That vocabulary featured, among other things, lines two millimeters wide and deep, spaced 10 millimeters apart, to suggest precision. (Some of the grooves were functional, acting as vents for airflow.) Case corners were rounded, but to differing degrees: if the curve at the back of a computer had a three-millimeter radius, the one at the front had a two-millimeter radius, reducing the machine’s perceived size. In addition, the rounded corners and lines echoed distinctive features of the Mac user interface of the time: rounded screen corners and horizontal lines in the grab bars of windows.
Such precise design requirements simply couldn’t be met by the manufacturing processes used to make most consumer objects–and certainly computers–at the time. Most manufacturers cheat when making plastic cases: they use molds with sloping sides called “drafts,” which let parts pop out more easily and make for simpler, cheaper production.
Jobs and Frog Design wanted “zero-draft” molding, which yields perfectly perpendicular sides but costs more. No other computer manufacturer at the time was using zero-draft molding, which helped give Apple’s products a distinctive look. Also, the more-precise manufacturing process meant that the cases of Apple computers could fit more tightly around the internal components, saving plastic, packaging material, and shipping costs.
Much of Frog Design’s expertise at manipulating plastics came from its experience designing cases for home electronics, for clients such as Sony in Europe. “That was the first success with plastics in casing instead of wood,” says Rolston, remembering the days when TVs were built into cabinets or encased in fake wood paneling. “That’s what moved electronic products away from the role of furniture.” And Apple’s designs in the Apple II era of the late 1970s moved computers out of labs and basements and into dens, living rooms, and bedrooms: places where people form emotional attachments to the things around them.
The company still works closely with manufacturers, according to Rolston. “Apple takes an amazing interest in material selection and how things are manufactured,” he says. “They continually ask what a manufacturer can do for them.” Frog Design’s experience with PC maker Packard Bell, he says, was much different, given the company’s emphasis on economy: “We had to ask what the factory already did and how we could accommodate it. We found out that their case came together at the last moment, so we made that part of our design decision and focused on snap-on faceplates.”
But Apple, Rolston says, “will change a whole factory’s process.” What’s more, he adds, the company keeps its eyes open for new manufacturing possibilities, no matter how obscure. One example is the “double-shot” method of combining layers of different or different-colored materials. Apple “saw that a manufacturer had a special process for this on a small scale,” Rolston says, and incorporated layered materials into its designs–for example, the clear plastic layered over colored materials in iPods and older iMacs. “[Apple] pushed them to do it on a much larger scale. Apple helped the manufacturers master the process and product.”
Robert Brunner says his team pushed manufacturers in the same way during his tenure as Apple’s director of industrial design from 1989 to early 1996 (“I just missed Steve Jobs’s return,” he says, but he notes that before he left, he hired Jonathan Ive, who has since become–next to Jobs–the person most identified with Apple’s design primacy). “For example,” he says, “if a power supply was too big for the form we wanted to use, we told a manufacturer, ‘Let’s figure out a way to use a new power supply.’”