Apple's sexy package design

Mark Morford wrote in last week’s SF Gate a tribute (of sorts) to Apple’s packaging. He was dead on. When I bought my iPod, I was amazed at the packaging. The iPod was presented like a piece of art or an elaborate gift. The origami-like box that kept folding open again and again. To be honest, I was almost as jazzed about the packaging as about the iPod itself. And the iPod didn’t disappoint either. It’s the most beautiful and usable MP3 player out there.

That’s part of why I use Apple products, because the hardware is much like the packaging. Jonathan Ive’s team creates industrial designs that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are functional.

They are not art. Art is something that exists merely to be observed, thought about, considered. It’s not just pretty, as there is plenty of ugly art (and intentionally so, though not always) that serves an aesthetic need.

Macs are intended to be used, first and foremost, but they are also aesthetically pleasing. They’re not art, but that doesn’t mean (despite what nearly all the other hardware manufacturers seem to think) that they can’t be useful and aesthetically pleasing. Good design makes it a joy to use the item, and it’s worth paying a little extra for.

17 thoughts on “Apple's sexy package design”

  1. With all due respect, I must disagree with your assertion that “Art is something that exists merely to be observed, thought about, considered.” Case in point: fine furniture. From Shaker (or Arts and Crafts, if you prefer) style to postmodern, fine furniture is designed for both appreciation and function. Architecture is another example — would you say that Frank Lloyd Wright was not at least as concerned with the emotional and psychological effects his structures (and furniture!) had on people as their utility?

    In fact, for most of human history (prior to the series of events commonly refered to as the industrial revolution) the makers-of-things (craftsmen, artisans, smiths, etc.) were as concerned with the beauty of their creations as they were with the utility. While I am no neo-Luddite, I do wish that more manufacturers had the same concern for aesthetics as Apple (under SJ’s rule, anyway) seems to have.

    No, I don’t think the iPod is art. Nor do I think the iBook, PowerBook, or even the beautiful G5 qualify as art. However, two fairly recent Apple hardware designs do qualify, at least in my opinion: the LCD iMac and the G4 Cube. The iMac is almost the perfect marriage of form and function and has an almost orgainic feeling. The Cube, while obviously meaning to suggest cool, technological precision, is proof that sometimes Apple is MORE concerned with form than function. It may have been overpriced and underpowered, but it was beautiful.

    Here’s hoping there will be a G5 Cube.

  2. I don’t consider furniture (at least the kind you can actually sit or sleep on) to be art. No matter how artful, it is “craft,” not “art.” For me, art isn’t functional in the way we usually think of furniture as functional. I think the term “craft” has been denigrated and turned into a word that means something not much more than dried macaroni glued to construction paper. “Functional” is the cutting line between art and craft for me. And while I believe that art serves an important function, it’s not “functional” in the sense that I’m trying to get at here. Perhaps “utility” is a better word than “functionality.” Art has no utility, craft does. Both can be beautiful, but one is functional while the other is not, though I’ll be the first to admit that there’s some grey area between the two.

    I think people also dilute the term “art” when they wish to make whatever they’re talking about seem more important. As an example somewhat more esoteric than furniture or computers, take fly tying. Flyfishers often being the snooty types that they are rumored to be, they often refer to the “art” of fly tying (because calling it an “art” sounds hifalutin’ and many flyfishers think of flyfishing as very much hifalutin’), but it’s not art. It’s craft, and it’s craft because flies are created for a purpose: catching fish by tricking the fish into biting the fly and getting hooked on the fly.

    There are incredibly beautiful flies (such as Atlantic Salmon flies) but even they are still craft, as they are intended to serve a purpose (even if an individual fly never gets wet). There are some amazingly beautiful flies, however, that are not intended to catch fish and perhaps are not even capable of doing so. That’s a pretty fuzzy area, I’ll admit. But, if you wanted to get way over the top about it, those flies are art, even though they represent some sort of crafted item. A painting of a car may be art, but you can’t drive around in it. A fly that is beautiful but incapable (by design) of catching fish, is more akin to a painting of a car.

