behold, but we’ve forgotten, 30 years down the road, that the Mac featured in Jobs’ demonstration was a supercharged version unavailable to the public.
And this is the power of great emotional design. We remember the original Mac because it was beautiful, it was charming, it was conversational (at least in the presentation). Its good looks and friendly interface were so magnetic that we’ve brushed over Apple’s disastrous, last minute scramble to combine two 512k Macs (just one was displayed on the table) so that Jobs could pull off his demo day sorcery.
Apple’s friendly approach doesn’t cease with their product design, it extends to their marketing campaigns as well. Take the iPod. It isn’t just an mp3 player. It’s a pocket-sized friend that provides the soundtrack to your life. Say hello.
Apple’s anthropomorphic approach continued with their “Get a Mac” campaign in the mid-2000s. Mac is embodied by a young, affable Justin Long, who stands by while a frumpy, out of touch PC bungles his way through simple tasks. Mac’s effortless charm stems from the fact that he doesn’t have to brag about his best features. He simply waits for PC to self-destruct and gently shrugs his shoulders, stating that he can’t relate to his rival’s troubled life.
At a time when PC users were growing frustrated with viruses, clumsy operating systems and a dated user experience, Apple’s decision to dress their product as an easy-going, well-adjusted college grad was the simplest way to illustrate their modern, user-friendly approach.
You’re Reading Design for Humanity
Design for Humanity is an interactive essay exploring the past, present, and future of anthropomorphic design. You’re currently reading part 2 of 7.
Brands Smile Too
Apple isn’t the only technology company developing products with personality, there’s a whole field dedicated to the discipline.
Human computer interaction (HCI) is situated at the intersection of computer science, behavioural science, and design. You’re probably familiar with its more popular cousin: user experience (UX).
Combining an understanding of interaction design, usability, psychology, and technology, modern day HCI and UX experts are infusing personality into many of today’s brands and products.
As technology continues to snatch jobs once performed by people, the humanization of brands and products has become even more important. The recent trend in start-ups adopting human names: Oscar, Alfred, Warby Parker; and the use of mascots as logos are just a couple of attempts to humanize industries that might otherwise feel alienating.
Designing a personality is not just about the facade, it’s about the foundation. Designers are developing relationships with their users and embedding personality into every element of their brand and product to drive deeper, more long-term engagement.
Take an example from one of the globe’s leading computer companies: IBM. Their world famous logo by Paul Rand has several variations, each used in a different scenario. The default version, used across the majority of their materials, features eight stripes, while a more refined version with thirteen stripes is stamped on executive stationary and business cards.
Rand also dreamt up one of his greatest works: the playful Eye-Bee-M logo, for the brand’s packaging and marketing materials. This diverse lineup allows the brand to appear professional or playful, depending on the scenario.
Logos are a company’s handshake with their customers, but an organization has to maintain a relationship. The most prominent device is to engage in conversation. This can be done explicitly through a conversational tone, or more subtly, by studying a user’s behaviour and adjusting a product to become more personal. The more an experience feels like a conversation, the deeper the potential bond.
The popular newsletter application MailChimp (pictured above) has connected so well with its users that customers often mirror its mascot Freddie’s personality when dealing with the support team — making jokes and using banana puns.
Microinteractions, like the joke Freddie is making above, can have a huge effect on a user’s attachment to a brand, and these have long been a focus of designers — there is a whole website dedicated to them. The more these reinforce a brand in a differentiated way, the more recognition and customer loyalty a product can expect.
Not only are customers happier as a result of using a product, the support team reaps the added benefit of a good-humoured customer, which develops a cycle of positive emotions.
Design for Humanity
An interactive essay exploring the past, present, and future of anthropomorphic design. Also available as a talk.
1: Design for Humanity
2: You’re here!
3: Conversational User Interfaces
4: A Smarter Future
5: Emotional Machines
6: Computers Cry Too
7: The Day You Become a Cyborg
Thanks for Reading
This is an interactive + evolving essay. Please get in touch if you have thoughts regarding new content, modifications to current content, or anything else!
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Hi, I’m Daniel. I’ve founded a few companies including Piccsy (acq. 2014) and EveryGuyed (acq. 2011). I am currently open to new career and consulting opportunities. Get in touch via email.
This article was co-authored by Shaun Roncken.