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It was a fairly typical process for the industry, says ­Brunner. “A division–portables, desktops, et cetera–would decide on a product they wanted to do and eventually engage the design group.” Sometimes the design group would have early input on the product; but sometimes “we’d hear, ‘You have two weeks,’” he says. “There was already a configuration set, and then it’d just be a styling task.”

Norman describes Apple’s design method back then as “a well-structured process” and says he is still proud of it. But he is quick to point out its shortcomings.

“It was a consultative process,” he says; many different points of view and impressions were solicited. But “this can lead to a lack of cohesion in the product, when you find yourself asking another manager, ‘What are you adding in?’” Rolston observes that within such a framework, “you’d get a cascade of people responsible for various factors injecting their concerns.”

And, Norman adds, the consultative process could take a toll on the product line as a whole. Look, he says, at the 70-odd Performa models Apple churned out between 1992 and 1997–models that varied only in hard-drive size, in whether they had modems, or in whether they were sold directly or through a retailer.

“The businessman wants to create something for everyone, which leads to products that are middle of the road,” says Brunner. “It becomes about consensus, and that’s why you rarely see the spark of genius.”

“Critical to Apple’s success in design is the way Jobs brought focus and discipline to the product teams,” ­Norman says. “[Jobs] had a single, cohesive image of the final product and would not allow any deviation, no matter how promising a new proposed feature appeared to be, no matter how much the team complained. Other companies are more democratic, listening to everyone’s opinions, and the result is bloat and a lack of cohesion.

“The difference between BJ and AJ, Before and After Jobs, is not the process,” he continues. “It is the person. Never before did Apple have such focus and dedication. Apple used to wobble, moving this way and that. No more.”

One direct result of that sharpened focus is Apple’s unique ability to create simple products. Though the idea of a simple high-tech device seems counterintuitive (why not offer more functionality if you can?), it’s worked for Apple.

“The hardest part of design, especially consumer electronics,” says Norman, “is keeping features out.” Simplicity, he says, is in itself a product differentiator, and pursuing it can lead to innovation.

Rolston agrees. “The most fundamental thing about Apple that’s interesting to me,” he says, “is that they’re just as smart about what they don’t do. Great products can be made more beautiful by omitting things.”

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Credit: Peter Berlanger

Tagged: Business, Apple

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