    As beautiful as the G4 Cube and the flat panel iMac are, they are not art. Well, not usually. Maybe if you took a Cube, unplugged it, and put it on a dais in a museum with a soft spotlight on it, it might be art, since it is no longer functional. That’s a step fuzzier, perhaps, than the artful fly that doesn’t catch fish, but I’d still say it’s craft, as it’s intended to be (and capable of being) utilized.

    In any event, that’s how I draw the line between “art” and “craft.”

  3. I can’t agree with such a distinction. Let’s take an example we both think we know something about: fiction. Now, the act of constructing an understandable narrative fiction is undoubtably a craft — that is it is concerned with discrete elements that are used to create an illusion of experience. The writer-as-craftsman selects nouns, verbs (and tenses of the same), modifiers, and the like to achieve certain specific effects (anything listed in an introductory literary theory text) to induce and enhance the illusion of “actuallity”. However, this hypothetical writer has yet to achieve anything approaching art. In fact, this person may NEVER achieve art, yet achieve some sort of success — perhaps financial, perhaps not. However, without mastering the craft of constructing the “story”, it is almost impossible for anything approching art to be achieved.

    As for the idea of art having no utility, I again cannot agree. I cannot help but recall my visit to Versailles. The garden — if the word “garden” can describe the grounds — is a construct meant to be enjoyed specifically because it is an “artifact” as well as to be used. In fact, the physical buildings in which many European museums (and some American) are housed are entitled to the label “art” as any piece on exhibit in them — and thus have a high utility.

    As for the idea that the word “art” has in some way been diminished, keep in mind that “ars” from which we get our word “art” is best translated as “craft”.

    The idea that putting an item in a place where it has no utility increases its “art-ness” — your G4 Cube example — strikes me as somewhat dishonest. After all, a is still a work of art whether or not it is on display at the Louvre or above the toilet in your guest bathroom.

    And of course we haven’t even touched on intent — often the point over which the creator and her audience are most at odds, and thus is likely to be the most important factor in determining whether or not ANY THING is ever considered “art”.

    I guess I can’t (or won’t) draw that line between “art” and “craft” as strongly as you do. I see craft as requisite for art, but art impossible without craft. And thus there is no line — more like an interference pattern.

  4. Art is a bucolic scene executed with skill. Craft is that same scene done on a old sawblade.

    Attention to the medium denotes craft.

  5. But what exactly is that skill required for art? Is it not craft?


    Would you say your hypothetical fly-tying artist is more apt to be successful at achieving art if his fly is not functional (unable to catch fish)?

  6. No. I don’t think that the absence of functionality (at least the INTENDED absence) helps the achievement of art. In my first response, I intentionally didn’t directly address the intent of the artist/craftsman, and I tried to adhere to a pretty narrow definition of both craft and art. I tried to stick to the thing itself, after creation, and separated from the act of creation and the intent of the creator. If I define my terms narrowly enough, I can always be right, right? ;)

    I was arguing a fairly simple stance that if you can pick something up and DO something with it, it’s craft and not art, even if you can just sit and admire it. The converse being that, if you can’t do anything with it, but you just consider it, it’s art. Of course you can pick up a sculpture and use it as a hammer, but then you run into intended uses, etc., and the seemingly simple argument falls apart.

    You can’t push it too far without coming up with a long list of exceptions — or at least challenges — to your assumptions. That’s often the nature of hard distinctions: there’s no wiggle room.

    In actuality, I believe that there are rarely clear distinctions between art and craft. I took the hardline view just for the sake of argument. It’s a nasty habit (especially according to my wife) I picked up in law school. I don’t think I got reprogrammed like many law school graduates (and, quite possibly, the most successful ones), but I did pick up the habit of examining an issue from as many points of view as possible, using them to chip away (no pun intended) at the other positions. I do it without thinking about it, and it’s not a useful skill when someone (e.g., my wife) just wants some support sans analysis and devil’s advocacy.

    But, back to the topic at hand, what constitutes “art” is a very personal and fluid thing. It’s very subjective, and rarely are we called upon to articulate what “art” means to us. It’s much like porn in the sense that I can’t always tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.

