Design by Committee Comes to Apple

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  • 10 min read

For designers, including website design and app designers, the phrase “design by committee” is a term used when a design project reaches the point where original unifying plan or vision is lost and other designers (or worst, non-designers) start to derail the project with their own edits or suggestions. While collaboration in design is essential, the key players should be involved early in the design project and the overall vision and plan needs to roll out of those initial meetings. Feedback from people who aren’t designers, like clients, is needed as well but it has to be done in an organized and focused manner to ensure that their opinions are heard and are considered as the design progresses to completion. Failure to keep the project on course and allowing others to derail the timeline is a clear example of bad leadership and bad project management.

In the world of software platforms, one company has been synonymous with the “design by committee” phrase, Microsoft. They have consistently bowed to the wishes of large corporate accounts, technology reviewers, and many others in the general public. For many of us in the design community, we see Microsoft’s platforms as compromised with tons of inconsistencies in their overall design look and feel. And it’s this sentiment that pushes many designers to Apple’s iOS and Mac platforms. Historically Apple has been the voice of reason in the design community, staying tight lipped until very late into the process before the general public is ever shown their upcoming products. Apple’s design team never looked for or welcomed unsolicited feedback and designers applauded them for it.

Over the course of this summer with the iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey betas, we saw design by committee reign supreme at Apple.

It all started with the initial announcement and release of the new Safari browser design. At June 2021’s WWDC, Apple unveiled a radical new design with the hallmark changes being the move of the URL/ search bar to the bottom of the screen, a constricting most of the options into a menu tab, and creating a swipe gesture to navigate and open new tabs. When I initially downloaded the iOS 15 beta onto my iPhone the night after the WWDC keynote, I was skeptical. At first the design seemed cumbersome and was extremely uncomfortable to use. I decided to give it a few days and live with it a bit before making my initial impressions. As the days passed, I became more and more aware of how much better the design of the new Safari was and how my initial impressions were nothing more than my 14 years of experience using an iPhone. Yes, there were some bugs and some of the swipe gestures needed to be tweaked a little but overall, the initial design of the new Safari in iOS 15 was a slam dunk.

Needless to say I was shocked when I heard the outcry from Apple bloggers like John Gruber and Jason Snell.

I read the initial thoughts that some of these bloggers were talking about, why they thought that the new Safari was a terrible design. They would reference other designers to prop up their points to somehow “prove” that the new design was terrible.

John Gruber especially had nonsensical and asinine reasons for his hatred of the new Safari design. Things like the browser chrome colors being transparent and showing through the current tab’s website background colors to the share button being buried into a menu were atrocities to him. While he tried to hold some design moral high ground, it read just like an old curmudgeon who was mad that something they have grown accustomed to has changed. It read like a Windows user.

The shift in the technology industry from Apple being the underdog to becoming a dominant player has been a form of mental whiplash. My early days as a kid were spent on DOS powered machines. The first desktop publishing software I used was on a PC, the first website I ever built was built on a PC (and locally stored on a floppy disk). As I delved deeper into design and video projects, I started noticing how much of a disadvantage I was being put into with a Windows computer. In my freshman year of high school, my mentor introduced me to the Mac. I edited my first video on a Mac and was instantly hooked. Right out of the box, a Mac could do everything that I wanted it to do and it seemed clear that Apple was listening to creatives as they designed and developed OS X. The first Mac that I personally owned was a turquoise iBook.

Fast forward to the start of my company McNair Media: I ponied up and bought a fully loaded iMac as one of my first major purchases and set off I’m creating a Mac focused business. About two years in, I was frustrated beyond belief. Against the judgment of other business consultants that warned me that Macs were terrible business machines, I learned the hard way with botched deployments of machines to employees and countless hours of IT work to make a Mac work for my employees. While this frustration was coming to a fever pitch, we did a job for a manufacturing client and one of the business requirements was Internet Explorer compatibility. I decided that if I had to buy a Windows computer, I would buy a nice one and bought a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet. Within six months, our entire company was running off Microsoft Surface machines and my iMac was relegated to the occasional Final Cut Pro job. And while I have my occasional criticism of Microsoft, they continue to impress me as they ready the launch of Windows 11.

