Have We Reached Peak Obround?

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 · 
5th February 2024
 · 
6 min read

Obround:

noun. (geometry) A shape consisting of two semicircles connected by parallel lines tangent to their endpoints.

The Pixel 9

Despite the Google Pixel 8 having only just launched, last week we saw images emerge of the alleged Pixel 9.

While most of us are likely well beyond leaked phone designs being interesting, one thing struck me about the Pixel 9. Not because it was interesting, but because it was uninteresting in a specific way.

The obround camera cluster of the Pixel 8 is now also in an obround camera housing on the Pixel 9. Google must have heard we liked obrounds, so put an obround on our obround.

Once you start looking, you don't have to look hard to see obround design elements used everywhere in new products.

These aren't student portfolio pieces either. These are products on the market by some of the largest players in the tech industry: Logitech, Garmin, Sony, Apple, and yes, Google. And I didn't even include the Vision Pro.

Nor is it exclusive to the physical product sector. The on/off UI element is effectively ubiquitous at this point.

Then I saw this post by Mads Hindhede Svanegaard on LinkedIn and I got thinking.

Have we reached peak obround?

There are two likely reasons why the obround has permeated modern design. Firstly, it's a logical progression of the rounded rectangle. Secondly and perhaps more worryingly, there's a growing homogeneity in design in general.

The Logical Conclusion of the Rounded Rectangle

All trends generally progress the same. The defining elements of any design language will always progress towards 'more' of that element until the late-stage trend becomes a caricature of what started it.

It's how fidget spinners started here:

And ended here:

It's how trucks started here:

And (hopefully) ended here:

The rounded rectangle has been permeating design at least since the iPhone launched in 2007 with its homescreen icons and monolithic chassis. In the 17 (yes, seventeen) years since, the design element has evolved, simplified, and radii have got larger. Yet the rounded rectangle can only become as rounded as the length of the shortest side.

The obround then is really just the caricature of the rounded rectangle.

It is the logical endpoint.

Techno-Minimalism

However, the obround is only a symptom of a wider trend. A modern take on an entirely new level of minimalism, enabled by the technology available to us today.

Minimalism of course isn't new by any means. Minimalism has its roots in post-WWII art, architecture, and design. In its most basic embodiment, it is the removal of all extraneous design elements until nothing more can removed while still conveying the essential qualities of a design. It is honest to form and proportion, materials and finishes.

However, today's minimalism is something different to the minimalism of last century. Minimalism of the past, especially in product design, was always constrained by some need for physical human interaction. There were limits to how minimal you could go before removing design elements meant removing functionality.

Today, though, there is no such limitation. When every product is digital and connected, all but the most essential human interactions have been moved to a different device entirely.

Your phone.

Have a look at the Whoop band as an example. When you no longer need buttons or knobs or other feedback loops, minimalism can be turned up to 11.

There are, however, other driving forces in today's techno-minimalist design language that sets it apart from more traditional minimalism. Most notably, cost.

Companies want to make products cheaper.

When you can turn a hardware component into a firmware or software component, the part and assembly costs go down.

Further, where minimalism of last century employed different materials to good effect, today almost everything is plastic. Including wood panelling as in the Braun SK 5 pictured above is no longer cost effective for all but the most premium products (read: Bang&Olufsen).

Minimalist designs, with less parts and simpler shapes, simply cost less to make.

As a side; thanks to serious advancements over the last 70 years in design tools and production methods, what was lost in materials has been gained in textures. Designers can be far more sophisticated in design details, allowing for stunning surface treatments that weren't previously possible. While gross geometry may be minimalist, even a caricature of minimalist, there is a new focus on surface texturing.

Homogeneity in Design

Each design language has a philosophy that guides the design. Art Deco, Modernist, Cubist. This is a set of ideals and principals used to interpret the design objectives into a specific form true to the philosophy. However, I would argue that the inclusion of obrounds in much of today's design is literal, rather than philosophical.

I expect that many designers, especially younger designers, including obrounds in their designs today do not understand why they are including them. And I doubt the designers at Google are immune to this either.

We live in the Information Age. Everything created is shared, and viewed, instantaneously from anywhere in the world. Changes in design trends no longer happen slowly or locally. Now they can happen quickly and globally. In the same way that social media creates political echo chambers, so too does Pinterest, Behance, and Le Manoosh create design echo chambers.

Anton Ruckman on the Let's Talk Design podcast wasn't shy about sharing his thoughts on this impact of Pinterest on design. When all designers are absorbing the same design content, so too will the output of those designers be influenced by that content. As Anton put it, the design loses individuality; becomes monochrome.

By extension AI will only further that end. Large language models are by design the average of all the things it is trained on. The heavy integration of AI into design ideation will see that convergence continue.

#Courage

Unlike removing the headphone jack*, it can take courage to diverge from current design trends and try something new. Especially in such a judgemental field as design. Yet, minimalism itself was a response to modernism and there are always designers trying new things. While most of the time these designs and designers remain in obscurity, sooner or later any design trend will burn itself out. When it does, something else always rises to the surface.

The pendulum is perhaps already swinging back the other way.

The Rabbit R1 is notable in that they built an entirely new device around what could have effectively been an app on your phone. While the device itself has quite a minimalist aesthetic, unlike the Ai Pin it's not intended to replace your phone. It's intended to be carried along with your phone. That's redundancy, and redundancy is one of the definitions of maximalism.

So have we reached peak obround?

Well, we can't round the rectangle any further.

Big thanks to Grant Snyder for help with the examples.

*btw, Apple removing the headphone jack wasn't courage, it was arrogance.


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