Symmetry and the iPhone 5

According to Matthew May in his book In Pursuit of Elegance, one of the characteristics of elegance is "symmetry". And while we tend to think of symmetry as bilateral symmetry, with one side being a reflection of the other side. But May then goes into great detail though some very entertaining examples of why fractals are another, very powerful form of symmetry.

And that got me thinking about the iPhone, and more specifically about the changes made to the shape of the iPhone 5. After listening to episode 2 of Andy Ihnatko's Old Tech News podcast, as well as others, talk about the new aspect ratio of the iPhone 5 as feeling substantially different than the iPhones before it, I started thinking about fractal symmetry.

The iPhone has repeated shapes throughout the design, centered around the rounded square. There is a rounded square on the home button, in the shape of the application icons, and in the shape of the folders which hold smaller application icons. And there are circles, There are two circular apertures for the cameras, there is a circular home button, a circular headphone jack, and a circular microphone hole. Then there is the the "thin rectangle with rounded ends". This is present in the light sensor, the handset speaker, the two buttom speakers, and the power switch, as well as the slide-to-unlock control and numerous sliding controls throughout the operating system.

Now the screen of the iPhone 4 itself is a lower aspect ratio rectangle, around 4 by 3. And the the face of the iPhone 4 is also a larger, rounded rectangle. But the iPhone 5 stretches the screen. So the iPhone itself, as well as the screen are noticeably less square. And since the aspect ratio of the screen/body are constantly being compared to the thin rectangles with round ends (which are aligned with the short dimensions of the screen) on the front and bottom of the device as well as throughout the software, as well as the round buttons and apertures on the front and the rounded square on on the home button and throughout the operating system icons and folders, the higher aspect ratio of the new screen probably "feels" more exaggerated. Including the third dimensions, the depth of the iPhone 5, which has been reduced from the iPhone 4, probably further exaggerates the "height" dimension.

Contrast this with how you think it would "feel" to have an iPhone with the same screen aspect ratio of the iPhone 4 scaled up to a larger screen, similar to many of the Android devices. To me, in my mind, it "feels" better, but that does not make it better. And to be fair to Apple, the iPhone, circa 2012, is probably the most widely used example of the design elegance anywhere, so it is going to be be relentlessly examined.

Without getting too much into other proposed aspects of elegance (this is an article about symmetry, obviously), the iPhone 5 is substantially lighter, so it does, literally, meet the goal of "subtraction". Whether or not a subtraction of weight improves or reduces its elegance is a good future topic. But, going back to symmetry, is the iPhone 5 less symmetrical than the iPhone 4? How does that affect the level of design elegance? And is it possible to measure the elegance of the iPhone 4 vs. the iPhone 5? That will have to wait for the dissertation.

Update 25 November 2012: Since I do not have an iPhone 5 in my possession, I made some assumptions about the bottom of it. However, since my initial draft I have reviewed some pictures online. Instead of two "skinny rectangles with rounded ends" for speakers, there are a series of small circles, with the "skinny rectangle with rounded ends" Lightning connector in the middle. I will stick to my original assumption that the circles, like the rounded squares, further exaggerate the taller aspect ratio.