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Apple, Inc. has made an art of not talking about its products. Fans, journalists, and rumormongers who love it or love to hate it have long had to practice a sort of Kremlinology to gather the merest hints as to what is coming next out of Cupertino.

A case in point is this story, which was to be about the iPhone–about how an innovative and gorgeous piece of technology was conceived, designed, and produced by the vaunted industrial-design team at Apple. Along the way, it would address the larger question of how one company can so consistently excel at making products that become icons, win design awards, and inspire customers.

But the omerta that prevails at Apple proved too strong. Company representatives declined to speak with me, and sources only tangentially engaged with the industrial-design process said that they could not talk either. When I asked Paul Kunkel, author of the 1997 book AppleDesign, for tips on obtaining interviews, he laughed and said, “Go sit outside the design-group offices with a pizza.” What follows is as clear a picture of the Apple design process as we could get.

Designers tend to speak about the “genetic code” of products and companies. Pontiacs and BMWs, for example, can be recognized but also distinguished from each other by their split grilles. In some products, such distinctive characteristics serve mainly to aid brand recognition. But in complex objects such as computers, they can also signal operational familiarity: a customer who knows how to use product A will be able to use product B.

To whatever degree Apple can be said to make products with a distinctive genetic code, they can also be said to have inherited most of their traits from a single parent: founder Steve Jobs. Jobs left the company in 1985 and didn’t return until 1997. Nonetheless, according to many who have worked at Apple, sometimes in close proximity to Jobs, it was largely he who established the company’s emphasis on industrial design. Indeed, some would say that he made design a higher priority than technology.

Mark Rolston bears the title of senior vice president of creative at Frog Design, a product-design and strategic-branding firm that worked closely with Apple from 1982 to 1988. (Rolston did not work directly on any projects with Apple.) The company’s projects have ranged widely: retail display systems for Victoria’s Secret; websites for Microsoft, Dell, and Yahoo; webcams for Logitech. In publicity pictures, Rolston sports a T-shirt and an indie-rock mop of shaggy blond hair that bespeak his years in Austin, TX.

Even in the early 1980s, Rolston says, “Jobs wanted to elevate Apple by using design.” Jobs, he says, not only cared personally about design but saw that it could be a way to differentiate his company’s products from the PCs of the day, which often looked little evolved from hobbyist boxes. Ken Campbell, a codesigner of the Apple Lisa, was quoted in Kunkel’s AppleDesign as saying that Jobs wanted Apple to be what Olivetti was in the 1970s: “an undisputed leader in industrial design.”

Through much of 1982 and into early 1983, Jobs searched for a sympathetic design partner; he finally found one in Hartmut Esslinger of Frog Design. Together, the two companies developed the “Snow White” design language that was meant to give Apple’s products a coherent visual ­vocabulary, the appearance of being related.

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Credit: Peter Berlanger

Tagged: Business, Apple

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