June 1, 2003
Armed with digital drafting tools, obsessed Apple fans design the products of their dreams.
David Hossack’s “Apple iPhone” is crash-diet thin, a sleek cell phone dressed in the iPod’s minimalist white and chrome. “Very slick,” posts one online critic. “Absolutely excellent…” another agrees. “I almost suspect that you work for Apple.” He doesn’t. Hossack is one of a number of Apple groupies posting fantasy designs in online galleries and forums—a spontaneous expression of brand loyalty that only Apple seems to inspire.
On the surface, amateur Apple design has much in common with fan fiction—homebrewed stories and scripts modeled on series like Star Trek or Lord of the Rings. But unlike the literary efforts of obsessed Trekkies, many of these designs are both imaginative and smartly executed. Take the collected work of Isamu Sanada, easily the world’s most prolific designer of mock Macs. “It’s pretty good,” admits Kevin Gallagher, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design and a former design consultant for IBM. “I’d rather not say that, but it’s true. It’s not as if it’s all totally lateral either. He’s not just cutting and pasting. It’s pretty connected to Apple’s vocabulary, but it’s also original.”
Every year a few particularly sophisticated designs, Sanada’s among them, generate gigabytes of online chatter among the Apple faithful (much of it speculative—some of the most popular designs hint at what famously secretive Apple might try next). Celebrity begins in amateur galleries like the Apple Collection (www.theapple collection.com), the Web’s first site devoted to fan design. David Vincent launched the site in 1994 as a museum of official Apple prototypes. But in December 1997, after stumbling upon a number of sophisticated fan designs online, he decided to curate an amateur gallery too.
Spymac (www.spymac.com), an Apple gossip site, launched the first amateur forum last year. There Jonathan Ive wannabes can upload designs to a chat room full of critics, many of them well versed in the nuances of Apple aesthetics. “Somebody will upload an amazing piece of work, and people will say, ‘Where are the air vents?’” Spymac site manager Kevin April says. A clever update to the familiar iPod design—circling its distinctive thumb dial with numbered buttons, so it could double as a phone—doesn’t fare much better: “A whole bunch of little tiny buttons?! Is this something you think Apple would really do?”
Spymac and the Apple Collection alone account for about 2,000 fantasy Macs. Lots of firms have obsessed fans, but what drives so many of Apple’s to design? “I’m amazed there’s so much out there,” Gallagher says. “But it makes sense. Apple connects with visually creative people.” (Sanada is a Web designer by day. Hossack is an architecture student at the University of Dundee, in Scotland.) “An Apple is a tool that’s well suited to creating its own image,” Gallager says, laughing. And even if you lack serious CAD training, he says, it’s easy enough to post a professional-looking prototype. “I’ve seen some people do basic line art with CAD, then take that into Illustrator and produce something where it’s almost impossible to tell that it’s not fully modeled.”
Apple steadfastly refuses to comment on groupie designers. That doesn’t surprise Gallagher. When he designed prototypes for IBM, he says, he tried to avoid conversations with anyone outside the company who claimed to have a new idea. “If someone shows you something that you’ve already got in development, you just landed in a legal battle,” he explains. But ambitious amateurs take heart: Apple hired Stephen Lemay not long after a pair of desktops he designed for a Rochester Institute of Technology class turned up on the Apple Collection. “It wasn’t because of his designs,” Lemay’s former professor, Marcus Conge, says wryly, “or so they say.”