You CAN Be Too Thin: Apple Dumps Sustainable Design Principle For a Few Millimeters and A Smooth Bottom For Design Fetishists To Fondle

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In MacBook Pro with Retina Display Really Sucks (at Being Repairable), Tech editor Jaymi Heimbuch described the problem many of us have with the new Apple notebooks. She framed it in the context of the maker movement, where the credo is "If you can't open it, you don't own it." Many commenters on TreeHugger and other sites were dismissive, noting, correctly, that Apple repairs and recycles. One commenter on Jaymi's post put it particularly well:

Not everyone wants to - or should for that matter - upgrade or repair their own devices. The closed system, like many of Apple's product and development systems, is done deliberately to protect its engineering integrity. Further, the compromises you take issue with are sacrificed for greater opportunities in design; something that makes Apple products so alluring and everything else look crap-tastic.

Commenter Johnny is absolutely right, the compromises we complain about enabled Apple to build a lighter and thinner, more beautiful computer. But at some point you can be too thin, when you discard some of the most fundamental principles of sustainable design, like the concept of Design for Disassembly. It has become increasingly important in the construction of buildings, furniture, cars, and indeed electronics; it is central to the principles of Cradle to Cradle design. Apple has tossed out this fundamental principle for a little more sex appeal.

Nathan Sheldroff, in his book Design is the Problem, discussed Design for Disassembly:

Recycling is an important tenet of sustainability, but in order to be effective, products need to be easily disassembled into component parts and separated by material. If this is difficult, these products simply end up in the landfill instead...

Any product with parts that are bonded together or sealed so that they can’t be disassembled at all are not going to be recycled. Likewise, products assembled with complex assemblies or requiring custom or multiple tools aren’t likely to be recycled either. If it takes too long for workers to disassemble, they just won’t do it. In addition, these same products likely won’t get repaired often (or ever) for the same reason, which makes them difficult to endure or reuse. Design for disassembly is often the same as design for assembly. Improvements that designers and engineers make toward the end goal of ease of disassembling a product often take into account – and improve – how that product is assembled in the first place.

Sheldroff goes on to discuss what have become two of the most contentious issues about the Macbook: Batteries and standardized fasteners. He praises earlier Macs for their easy disassembly, noting that " Parts can be glued or bonded, but only where they are recyclable together because they are identical materials."

When Dell started taking back their computers for recycling, they found it impossible to get things apart easily with their previous connectors, and redesigned them to make everything pop apart more easily. They specifically claim that " Our products, parts and components are designed to be upgraded, extending the life of the product — if not for you, then for someone else who might be able to reuse the device." Nokia designed phones with smart connectors; you just heated the phone a bit and the connectors unscrewed themselves. Others are designing electronics that you just throw in a bucket of water and the connectors all dissolve.

All for the sake of a few grams and millimeters, and to have a smooth bottom that design fetishists will so want to fondle.

It was the trend among the more progressive companies everywhere; BMW does it with cars, Herman Miller with chairs, Tedd Benson does it with houses. The easier it is to get apart, the less it will cost to repair and to recycle. But for the sake of a few grams and millimeters, and to have a smooth bottom that design fetishists will so want to fondle, Apple has gone in the other direction.

That is the fundamental problem here; Apple sets the standard for computer design. Look at the Ultrabook trend in PCs; there isn't a one that isn't a macbook clone. How long will it be until Acer realizes that they can be thinner and prettier (and cheaper) if they get out the glue gun. How long will it be until the only way to recycle these things is to put them through a shredder.

For the record, I don't fix or upgrade my own Macbook; there are people who do that for a living, have all the right tools and know what they are doing. But I do believe that there are some fundamental sustainable design principles that we should ascribe to, and Apple is moving away from them.

As someone who cares deeply about design, previously I wouldn't be caught dead with anything but an Apple. Now, I'm not sure I want to be caught dead with one.

Tags: Apple Inc | Cradle To Cradle | Designers | Electronics | Recycling

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