Is it good design if it needs a protective case?

I recently wrote this on my blog, but thought I’d throw it up here to get a better response…

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now after spending the day using an iPhone. It wasn’t mine, so I was extra careful in making sure I handled it with care. It really got me thinking. As I held this object I couldn’t help feel uneasy, paranoid of dropping it. Should it really be this way?

An object that is designed to be with you at all times, portable, it fits in your pocket, you take it everywhere you go, yet it has to be handled like an egg. Clearly my case was an exception, it wasn’t my iPhone. Though I own an iPod, and even though I’m more relaxed since it’s my own, I still get a sense of uneasiness when it’s out of its leather case.

I compare this to an iPhone user I was watching handling his iPhone. He wasn’t using it, just fiddiling with it in his hands as he talked. This iPhone had a rubber-silicone case around it. He was carefree, throwing all sorts of iPhone acrobatics. It hit the table with a thud a number of times, but not to worry, it was protected. I compare this to the unprotected iPhone I used and it got me thinking.

Is it good design if it needs a protective case?

Is this sense of protection over a product a good thing, particuarly if it’s a product that is expected to take a few knocks. Who’s never dropped their phone?

And what makes the iPhone so valuable in the first place? It’s RRP or the material finishing apple gives to its products? I may be wrong or maybe it’s just down to personal opinion, I’m sure both play their part. But the choice of the material and finish for me is the reason iPhones are handled likes eggs and everybody remembers their first scratch.

Then I look into it further and question whether people like it this way. They want their iPhone to be precious, an object of desire. After all as humans we have very basic needs, this need for luxury is something that goes back throughout mans history.

So is it possible to create a phone that has that value which apple achieve with beautiful design and material choice, but also the durability of an iPhone wrapped in silicone rubber?

I’d love an iPhone! For so many reasons and the fact that it is beautifully designed. But, and it kills me to say it, I would put a case on it. Purely for protective reasons. This strong emotional, protective attachment to an object really interests me and forces me to question the iPhone, as successful as it is. It would be interesting to explore this more, your thoughts?

I REFUSE to have cases on any of my portable devices. My iPods have scratches on the screens, my iPhone is nicked up… I often wonder at the material choices in these things, they seem to intentionally influence customers to either buy aftermarket protection, or buy another product. My Gen 2 and Gen 1 Video iPods are still kicking as well as my gen1 iPhone, I’m not getting new ones until they die, so they will look like crap… but I see it as a reflection on apple, not me.

No, it is not good design.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years as well.

Apple’s products are beautiful, but a bit artificially. They know that lusting after gadgets is all about what they look like in a display case in a fancy retail store or in dramatic studio shots.

But not all iProducts are so fragile…look at the aluminum clad Nanos and Macbooks. It would be interesting to hear why they go Hi-Gloss with some and bead blasted with others when they all share a similar mobile/pocket/bag life.

ps: YO you’ve got much better luck than I. I’ve had 2 iPods die on me and while I am missing having my music collection in my pocket I haven’t replaced it again…yet.

Is it good design if it needs a protective case?

My short answer is no.

But I was just thinking. Wouldn’t it be great if that glossy casing and chrome bezel on the iPhone can be repainted, polished, and waxed like a car? I don’t think I would mind giving my iPhone a “body treatment” once in a while.

I think automobile body shops should start offering iPhone body repainting services. This might rescue the American automobile industry!

likewise I think cases for anything are terrible. You lose the beauty of the original design, make it bigger/thicker, and then just end up with a scratched case instead of a scratched object. By the time you are done with the device (it stops working or is obsolete) you have a pristine object that you don’t use. what’s the point.

personally, I love the new and shiny, but also like the patina that use and age gives. I have a slew of ipods (ist gen, 3rd gen, 2nd gen nano, and 1st gen iphone) and they are all well beaten but all still functional. they’ve been dropped, scuffed and even dented, but still live to tell the tale. my aluminum powerbook has a big dent on the hinge side, and it bugs me, but i still remember the day it happened and is to me a testament of it’s durability…

the difference i think is if the design/materials take into account this patina and work with it vs. against it. somethings wear well, others don’t. leather and wood look better with use. bare metal as well. painted metal can look great with a few chips and scratches. glossy plastic…maybe not so much.

