Brunner, who will leave San Francisco design firm Pentagram this year to open a new design and marketing firm called Ammunition, is no design slouch himself. His work is included in the permanent collections of both MOMA and SFMOMA. In appearance, however, he is the antidesigner. “If Hollywood made a movie about Robert Brunner, the only man who could play him would be Steve McQueen,” wrote Nate Voss, introducing a September 2006 episode of the popular Be a Design Group podcast. This is a man whose latest work is a grill that is expensive, beautiful, and carefully detailed–but still very much a device on which men cook meat.
Brunner estimates that today Apple spends 15 to 20 percent of its industrial-design time on concept–far more than most other computer companies–and the rest on implementation. He says that Apple rides herd on manufacturers, sending design-team members to factories for weeks at a time to see what can be done and to push manufacturers to find new solutions. If the designers see a true innovation, they can integrate it into their designs and check the quality of execution at the point of manufacture.
“That’s why it’s perfect,” says Brunner, “and the reason this is getting done is because Steve Jobs is saying, ‘Do it.’”
“Pushing companies to innovate is a virtuous circle,” says Rolston.
Declaring the importance of industrial design may have at first been a purely emotional decision for Jobs, or he may have had some sense of design’s subconscious importance to customers. Either way, those interviewed for this article say the emphasis on design was there at Apple’s inception, and it was there because of Jobs.
That emphasis did persist in Jobs’s absence. But the company’s design process was different, explains Don Norman, who was vice president of advanced technology at Apple from 1993 to 1998. Norman, who now teaches product design at Northwestern University’s Institute for Design Engineering and Applications and serves as a principal at the Nielsen Norman Group, a consultancy that focuses on “the human-centered product development process,” led Apple teams that developed new technologies and helped develop the company’s process for product design.
“There were three evaluations required at the inception of a product idea: a marketing requirement document, an engineering requirement document, and a user-experience document,” Norman recalls. Rolston elaborates: “Marketing is what people want; engineering is what we can do; user experience is ‘Here’s how people like to do things.’”
“These three [documents] would be reviewed by a committee of executives, and if approved, the design group would get a budget, and a team leader would be assigned,” Norman says. At that point, he continues, “the team would work on expanding the three requirement documents, inserting plans on how they hoped to meet the marketing, engineering, and user-experience needs–figures for the release date, ad cycle, pricing details, and the like.” And the team’s progress would be continually reviewed as the project went forward.