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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Designed to sell

By CATE O’ROURKE

With the new Nook Tablet entering the tablet computer market, there has been much chatter comparing the selling features of what promise to be the market leaders: the Nook tablet, Kindle Fire, and iPad. Interestingly, alongside functionality, design emerges as a talking point in every critique. Consumers these days have high expectations of all kinds of design: industrial, graphic, and interactive. New devices must look and feel good, and perform well.

In the design debates, Apple is generally considered the obvious winner, leaving the other two tablets to fight for the runner-up position. This is unsurprising, really. Apple long ago set the bar for design that its competitors are trying to reach. Credit for this goes largely to Apple’s departed CEO, Steve Jobs. Now, the last thing anyone needs to read is another glowing Jobs eulogy, but it was his insistence on quality product design that brought us to this age when people fret about how Garamond displays on the Nook versus the Fire. In the words of Rob Forbes of Design Within Reach, “Apple was instrumental in creating a broad consumer market for good design.”

Back In my early college days, before the iPod was even heard of, let alone ubiquitous, I frequently had to explain to people what I intended to study—“Graphic design? Is that like, magazines and stuff?” Yes. And stuff. Soon afterward, Apple’s silhouetted-figure iPod ads burst onto the scene, announcing their own cool factor and their company’s with their understated visuals. By the time graduation rolled around, half the student body was toting around Macbooks, and I was fielding more questions about RGB color space from would-be desktop publishers than about what I wanted to be when I grew up.

This mass discovery about what technology could be—functional, smooth, and beautiful—created a new expectation in the public consciousness. Technology did not have to be frustrating and alienating. It did not have to be ugly.

The would-be competitors for Apple’s iPad must learn to deal with this legacy. Their success shows—the other tablets feature the now familiar glossy looking icons and the minimalist industrial design. Unfortunately, their failures show, too. Criticisms of the Fire and Nook inevitable invoke comparisons to the iPad; the Fire’s screen lacks crisp resolution or the Nook’s page-turn is too choppy. These are not things that would have drawn consumer vexation years ago. This newly-raised consciousness is what gives Apple the chutzpah to charge more than double the competitors’ prices for a tablet. It’s also what makes consumers willing to pay it.

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This entry was posted on November 17, 2011 by in Opinion and tagged , , , .

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