i think overall, the key is in the perception and acceptance of the consumer. so many objects these days are disposable (because they are crappy, or made obsolete by technology), this i think is why consumers have been trained to think “new, shiny, glossy” is best. things are rarely made to be fixed anymore. if you look at objects from the past, more often they were made to last. parts could be replaced and people expected objects to last longer then they did. things were made to be handed down from generation to generation. these were often the objects that designers took into account this longevity and patina.

maybe it’s just a case of changing the mentality of the consumer by designing better stuff, or being a consumer that demands stuff that lasts…


Same with auto bras… “honest, under that ugly black thing is a chip free car…” I never got it.

But to play devil’s advocate to the entire “it has to look like new after a year or it is bad design” thing, my intern has a Zune, yes a Zune (It didn’t come up in the interview… sorry to call you out Ashley), and my scratched iPod is still way cooler than a Zune. So, I think it is OK that they get a little wear an tear over time, it just makes it a little human, like a childhood scar… and there just isn’t anything else better out there.

My Audi is going on 9 years old. It has some nicks, some rock chips, a little rim rash from parallel parking, the driver side baseball glove seat is seeing some wear… but I still love it, maybe I love it more, I’m not sure. It is mine.

Maybe it is time to adjust how we perceive things. Something that has a few scratches could be perceived not as faulty, but as having withstood the tests of use and time. A gold pocket watch is pretty easy to scratch, and people used to pass those down father to son.

Personally, I don’t care what the case of my iPhone looks like (gasp!! Blasphemy!!!). I bought this thing because of it’s interface. It does upset me though that the damned thing isn’t water resistant (I hear the new ones might be). In fact, why aren’t all personal electronic devices waterproof?! I hate having to switch to a $10 phone when I go out and do fun stuff because I don’t want to break my sensitive metro phone!!

A gold pocket watch is pretty easy to scratch, and people used to pass those down father to son.

“So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide something. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass for two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.”

ok, back on topic

While still pondering on the idea of giving damaged surfaces a body treatment, this clip from Toy Story 2 popped up in my mind:

I couldn’t find one in English but the magic is still there…

Reminds me of those days in the shops!

I wonder what’s in that bottle that the repairer dipped the Q-tip in.

how many times do you need to make a phone call under water?

(hi bob, it’s me, I’m in the deep end of the pool?)


i RT’d your article on Twitter, as i think it’s a very good question to ask.

do i think it’s necessarily bad design if it requires a case. because the question that should be asked is “who says it requires a case?”

the example i gave on Twitter was about my sister and her iPhone. she has a G1, and she absolutely refused to place it in a case. she knew all about the iPhone, she knew about the glass screen, she knew it was metal; she loved the design of the phone. in her words “why would anyone place a case on this? it was designed this way, as is.” and yes, she has dropped it…repeatedly, haha. and nothing is wrong with it. she shoved it in her purse/pocket with her keys, doesn’t care. why? because she knows it’s durable. are there scratches on the screen? nope (she doesn’t use any protective film). are there scratches on the back? sure, a few here and there. but she says “it’s metal, scratches aren’t anything to worry about.”

to put it plainly, she loves her iPhone, not just for looks, but because of how it was designed, and how she uses it. she always tells me about her friends who all have put gaudy cases on their iPhones, in an attempt to “protect” it. and in doing so, have usability/access problems.

are there products i have that i take care not to damage? of course. we all like seeing a clean car or bike, something pristine. but if something happens, if there is something superficial, a scratch perhaps, yes i get upset…for a minute. then i think “has this really changed the way i use this? did this affect its function?”

also, for everyone, there was an article here on core77 talking about this very issue, an article analyzing how some products gain credibility if they are worn and weathered, while others lose credibility. i remember the examples used were luggage and apple’s laptops. does anyone remember that article?

it doesn’t have to function underwater but it’d be nice if it still worked after the occational trip in the wash machine, the once in a while rain storm, the once every other year toss in the pool at the party, or even the deck of a boat that got some surf spray.

