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Designing For Professional Mac Users

SVALT Cooling Dock, 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, Apple Magic Keyboard, and Apple Magic Trackpad 2

What follows is a response to Daring Fireball, TechCrunch, and BuzzFeed interview with Apple. It’s 90% thinking out loud about product design as a designer and longtime professional Mac user, and 10% self-serving to help aftermarket performance companies better serve the small segment of niche users that Apple cannot reach.

In the world of consumer electronic products, it is common for design and aesthetics to be little more than an applied surface texture, color, LED, sticker or some other feature tacked on at the very end for the product development cycle, more of a marketing gesture than design aesthetics. In this world where engineering and functionality typically dominate over design, Apple’s design emphasis has historically stood out as a notable exception. For Apple, design is one of its defining brand characteristic, and an essential reason for their product’s desirability among the design and creative professions. The power of Apple’s design aesthetic to influence the world, both outside of Apple and inside of their corporate culture, cannot be understated. We believe in Apple design.

Unless you work in the world of product design and have had the experience of personally shepherding a product from concept to development to manufacturing to release, then it might be hard to grasp how much time and resources go into creating a new product or releasing a major product update, and as a result, few people realize that much of a product’s design and engineering has to be set in place years in advance of a release. Few companies have as many resources as Apple, and even fewer companies have the corporate culture that can support design goals to the extent necessary to see them through the incredibly complicated and length development process, and then the equally complicated and length manufacturing process, all of which often are often in conflict with design objectives, and so hack and chip away at the design vision. This means that for a design vision to endure it requires every member of the team to fully embrace design as a core business value and essential product feature. It also means that the design must include and reflect all of the other product objectives if it is going to endure.

When Apple launched the new Mac Pro back in 2013, it was one of the most exciting Mac product launches I have witnessed. The boldness of the vision and the complete translation of that vision throughout all of the details and production was awe inspiring. I had a similar reaction to the new MacBook Pro unveiling in 2016, as they managed to increase, or at least maintain, performance while providing a lighter and smaller product. The recent trend to smaller, thinner, lighter and less user adaptable products may have moved the top tiered Pro models more towards the consumer market, but computers have become so powerful that consumer machines are capable of meeting most professional requirements. Overall, it is hard to see much fault in Apple’s approach, until considering that Apple is a closed system, so if Apple does not provide niche specific products and does not allow the products to be easily adapted to meet particular user needs with internal component upgrades and/or external aftermarket accessories products, then the niche users are forced out of the Apple ecosystem. If those users are a small but critical user group then that is a problem for the ecosystem's health.

For instance, SVALT was founded to help bridge the gap between products that are designed for mass-production consumer usability with niche high-performance products for the most demanding professional users. The SVALT Cooling Dock was specifically developed for high-demand professional laptop users that run their laptops hard like desktops while at the office. This was accomplished by driving cool air directly onto the CPU and GPU processors to reduce heat at the source, reduce heat bleed out into the system, reduce loads on the built-in cooling system and reduce throttle to maintain maximum performance. Unfortunately, the 2016 MacBook Pro redesign, while stunning and capable, removed the ability to directly cooling the processors and turbo charge the laptop’s cooling system, making it more challenging for professional laptop users to push the limits into desktop territory.

The 2013 Mac Pro redesign had similar effects on performance aftermarket companies. The old Mac Pro, while certainly large and loud, allowed for an endless amount of component upgrades and modifications to better serve a niche user’s particular needs. The new 2013 Mac Pro is Apple’s most easily upgradeable and serviceable computer currently available, but it does not provide the level of user customization essential for the market segment. This doesn’t mean that the 2013 Mac Pro was a design failure and that is doesn’t serve a portion of the high-end pro Mac users, because it is a design exercise executed to near perfection and for those that it serves, it does so with exceptional beauty. However, the latest top-tier professional Mac releases point to there being a limit of how far professional machines can be pushed into the mass-produced consumer class without causing problems for professional users.

My hope is for Apple to go even further in their rethinking of pro Macs than what was suggested in the interview, and try to loosen things up at the top end of their product line, focusing on user upgradeability and modification, along with supporting aftermarket accessories that help meet highly specialized niche requirements that Apple is not able to target because of their smaller size. This is already done with software and app development. Apple makes many of the core applications that are available to all users, however, they know that many users will require different or additional features beyond the average user, and if s all of those features were to be included in their applications then they would become so complicated, bloated and impossible to maintain that the application would stop working for the average user. What if this were to happen on the hardware side?

I certainly don’t expect every laptop user, much less a significant portion of users to ever need a product like the SVALT Cooling Dock, however, for the select few that push their laptops to the limit on a regular basis for gaming, rendering, photo and video development, then I believe having a product like the SVALT Cooling Dock available offers an advantage to the entire Apple system. So fingers crossed that we are about to embark on a new era of professional workstation Macs and associated aftermarket accessories that together help to achieve exceptional levels of flexibility, and set new standards in design aesthetics and shear performance capabilities. Whatever the outcome, I believe the Apple interview is an excellent development for professional users and the Apple ecosystem as a whole.

- By Chad Kirkpatrick, President and Founder of SVALT. Chad’s perspective on product design has been influenced by an architecture education and career focused on creating sustainable structures that serve the needs of the inhabitants and surrounding community, as opposed to statement architecture that asserts stylistic statements over function.


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