For many people, the iPhone has been the ultimate word in phone design. And if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then the iPhone has experienced something close to sycophancy. However, the iPhone itself has had its up and downs, has been accused of being repetitive and weathered its share of controversies in the design department over the years. Here’s a very rough look at the design journey of the device many call the Godphone:
Dem curves – metal and plastic
iPhone/ iPhone 3G/ iPhone 3GS
The first iPhones were remarkable for their relatively curve-y design. At a time when touchscreen devices were basically considered to be the preserve of the business classes (Windows Mobile and Palm were the preferred ones), the iPhone combined a large touchscreen (for its time – 3.5 inches was massive in 2007) with a very eye-catching design – the front was all display with a spherical button beneath it, which was the home button. The sides curved out in a gently convex arc to meet the back, which in the first iPhone was a blend of metallic grey on top with a plastic lower portion. It was very different from what we had seen, and significantly, also set a few precedents for the design of future iPhones: the camera unit would always be in the top left corner, the logo would in the upper central part of the device, the ring/silent switch would always be on the left side and just above the volume buttons, and the home button would always be below the display – interestingly the bezels above and below the display would always be almost exactly the same size.
Apple would broadly adhere to this design for the next two iterations of the device. Interestingly, however, it would move to a plastic body for the back of the 3G and 3 GS – the 3G was the first to get a white edition. The volume buttons and the ring/silent switch, which had a plastic feel to them in the first iPhone got a more metallic feel to them. But for the first three editions, the iPhone was this very curve-y sleek and slightly slippery device.
Glass enters the building…and never mind the antennas
iPhone 4 / iPhone 4S
There are some who believe that the iPhone 4 represented the most radical design overhaul in the history of the iPhone. And with good reason. The iPhone 4 departed dramatically from its predecessors in design terms. The curved sides were replaced by straight ones, giving the phone a slightly box-y appearance which was very different from anything out there at that time. The volume buttons were also made spherical. And very very noticeably, the back was glass – yes, in 2010. And it was plain, flat glass with no antenna lines – the antennae were near the sides where they would cause a lot of the controversy (the famous antennagate, where people holding the iPhone sometimes would not get a clear signal). It was also the first iPhone where Apple brought the slimness of the device into prominence, calling it the thinnest smartphone in the world. Apple tackled the antennagate issue with the 4S, but the design of the 4 and 4S was so similar as to make the phones almost indistinguishable.
Hey, the iPhone got slightly bigger…and colourful
iPhone 5/ iPhone 5S/ iPhone 5C
The iPhone 5 represented a significant step forward for the device in design terms as the phone for the first time went for a larger display – a 4.0 inch one, as compared to the 3.5 inch ones seen in earlier editions. There was also the addition of chamfers, which were shiny edges that were polished by diamonds to make the device look more premium. The back became mainly metallic, although it had glass panels on the top and base. The 5S was almost a carbon copy of the 5, but had a gold edition added to it, and also had a metallic ring placed around its home button, which was now also a fingerprint sensor.
And with the 5S came perhaps the most colourful iPhone of them all – the iPhone 5C came with a carbonate back (in colour options of green, blue, yellow, pink and white) which was famously called unapologetically plastic, and had a design that was more in keeping with the first iPhone’s slightly curved look, and also had sliver-like rice grain shaped volume buttons rather than the spherical ones seen on devices since the iPhone 4. The 5C did not always get a favorable press, but it did add a liberal dash of color to the lives of iPhone users.
Hey, the iPhone got REALLY bigger
iPhone 6/6Plus, iPhone 6S/ 6S Plus, iPhone 7/ 7 Plus…and even the 8/8 Plus
The iPhone really got into the big phone zone with the arrival of the 6 Plus, which not only featured a large 5.5-inch display but also had large bezels above and below it, making the phone one of the largest in terms of length. But the big display was not the only thing that was new about the iPhone 6 Plus and its smaller cousin, the iPhone 6. This generation of iPhones saw Apple revert to a design language that seemed similar to the original iPhone. Gone were the tall sides and back was a more curve-y look, with sides that curved out gently to a flat back. The volume buttons also lost their round shapes and went back to being routine rice grain buttons. Another big change was the fact that the power/display button which had always been on top of the iPhone, now moved to the right side, perhaps keeping in mind the larger size of the devices. Apple still tried to keep the iPhone slim, and initially, this led to fears that the phone had become too weak (remember Bendgate with the iPhone 6 Plus which was rumored to be susceptible to bending easily), but later editions proved more resilient. And this has been a design that has been broadly followed right until the iPhone 8/8 Plus, with a few minor alterations – the Plus range of devices got dual cameras with the 7 Plus, and the home screen button got haptic feedback and became more of a touch button than a mechanical one from the iPhone 7/7 Plus onwards, glass made a comeback on the backs of the iPhone 8, and 8 Plus (to facilitate wireless charging), and oh yes, the 3.5 mm audio jack was shown the door as water and dust resistance arrived to the 7 and 7 Plus. But by and large, the design language of the iPhone from the 6 to the 8 was so similar that people even today find it difficult to distinguish between them.
Haven’t we seen you before?
Just when we thought Apple had climbed onboard the large phone bandwagon, the Cupertino giant pulled a rabbit from its hat with the iPhone SE in 2016, shortly after releasing the 6S and 6S Plus. In design terms, it was literally the iPhone 5S with more powerful innards, but it was cheered on because for many it represented hope that Apple had not given up on the super compact form factor of the past. Will we ever see a repeat of it? Our hearts would love to but our heads advise us to not hold our breath for it.
You want a change? Notch that, b***es
Just as many people were complaining that Apple was not innovating with the design of the iPhone (as we have seen, from the iPhone 6 onwards, the design language was largely similar), the company pretty much threw the design kitchen sink at the device that was released to mark the tenth anniversary of the iPhone – the iPhone X. In terms of design overhaul, this was pretty much the biggest one since the iPhone 4. The home button was removed altogether and bezels around the display were trimmed, and then there was the most divisive design decision of them all – the notch that cut into the top of the display. The use of glass on the back also led to concerns that the phone would break easily, and some moaned about the jutting out dual cameras. However, at the end of the day, after having been called “predictable and repetitive” for the better part of three years, Apple showed the world that the iPhone could still set a design example.
The X era cometh?
iPhone XS, XS Max and XR
And after showing that it could innovate radically in design, Apple seemed to have stepped right back into the familiar when its new range of iPhones did not veer too far from the iPhone X. Yes, there were differences in display sizes and proportions as well as material used (surgical grade steel, aerospace grade aluminum, yeah, yeah…), and with the iPhone XR, the company unleashed the most colorful iPhones seen since the days of the iPhone 5C, but in terms of broad design language, there was no doubting that all three phones drew very direct inspiration from the iPhone X, from the glass front and back to the metallic frame that lay between them. The XS and XR saw the iPhone get into big display territory although the company kept both devices commendably compact (comparable with the iPhone 8 Plus which had a smaller display). And of course, the fact that all three new iPhones supported notches also meant that for the first time, none of the new iPhones would have a good old home button (a minute’s silence, please). The iPhone has entered the X era of design. Just how long it will stay there is anyone’s guess. We just hope Apple gets its radical design hat out sooner rather than later!