As a designer you can’t help but think about weird stuff. I can’t help but imagine that if curious space aliens with no knowledge of human artifacts came to this planet and went through my apartment, they’d initially find little to distinguish one possession from another. But I’d be willing to wager that it is the iPhone 4, amidst the clutter of objects on my desk, that they would pick up and begin inquisitively licking or running their antennae over or what have you.
The new iPhone is currently the standout object on my desk, this thing that looks like a mere black rectangle from across the room but starts to look like something very different at the range it’s meant to be used at. Holding it, you understand at once why Apple has physical stores; while you can watch iPhone commercials or see print campaigns about its features, when you first hold this exquisitely-crafted object you have a different experience entirely, one that cannot be adequately conveyed in two dimensions. Having seen countless photos of the device in advance, I was still surprised by the real thing when I popped it out of the box and touched it.
“A big part of the experience of a physical object has to do with the materials,” says Jonathan Ive, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Design, during a brief chat with Core77. “[At Apple] we experiment with and explore materials, processing them, learning about the inherent properties of the material–and the process of transforming it from raw material to finished product; for example, understanding exactly how the processes of machining it or grinding it affect it. That understanding, that preoccupation with the materials and processes, is [very] essential to the way we work.”
It is this sort of materials obsession and constant experimentation that led to a decision to use scratch-resistant aluminosilicate glass for the front and back of the phone, as well as developing their own variant of stainless steel to edge the device. When you see the breaks, the three little black reveals that interrupt the band, in photographs, you could be forgiven for assuming you’re seeing three separate strips of metal with gaps in between; but in fact it’s all one piece.
“Those three black splits are co-molded in, and then the band goes through more processes,” Ive points out. “So it’s assembled first, the band, and then the final machining and grinding are performed, so the tolerances are extraordinary…. Whatever people’s feelings are about the actual design of the product is of course subjective. But objectively I can say that the manufacturing tolerances are phenomenal. And we determined this, we designed it from the very beginning to meet those goals.”
The goals have been well-met, and on the subject of phenomenal tolerances, when you see the phone be sure to check out the insanely thin reveal around the hatch for the Micro SIM card on the side; I’ve never seen that kind of tolerance on something I could actually afford to buy. Upon seeing it my first thought was I will never pop that open, because I’m convinced it will never close again. “I assure you, it will,” Ive laughs. “The amount of care that went into that SIM tray is extraordinary. To achieve this kind of build quality is extraordinarily hard work and requires care across so many teams. It demands incredibly close collaboration with experts in certain areas, material sciences and so on.”
That last part reminds me that there must have been a sizeable team behind the iPhone 4, and Ive confirms it, mentioning the importance of collaboration between engineering, manufacturing and design. It is an intense interplay between these fields that can yield mastery of the material, which is where everything starts with this object. “The best design explicitly acknowledges that you cannot disconnect the form from the material–the material informs the form,” says Ive. “It is the polar opposite of working virtually in CAD to create an arbitrary form that you then render as a particular material, annotating a part and saying ‘that’s wood’ and so on. Because when an object’s materials, the materials’ processes and the form are all perfectly aligned, that object has a very real resonance on lots of levels. People recognize that object as authentic and real in a very particular way.”
For the sake of Core77’s design student readership, I divert briefly into the realm of design education and ask Ive if he has any advice for students. “While [design schools today may have] sophisticated virtual design tools, the danger in relying on them too much is that we can end up isolated from the physical world,” he says. “In our quest to quickly make three-dimensional objects, we can miss out on the experience of making something that helps give us our first understandings of form and material, of the way a material behaves–‘I press too hard here, and it breaks here’ and so on. Some of the digital rendering tools are impressive, but it’s important that people still really try and figure out a way of gaining direct experience with the materials.”
It is that direct experience, the hands-on, that is the key; like experiencing the iPhone 4 itself, it cannot be done without the physical connection. “It’s very hard to learn about materials academically, by reading about them or watching videos about them; the only way you truly understand a material is by making things with it,” Ive explains, going on to add that years upon years of making his own models with his own hands is what gave him a deep understanding of the materials he’s worked. “And it’s important to develop that appetite to want to make something, to be inquisitive about the material world, to want to truly understand a material on that level.”
And what about when students graduate and become working designers? Absent the structured assignments of a Production Methods or Materials class, how ought designers stay abreast of materials? The best place for it to happen, of course, is in the workplace itself. “For a designer to continually learn about materials is not extracurricular,” Ive points out, “it’s absolutely essential.”