June 19, 2020

The Regressive Design of the Playstation 5

Taste can be subjective—but the new Playstation has objective shortcomings.

Last week, Sony revealed, alongside a slate of visually impressive games, the industrial design of its next-generation console hardware. To say the reaction was mixed might mischaracterize it.

Polarizing would be closer. But even that may not quite capture the divide between those who don’t care what the products in their homes look like, and those who may end up delaying a purchase until Sony ships a mark-two version. It’s not so much a love-it-or-hate-it situation as it is a don’t-care-or-hate-it.

“Aesthetics are subjective,” a skeptic might say. And to some degree they are. But the design language of the Playstation 5 goes beyond subjective qualities into the objectively measurable. And by these measures, it is a sizable regression.

“Good design is long-lasting,” reads one of Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles of Good Design. Rams explains: “It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.”

One need only look at some of Rams’ most iconic Braun products to see this principle in action: The RT20 radio was released in 1961, yet its minimal aesthetic would be at home in a modern appliance nearly sixty years later. Rams’ work famously inspired Jony Ive, and perhaps the best example of this in the present day is the MacBook Pro, whose core aesthetic of black keys on bare aluminum has remained unchanged for over a decade.

Sony itself is no stranger to long-lasting design. In one of the company’s category-defining products, industrial designer Norio Ohga hewed to Ramsian principles with the Walkman. The Walkman’s spare lines and thoughtful layout hold up well today, something that can hardly be said for competing devices that came out decades later, such as this early-2000s Aiwa.

Sony Interactive Entertainment, the division within the sprawling Sony corporate structure responsible for Playstation, has had its hits and misses, but mostly hits. The first generation console, for all its associations with the 1990s, wouldn’t look terribly out of place today with its tidy geometry. Playstation’s biggest miss was almost certainly the infamous “Boomerang” controller originally floated for the Playstation 3: Amid a “very vocal reaction,” in the words of a Sony executive at the time, it was ultimately replaced with an evolution of the proven DualShock controller.

What makes design long-lasting? Another of Rams’ Ten Principles is “good design is honest.” Circuit boards, optical drives, and other electronic components are rectilinear forms. An honest enclosure reflects this in its shape: It’s no coincidence that the Aiwa portable linked above looks terribly dated with its assemblage of arbitrary arcs and ovals, while the rectilinear 1979 Walkman, neatly enclosing its components, looks newer despite being older.

This brings us to the Playstation 5. Decked out in a panoply of curves, convexity and concavity, high-contrast materials, and even what amount to fins, Sony’s latest is an Aiwa, not a Walkman. It’s not honest about what’s inside; its sweeping, organic forms amount to a misdirection, one that will likely date as quickly as that curvy, early-2000s cassette player.

Even the best sometimes make this mistake. Jony Ive himself flirted with this kind of misdirection in the late 1990s: After the honesty of the original iMac’s curved forms built around its cathode-ray tube, the first iBook attempted to encase the rectilinear forms of its LCD and components in a skeuomorphic mimicry of the iMac, a mimicry that was quickly abandoned in favor of honest forms.

Returning once more to Rams, “good design is unobtrusive.” Consumer products “are neither decorative objects nor works of art.” According to SIE chief executive Jim Ryan, the intent of the Playstation 5’s design is to “grace most living areas,” its loud design and large size presumably serving as more of a centerpiece than as the humble provider of the game you’re playing.

Perhaps, as with the Boomerang, Sony will realize its desire to innovate (itself one of Rams’ principles) came at the expense of both the formal honesty and the long-lasting design of its next-generation console. Here’s hoping the legacy of Rams and of Ohga returns sometime soon to the Playstation line.