    “Craft” also has a subjective meaning, but probably not as wide a range as “art.” I do stand by my previous assertion that “craft” has been denigrated in current usage. To use your initial example, take a piece of fine furniture. My tastes lean to the modern. Look at something like a Noguchi coffee table: two pieces of wood and one piece of glass. It functions as a coffee table (i.e., it’ll hold stuff), but it’s also an amazing piece of minimalist sculpture… art. It’s “art” status probably explains why they cost so frickin’ much.

    Good design occupies the grey area between art and craft. I think many of Ives’ designs for Apple (the lcd iMac, the iPod, the new G5 tower) are great examples of amazing industrial design that function well (craft) and are beautiful to behold (art). You can apply the same sort of assessment to good web design where sites are beautiful and functional/usable/useful. Design is the area of the art/craft intersection that I’m most interested in, both from a professional (because I’m a web designer) and a personal (because I love good design and choose items for my home that are both functional and beautiful) viewpoint.

  7. Jack: I don’t think your sawblade example is right. In fact, I think that definition of craft is exactly what I was complaining about in my first comment: that “craft” has been reduced to something done by the un- or semi-skilled, such as my “macaroni glued to construction paper” example, or those painted people-bending-over things you see driving along the highway.

    I think a bucolic scene painting on anything is most likely art (even if it’s BAD art). The medium in that instance is irrelevant. The saw blade is no longer a sawblade, but is now a canvas (assuming, of course, that you wouldn’t use a painted saw blade to saw wood).

  8. First off, it’s nice to see such a lively discussion. I’ll only pop in to make one comment (for now anyway), based on this statement from sjarvis: “The converse being that, if you can?t do anything with it, but you just consider it, it?s art.”

    I’d say that to ‘just consider’ something is a type of ‘doing something’ with it. The minute you start to turn an object over in your mind, you’re the first step of critique. In that sense, any object/concept/whatever does something if it sparks discussion. In this sense, there is nothing that has a complete ‘absence of functionality.’

    The whole discussion here of the distinction between art and craft (and, along with it, of ‘good’ art vs ‘bad’ art) is the least interesting distinction to make when talking about art (or craft, or whatever) as it ultimately comes down to taste, which, as a famous critic once said “has no system and no proofs.” At some point, in the history of criticism, people started to use the term “art” in an almost spiritual sense, forgetting it’s orgins in ‘artifice’ and ‘artfulness.’ And I think that’s what’s happening here. What art is, besides a lable we attach to certain objects we respect, is still quite a mystery to me. But I think what art does (and how it does it) is more interesting, even if answering that question often just means liking up one discourse (say, film) with another (say, philosophy or history, etc).

    And none of this is meant as a slam to this particular discussion. It is, instead, a reaction to a recent conversation I had with a writer, to whom the most important question is what constitutes great writing. I told him that I like what I like, but that the whole idea of trying to rank art on some list from good to bad was pointless and less interesting than plenty of other things you could do with it.

  9. Wheat,

    I don’t buy this: “The whole discussion here of the distinction between art and craft (and, along with it, of ?good? art vs ?bad? art) is the least interesting distinction to make when talking about art (or craft, or whatever) as it ultimately comes down to taste, which, as a famous critic once said ?has no system and no proofs.?” Okay, I do buy the part about ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ art, but I don’t buy the idea that the difference between art and craft is subjective. If I build a well-designed and structurally sound fence, I am definitely demonstrating a certain achievement of craft — skill with hammer, saw, tape measure, post-digger, etc. I am most likely not demonstrating an achievement of art — not that a fence couldn’t be art, but that it would be very hard to do so. Art is an emergent property — it is more than the “sum of its parts”. Art is achieved when the effect of the creation exceeds the success of the craft required to create it.

    In fact, this is where I find myself somewhat in agreement with Steve: the higher the utility of a given creation, the harder it is for that creation to achieve art. Whether or not a given creation does achieve art may be subjective — you may like, say, Dali and I may think he’s crap — but neither one of us can deny the craft demonstrated in his paintings. Thus, while the “art”-ness of a given creation may be subjective, the “craft”-ness is not.

    This does not even begin to discuss the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art — which I agree is purely subjective. The reason I have ignored this aspect of this discussion is that we then have to deal with the intent of the creator of a given work — which is subjectively interpreted by both the artist (or “craftist”, if you will) and her audience — and whether or not she succeeded at achieving her intended effects.

