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Apple’s products contrast sharply with the mid-century General Motors cars that brought the jet-age into people’s garages.
And yet, beginning in the 1920s, GM was able to snatch market dominance away from Ford by better catering to people’s fantasies – much in the same way that Apple has been able to poach market share from Microsoft and others.
2012 isn’t 1952, and cars and computers are not the same, but being able to sense and articulate a vision is still the job of marketers. What’s our vision for our own future, today? And why do so many people want to use their minimalist iPhones to take altered pictures of their friends?
The textbook argument in favor of fantasy in product design is the story of how Ford came to be surpassed as the largest auto manufacturer by General Motors. Henry Ford refused for years to offer the Model T in any color besides black, and “had come to believe that he was in the business of building Model Ts, when in fact, like every other business executive, he was in the business of satisfying consumers.” Eventually Ford’s only product became outdated, and between 1921 and 1927 the company’s market share plummeted from 55% to 10%.
In contrast, GM spent more money on marketing than any other automaker, introduced the annual model change, and innovated the corporate management structure necessary to make “dynamic obsolescence” possible. For the 1948 Cadillac, GM freed the designer Harley Earl to adorn it with tailfins inspired by a fighter plane – crazy, fantastic, and… useless?
No. Partly because they were introduced on a Cadillac, tailfins functioned as a distinctive mark of prestige – but mostly they were popular because they captivated the imaginations of people enraptured by the new technological possibilities of the Jet Age. In the 1950s, reinterpretations of aviation design were spread throughout mass culture; the tailfin was functional in that it allowed people to consume their visions of future, and live within the dream. It created a sense of historical belonging, and participation in a common narrative. Design is in large part a psychic function, and that function is real.
There’s no doubt that the resurrection of Apple from 1997 onwards has been largely due to design. At the outset, their iMac caused a stir with color; more recently the designer Jonathan Ive has lead the brand into a Dieter Rams-inspired functionalist style. Their successes, like the iPhone, stood out against the backdrop of what Ives has dismissed as “products that want you to be aware of how clever the solution was.”
It’s a fair appraisal of the market that they entered. But it’s also excessively reductive and facile to suggest that minimalism is always better. Many self-consciously styled tech products that superficially exaggerated their functions have been quite successful, such as the products below.
Fantasy is a feature, and it is useful: if we can’t imagine where we’re going, we’ll have no idea what we will need to do to get there. Tech gadgets that wear their solutions on their sleeves tell us stories about ourselves; they remind us who we are, and help us place ourselves in a progressive historical narrative.
So what about Instagram? Is it useless? Again, like the tailfins, no.
There is a stark coldness to the gaze of our million-pixel phone cameras, our tinny flashes, and our instant uploads. We do not perceive our world in the suspended animation with which it can be captured by high definition cameras. Sure, we can perhaps see it at the same resolution, but we do not psychically engage with the world as though it were a recorded image: in our minds there is blur, there is our own psychic tinting and filtering. It’s no revolution to point this out – abstract impressionism is almost a hundred and fifty years old.
Instagram artfully mixes precise capture with our perceptions. Instagram opens up the possibility for expressive impressionism, through which we can better share what we saw in the way we saw it. Strict, photorealistic literalism can show us the materiality of what was happening in a shot, but what Instagram and other photographic tools can accomplish is to silently convey the emotional narration of the photographer.
Again, in the words of Jonathan Ive, “a big definition of who you are as a designer is the way that you look at the world… you’re constantly looking at something and thinking… in that sense, you’re constantly designing.”
Though it's not as infrastructurally large as Apple or GM, what Intagram does is allow us to design the way we share our vision of the world. Instagram liberates us from the dictates of our phone camera's literal record, and allows us to share our fantasy. To say that "we are all designers now," is a little fatuous - rather, because of their easy reproduction, we are increasingly able to communicate through images. Companies that better enable this new visual modes of fantasy communication, like Instagram, will stand to do quite well.