We’ve never completely abandoned Apple products, we actually doubled down on iPhones, iPads even iCloud+ as the backbone of how our business operates. But it hasn’t changed my overall sentiment that Apple has lost its way.

I’m quite aware that that is a blanket statement that requires further explanation, but I will stick with the current focus of this being around this Safari design situation. One of the key examples of Apple losing its way is giving voice to bloggers and tech pundits like John Gruber. There have been some moments in the past, like exclusive WWDC interviews, that have led Apple to this predicament and needlessly propped up his voice in the community. But it’s a huge shift in the overall culture of the company to talk so openly and publicly with the general public on certain design decisions like Mac OS Big Sur icons. The reason why designers like myself loved Apple’s approach was because they were unabashedly confident in their decisions. They didn’t apologize for them and they kept plugging away. One of my favorite Macs was the G4 Cube. Overall, it was a terrible computer but it’s a notable example of letting designers roam free. And I would argue that the G4 Cube was not the fault of the overall design (in fact it’s an award-winning design), but rather the state of technology and components at that moment.

I could pontificate about the reasons that have led Apple to abandoning their original vision for the new Safari, but I can only speak from my own personal opinions and feel. To me, it felt like Apple was finally hearing the criticisms of the App Store and was providing a path forward to make websites a viable alternative to native applications. The abandonment of the browser buttons allowed for more space for a developer to create an interface within the browser for their given web application. There was a clear and consistent vision for what Apple was trying to do, and people that didn’t like it had reasons that were self-serving and were based out of comfort and muscle memory. Gruber lamented over and over again on his podcast about the loss of safari’s share button but I would argue that the share button created a lack of friction in sending and posting articles and web links to content that was barely reviewed by the reader. By deemphasizing the share button, they made it a little more difficult to post to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. While Gruber complained of the added friction to this exact use case, I applauded it as a welcomed new feature to cutting down on misinformation and other garbage being posted online.

I could continue to labor on and talk about my problems with Gruber and his “coverage” of the Safari design situation (I think his facetious “Our Long National iOS 15 Safari Beta Nightmare is Over” as a post title solidifies my point that he’s out of touch and overblew this beyond belief), but I would like to focus in on the real travesty of this situation and what we can learn as designers from this situation.

While we won’t know for certain of its overall effects without talking to Apple directly, it does appear that most of the beta changes focused on this Safari redesign.

Looking at the iOS 15 preview page to compare what was initially announced to what is now in beta 7, there were lot of features that dropped off it is expected that more will get chopped. SharePlay got cut, Visual Lookup has never shown in the betas, the weather app is a mess, and some of the standout FaceTime features were also cut.

The OS overall feels so far away from release. Betas always have issues but usually bugs either get fixed or are less annoying as you go along. Apple Mail has had a major bug since beta 1 where emails just disappeared for several hours. Beta 6 introduced a major systemwide AirDrop bug, making the feature unusable. And while that would be understandable that bugs would show like this on older devices, the fact that these bugs were happening so prevalently on the iPhone 12 phones was especially troubling. I personally think that beta 1 was more solid than what we have seen up to now and I have serious doubts it will get better.

The lesson learned here is that allowing designed by committee to reign supreme could derail your project to the point where it cannot be completed on time or at the original budget. While I’m not too concerned with Apple, being one of the wealthiest companies in the world, this could be extremely detrimental to a small design team or even a small business that is contracting a design project.

I leave you with two pieces of advice, trust your designers to see the project through. If you don’t have this level of trust in them, fire them and get new designers! And finally, hold off on updating to iOS 15 on your iPhone…

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Erik McNair