    While discussing such things may indeed be pointless — I’m under no illusions that I’m going to convince Steve that I’m “right” about the G4 Cube being art — any discussion that makes me think about what I believe and what I value can’t be a bad thing. ;)

  10. >The whole discussion here of the distinction between art >the least interesting distinction to make when talking >about art (or craft, or whatever) as it ultimately comes >down to taste, which, as a famous critic once said ?has no >system and no proofs.?

    This is utter bullshit. Paglia rules.

  11. Chip: I like the Dali example. And it brings me around to your way of seeing this issue a bit. If we see craft as ‘skillful execution’ of something, then we can see it in fenceposts and paintings. Yet we reserve the term ‘art’ for paintings. I’m just not sure we can nail down why. And then it becomes tempting to wonder if the term ‘art’ really has any meaning other than ‘things we take more seriously than fenceposts’ or maybe ‘things we put in museums’. I don’t deny that there is a difference between fenceposts in the real world and fenceposts in museums. But it might be the only difference is that someone (the artist) took the fencepost and declared ‘this is art’. On that view, art isn’t a quality of the thing itself; it is the act of recontextualizing the thing itself. It is a way of saying, ‘now we’re going to look at this thing in a new light’. And I don’t mean any of this to disparage art or fenceposts.

    jp: your vague pronoun reference makes it impossible for me to tell if you think my statement or the one I quoted (or perhaps both) is “utter bullshit”. But I will inform you that the critic in question was Sunsan Sontag. And I don’t know what you mean by your assertion that “Paglia rules” as I’m not familiar with her work.

  12. Wheat: Jack’s reference is to Camille Paglia, who first came to my attention when her book SEXUAL PERSONAE ( came out. This is the only book of her’s I’ve ever read, but I do think it is very much worth reading as her ideas are challenging and should not be ignored, whether or not you agree with them.

    I do think you understand my view perfectly. The “art-ness” of any given created thing is not an intrinsic property which is determined by a dialogue betwen the creator (artist, if you prefer) and her audience (critics, peers, etc.). We do tend to give the benefit of the doubt concerning this property to the creator when she identifies her own creation as “art”. However, do you think that a string of 20 foot tall umbrellas running parallel to the PCH is “art”? I’m not sure I do, but since the creator of this work does assert it is “art”, even I am willing to re-examine this creation in a new context.

  13. Art refers to technique; Design refers to functionality and aesthetics. I think what you guys are talking about in terms of furntiture could more likely be related to “Design”. Art refers to the technique by which it was made (could be refered to as how it was crafted).

    What one person sees as trash another could see as art because of how it was made. Example – the DaDa movement – a combination of art and design and the start of the commercial movement. DaDaism focused on taking what would commonly be referred to as trash and made it into what that person deemed as art. Very subjective mind you, but THEY deemed it art because of the way that it was put together or made and because of its aesthetic qualities. If the term “Art” had a more concrete definition, people like Robert Maplethorpe would not get NEA endowments to fund their “Art”. (If you haven’t been introduced to Robert Maplethorpe, let’s just say that its “controversial”.)
    Bottom line, I tend to side with Steven that if a piece of furniture was originally designed for functionality then you are referring to design. Art referrs to technique.

  14. I absolutely agree on maplethorpe. He is a master of B&W photography. But… it does show that what one considers art may or may not be what others consider art.

    I am currently working on my masters in business with an emphasis in package design. I cross many people that do not think that package design is “art”.

    In the words of Marcel Duchamp –
    “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.”

  15. There’s a good essay by Walter Benjamin called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” collected in a book of essays called Illuminations that might fit in to our discussion. Benjamin’s theory is that art was originally associated closely with religious ritual and that one of the defining qualities of art, before the modern moment, was the uniqueness of the art object (e.g. there’s only one original painting by Van Gogh called Stary Night). But now we can create replicas. Benjamin asks what effect this has on the original reverence that is associated with the art object. He says that it lessens it, which (for him) is a good thing. The importance of the original still applies to paintings, but it doesn’t apply at all to, say, film. Might some of our arguments about art and craft come down to the importance of the original object?

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