No matter how tough a product is, a lot of people still wants to preserve it as new as long as possible. Of course the more expensive it is the more careful you’ll be (cars, laptops, etc). To me the wear and tear just brings characteristics (to an extent), but would still be sad to see scratches on my car…

The same question can be asked for laptop bags, do we need it or can’t we just stick it in our book bags as-is? Why do people fix a small superficial dent on their 10 year old car? Most likely it’s because most people like to have new looking things. I guess electronic’s “patina” just isn’t a cool thing :laughing:

Ah man I love that Toy Story scene!

I’m a big fan of products that age over time, whether intentional or not, it brings the product to life and gives it that ‘wabi-sabi’ feel.

Anyone remember this phone?

effin ugly, but SOLID!
The thing is with iPhone/iPod is that they feel precious, this doesn’t make sense to me, since the way the iPhone is an everyday object.
I’d love to see if it was possible to create a phone like that Nokia^, but with the appeal of the iPhone. Though I agree with Rkuchinsky, it comes down to

i think overall, the key is in the perception and acceptance of the consumer.

how cool would it be though to have a phone made out of wood and leather, maybe with a aluminum bezel. over time it would look so great like an old Louis Vuitton steamer trunk and i think personally the old (wood/leather) vs. the new (touchscreen, OS), would go great together…

maybe when i have some spare time, I’ll PS one up…


I am with you YO, a little wear gives a object personality. In the world of antiques its all about patina, that visual catalog of time and use. I have a buddy with a unrestored 67 E type, complete to the stebro and koni decals in the engine bay. He wants to restore it, I counter that there are thousands of factory perfect E types out there now, but one that is a time capsule is far more unique. For what its worth Jay Leno and many other other of the high end motor heads are with me, but to each their own.

I’ve had the iphone, and had the first ipod shuffle, the nano, and now the last classic with 120 gb storage.
And i don’t use the protective case, even though someone gave one to me + i had one already.

i like using my ipod and feeling/seeing the design of it and It fits better in my pocket without the case. How can the design be appreciated with the protective case, only the interface is.

I’ve never had one stop working because of dropping, and i wouldn’t say i am the most careful person.
But I get why people want to take care of them, as some are expensive products.

Bit out of the specific subject but, My ipod nano fell , or rather i dropped in the tub. It stayed there for about 10 seconds, I didn’t realize. I thought it was dead, and without much hope I dried it with a hair dryer on cold air for a few minutes, then put it by a window for one day. and amazingly it worked!
For a few days it seems the scroll was wet underneath and there wasn’t contact. But later it worked perfectly.

A bad experience i had was in 2006 i got the first macbook pro in Puerto Rico, still the US. After a month the matshita cd drive stopped working, I took to an authorized mac dealer. They said it couldn’t be replaced, because the computer had some scratches on the side. I scratched it while going through a door, but it was minor. They said i would have to pay $475 for a new cd drive. I live in another caribbean island and felt bad after shelling 2k for a computer because i thought the response was capricious and just went without the cd drive.Turn out a few months later Apple announced that there were problems with the specific drive.

What i am saying is that if the bodies were so strong and resistant it could affect the way warranty is handled., cause you might drop your iphone, and it stopped working because of the drop, but there would be no evidence on the body.

Saying they are badly designed isn’t right. The look, feel and UX is beautiful. That said, i think they could be better. i am with the idea of building a super product not only submergible, but cushioned and resistant to shocks, drops, and a body surface that isn’t easily hurt.

The same question can be asked for laptop bags, do we need it or can’t we just stick it in our book bags as-is? [quote]

Don’t often bother with a case for my phone, but I’d never take my laptop anywhere without a gimp (neoprene case by Crumpler). It has my work on it, it has to be protected. Therefore I am ultra careful.

My MacBook Pro gets thrown in the bag with everything else. It is scratched to hell, but at least I can tell the difference between it, and the 30 other MacBookPro’s at the office if a bunch of us are at a conference table… as for the data, back it up every week and there is not so much need for worry… it is a portable device. I don’t want an extra ounce when I go to China!

The only thing close I can think of is Vertu

Overpriced IMHO, but hey…