Today is a big day for for two genuinely iconic designs; the Forth Bridge and the Apple Macintosh. The Bridge has been put forward for World Heritage status and the Mac turns 30 today. Without descending too far into hyperbole, I think it's fair to say that they're objects that transcend characterisation as simply functional. Our response to them is personal, perhaps even emotional.
You don’t need to be an engineer to appreciate the Bridge. It’s a phenomenal thing. It’s a towering structure, looks incredible and is the iconic representation of the power of engineering on an industrial scale. It’s also a recurring symbol in my adult life. It took me back to my family from university or took me back to my classes when the holidays were over. It’s one of the first things I think of when I think of Edinburgh, a city I called home for a while in the 2000s. When I travel by air it’s the thing I look for out of the window when I get back to Scotland; my reference point - the thing that tells me ‘I’m home’. When friends visit and we take them to Edinburgh, we don’t just visit the sites in town. We take them to South Queensferry and stand between the Bridge and the road bridge - one of the great man-made ‘ta-da!’ sites (and sights) in Scotland. For a good friend of mine from the US, his first view of the Bridge is when he feels he’s made it to Scotland (and his holiday can begin).
None of these personal responses to the Forth Bridge mean that it should receive World Heritage status. They’re just sketches of my relationship with it. However, I’m willing to bet that there’s an army of people out there with their own stories about their relationship with this big red thing. Surely that’s the very definition of something we should cherish; something that, once seen, we all adopt as part of our own narratives. Something iconic - an element of the world’s heritage that deserves to be recognised as such.
Similarly, you don’t need to be an engineer to appreciate the Mac. Mac OS brought the graphical user interface to mainstream computing and computers bearing the name ‘Macintosh’ have been some of the most influential ever designed; the various iMacs, the Powerbooks and iBooks, the MacBook Air (which created the ultrabook category of computers) and so on. I could go on about the influence of the Mac, but Apple have done that for me in this video. Like the Bridge, the various Macs and versions of Mac OS elicit a personal response from their users. People seem to respond to the Mac in a way that they don’t respond to other computing platforms (with the possible exceptions of those that run on devices that are small enough to be held in your hand - iOS (iPhone/iPad), Android or, until recently, Blackberry). There’s a cohort of people that are happy, or even proud, to define themselves as ‘Mac users’.
For me, and although this is a terrible cliché, the Mac really is the computer that got out of the way. With other PCs I always felt like 'the thing' bent me to its will - they didn’t feel like a tool I was using to achieve what I wanted to. They made me conform to their norms. The Macintosh wasn't like that. It helped me achieve what I wanted to with my computer in an intuitive and straightforward way. As my needs evolved the Mac grew with me. Macs have been (and are) my pen and paper, the shelf for my music, my photo album, my darkroom, my text/audio/image/video editing suite, my telephone, my postal service, my radio, my television, my recording studio. The Mac is one of very few products I have ever wanted to evangelise to friends and colleagues.
Although I could have achieved much of what I wanted to with another computing platform, I’m not sure the experience would have been as easy or as elegant. So, in recognition of what I and countless thousands of other people have been able to achieve with Macs in our own small ways, and for the way the Mac has influenced (and influences) the design and direction of personal computing, I think it's appropriate to doff a collective cap to the Macintosh on the occasion of its 30th birthday. The Mac, in all its various incarnations, is arguably the only personal computer that could truly lay claim to the title of 'design icon'. Whether you like or use Macs or you don't, the influence that the Macintosh's designers and engineers have had on computing for three decades (and counting) is something we can all acknowledge and respect.