The Display Notch is Apple's Branding Status Symbol
What was once considered a compromise has now become Apple's most identifiable hardware design element
If I told you to picture a BMW car, what would be the first thing that comes to your mind? Would it be the logo? Or maybe you would remember one of their sedans that have been in movies throughout the years? I would contend that when you think of BMW, the first thing that comes to mind is their iconic vertically oriented grille. It is a staple of every BMW vehicle that has been made for decades. The grille of course serves a purpose: to allow airflow under the hood which serves to keep the engine and radiator cool.
But as the future has moved more and more into electric cars, the grille has become an unnecessary design decision in cars. Think about the Tesla Model 3, the car does not have a grille simply because it doesn’t need it. Yet when BMW entered the electric car race, its designs all featured the trademark BMW vertical grille. BMW determined that the grille was a design aesthetic that tied people to their brand.
I couldn’t help but think of BMW and this decision when Apple recently showed off its redesigned MacBook Pro. More importantly the fact that Apple decided to put a display notch into the new MacBook’s design, much like its iPhones. Apple has consciously made the decision that the display notch is now part of its design language and branding. This is a very interesting turn of events considering how that simple cutout has been received since it was first released on the iPhone X.
The War Against Bezels
Smartphone hardware has always been an arms race. There are always trends that pop up which drive companies to one-up one another. This happened with display size and megapixel count years ago. Then about five years ago there became an obsession with the screen-to-body ratio. Phones like LG’s G6 started to minimize the top and bottom screen bezel to create a more futuristic and modern feel. Since then, companies have tried different methods to inch towards a 100% screen-to-body ratio. We have display notches, hole-punch cameras, and pop-up selfie cameras to achieve this aesthetic.
Apple was one of the last companies to adapt to this new trend. This is not a surprise, Apple is quite often late to new trends that are instituted by Android manufacturers. Android phone makers were experimenting with this for a year before Apple decided to release its version of smaller bezels with the iPhone X. Where many Android makers simply shrunk the top and bottom bezels while keeping the shape of the display a pure rectangle, or a rectangle with rounded corners. What Apple did was different from this.
Apple introduced the iPhone X with what is now called a notched display. What this means is that the cameras and sensors cut into the top of the display with two corners of the display that light up as opposed to having an unusable black bar next to the camera sensors, which was the solution that Samsung and LG employed with their phones. This allowed Apple to display things like the time, battery, and signal strength meters in those top corners so they are not taking up display space beneath the cameras.
Most tech outlets and tech enthusiasts were not a fan of this design choice. Yet despite this negative reaction Android manufacturers followed suit and made their phones have a notched display as well. Phones like the OnePlus 6, LG G7 ThinQ, and Google Pixel 3 XL all had a display cutout to house their camera arrays. Much like other decisions (such as removing the headphone jack) where Apple goes its competitors seemed to follow.
Let’s now fast forward to today and the new MacBook Pro. Coming into this release, Apple had released 5 versions of iPhones with notched displays. The MacBook Pro was due for a redesign, and one of the pain points that many thought would need to be addressed is the lackluster webcam on the device. Apple did this, upgrading from a 720p webcam to a 1080p one. But instead of having the typical top bezel of previous MacBooks, it implemented a similar notched display design that has been present on the iPhone.
This design choice was the definition of low-hanging fruit for commentators on Twitter. The jokes came in heavy and often. But I think this misses the point. What Apple is doing here is embracing the notch as a status symbol. The message that is being sent is that this is a premium Apple hardware device. It is conceivable that Apple can implement a different solution, whether that be a hole-punch design or eventually developing an under-display solution.
But this isn’t about hardware innovation, it is about marketing strategy. Apple is notorious for hardware designs that are popularized and identifiable. If you see a laptop with a glowing logo on the lid you think of the MacBook, any wireless earbuds with a stem cause us to think of AirPods, and even an older iPhone was easily identifiable with the home button. The notch is the new home button and an easily identifiable feature that lets people know that you are using an iPhone. And when you take a step back, it is this positioning that makes people think of Apple as a sort of religion.
The Altar of Apple
Many critics of Apple often describe it as a cult. In some ways, that assessment is valid. Much like devout followers of other religions, the true believers of Apple hardware often feel that there is no other option when it comes to purchasing consumer technology. To them, it is Apple or nothing. But I would say that beyond that, Apple has transformed into more of an iconic fashion brand than a tech brand.
If you were to walk up and down an affluent street there is a good chance that you will see someone carrying around a bag with a logo that has two C's on it. This is a Chanel bag, and it is not cheap. Chanel bags and purses typically range from $3,000-$7,000. Yet they often have a massive logo on there. Why is that? Because it is not enough to simply have a high-end bag or purse, but people need to know that you have a high-end bag or purse.
It is a tale as old as time, where we humans feel the need to be validated by our purchases and to make sure that everyone knows about our success. And in western society, Apple is a brand that is synonymous with high-end technology. The iPhone is expensive, the MacBook is expensive, even AirPods are generally more expensive than similar alternatives. Much like the Chanel logo, the notch on the iPhone and MacBook Pro symbolizes this for the world to see. When you take your iPhone 13 Pro and MacBook Pro to a coffee shop the notch shows the world that this is an expensive product, that you have bought the best of the best.
While many believe that the notch was simply a holdover until Apple properly develops some sort of under-display technology, I think it will be difficult for the company to willingly move away from the notch. It has come to define the iPhone, much as the scroll wheel defined the iPod a couple of decades ago. When you look at Apple hardware from a tech perspective, committing to this design choice does not make much sense. After all, tech is about innovation and innovation is all about disruption and change. Apple has settled into a zone of a tech fashion label, where their products have a tremendous function but there is a status element to it as well. A notch is a branding tool, much as the home button was before it. If nothing else, Apple is a master marketing company and they have done it again by making what was considered a trade-off an iconic piece of tech identification.