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  • Writer's pictureAlan Pepin

A Closer Look: The AppleTV Remote

Illustrative Studies of Apple's Minimalist Design

(Originally published 2011)

"When you see an object, you make so many assumptions about that object in seconds. What it does, how well it's going to do it, how heavy it is, how much you think it should cost. The object testifies to the people that conceived it, thought about it, developed it, manufactured it. Ranging from issues of form, to material, to it's architecture. it connects to you, how you touch it, how you hold it. Every object, intential or not, speaks to who put it there." -- Jonathan Ive, (from the documentary, Objectified)

There is much to be read about Apple these days. To start, let me be clear, this isn't one of the numerous posts highlighting the newest features of the latest iOS upgrade, or new iPhone or iPad. I admit to being one of those anxious followers, and honestly I find it quite exciting to learn of what new experience is heading our way. But there is plenty of that out there, written by folks who understand it much better. What I'd like to reflect on (through pencil sketches) is Apple's never-ending quest for simplicity, specifically reflected in the surface design of it's products. In this case, the Apple Remote.

The Apple Remote isn't the most impressive in the world of "i" gadgets. It's actually a very quiet looking thing. Certainly the iPhone offers a whole world of interaction and visual delight. The iPad has become my favorite mobile sketchbook, among many other uses. In contrast, the Remote has very limited function, and is essentially a tool to interact with other Apple products. It's simply a supporting actor in a bigger show.

At the same time, the Remote holds almost all the poetic surface language we have come to love from Apple. The crisp aluminum with it's soft matte finish and smoothly rounded corners. Visually, it's center of attention is the soft black "ring", which gently rises up, and then recesses to create a natural "spoon" for your thumb. The only other buttons are much smaller and directly below.

Granted, the Remote is not responsible for controlling a multi-device home theater, so it's functions are limited. If used with Apple TV (like mine), it is not the smoothest way of imputting passwords etc. Regardless, using and holding the softly tapered body is incredibly tactile and delightful. It almost becomes invisible in your hand. Navigating the buttons in a darkened room feels instictive and natural.

Now this might be an element of the Remote that only a designer could appreciate. A "just barely there" battery compartment exists on it's underside. When the back is opened (you need a coin), it slowly seems to rise, and the coin slot you used to open it becomes your indicator. The soft contrast in curvature is beautiful in a truly minimalist sort of way. Close the compartment, and the back panel simply evaporates.

I can't help but to think if the same language and discipline were applied to a standard "clicker". There are 58 buttons in total on my Brighthouse Cable remote. Finding your way on a device like this is challenging under ample light - near impossible in a sightly dim room. However comparable or not, the little Apple Remote demonstrates in such pure ways the essential elements of priority and proportion in great design. 

"Everything should be as simple as possible, but never simpler."

-- Albert Einstein


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