Design for Misuse

Last Friday, New Yorker editor David Remnick interviewed Apple design chief Jony Ive as part of the magazine’s TechFest. Midway through the conversation came an interesting (and widely reported) exchange in which Ive expressed some regret about people’s use of his most celebrated creation, the iPhone:

Remnick: There’s a ubiquity about the iPhone and its imitators. And I wonder, … do you have any sense of how much you’ve changed life and the way daily life is lived, and the way our brains work? And how do you feel about it? Is it pure joy? Are you ambivalent about it in any way?

Ive: No, there’s — there’s certainly an awareness. I mean, I tend to be so completely preoccupied with what we’re working on at the moment. That tends to take the oxygen. Like any tool, you can see there’s wonderful use and then there’s misuse. …

Remnick: How can — how can they be misused? What’s a misuse of an iPhone?

Ive: I think perhaps constant use.

Remnick: Yes.


It’s good to see Ive admitting that there may be a problem with people’s compulsive use of smartphones. But, as Business Insider‘s Kif Leswing and others have pointed out, there’s something cynical about the designer’s attempt to shift the blame to the owners of the iPhone for “misusing” it. Remnick didn’t follow up by asking Ive to describe particular design decisions that he and his team have made to deter the iPhone’s “constant use,” but it would have been a fair question, and I’m pretty sure Ive wouldn’t have had much of an answer.

Everything we know about the iPhone and its development and refinement suggests it has been consciously and meticulously designed and marketed to encourage people to use it as much as possible, to treat it, even, as a fetish. Here, for example, is how Apple is promoting the new iPhone X at its web store:

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