Brunner says that part of what makes minimalist design possible at Apple is the way Jobs structured the design group–and the way he privileged it. “The design leader has to walk a fine line,” he says. “He has to be integrated with the company but keep his team members protected from being lobbied by marketing, engineers, manufacturers. They all have viewpoints on design.” In recognition of these pressures, Apple has always kept its design team small–somewhere between 12 and 20 people, Brunner estimates.
“They’re a small team that takes a very, very hands-on approach,” adds Rolston. “We do a lot of similar products for other companies–say, Sony. But the process of approval, and collaboration generally–for everything from shape to engineering–involves tons of people, taking up to 50 percent of the time, watering it down.” What makes Apple Apple and not Sony, says Rolston, is clarity of voice and vision.
And the secret to that clarity may be, like Edgar Allen Poe’s purloined letter, hidden in plain sight. Sources will say, off the record, that Apple’s design mavens shun interviews in order to sustain the idea that their success is the result of having a great team in place. But it may ultimately boil down to who hired and gave power to that team–Steve Jobs as not just an enabler but an active participant.
“Jobs is a dictator, but with good taste,” says Norman. “He is good and driven to the perfect experience. He doesn’t want good design; he wants great design.” Brunner similarly lauds Jobs’s “driven, singular focus.” And Rolston says, in what is perhaps the best explanation of Apple’s design ascendancy, “It’s a happy coincidence at Apple that the designer in chief is the CEO. He has a fantastic sense of what people want. And after all, that is design.”
Apple’s designs are now the stuff of legend–and the object of fascination and envy. But is the focus on design worth it? Why spend time and money making a computer look good? Why do we care what it looks like?
“Attractive things work better,” says Don Norman, who was vice president of advanced technology at Apple from 1993 to 1998. “When you wash and wax a car, it drives better, doesn’t it? Or at least feels like it does.”
Norman cites research in cognitive science suggesting that people’s emotions affect the way their minds process information. In his 2004 book Emotional Design, he writes, “Positive emotions are critical to learning, curiosity, and creative thought. … The psychologist Alice Isen and her colleagues have shown that being happy broadens the thought processes and facilitates creative thinking.”
In multiple studies, Isen, a professor of psychology and S. C. Johnson Professor of Marketing at Cornell University, made subjects feel happy through a number of means, including gifts of candy and words or pictures with pleasant associations. The subjects were then asked to perform tasks that measure creativity; over the course of 20 years, Isen and her colleagues regularly found that subjects exhibited much more creativity when they were in a good mood.
And conversely, Norman says, when you’re in a bad mood, when you’re tense, you tend to be less creative–and less patient with the tools you’re using. “Someone in a positive mood,” Norman says, “faced with something that doesn’t work, might say, ‘Oh, I’ll get around it.’ But someone in a negative mood will get frustrated and have a ‘Damn it’ moment.” That’s where design comes in. “Studies tie attractive design to positive attitude,” he says.
Dan Turner is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. His work has appeared in I.D., Salon, the New York Times, and elsewhere.
More design articles: Take an inside look at the making of the Ocean, a new phone from a company called Helio (see “Soul of a New Machine”). Read a review of how Apple remains deeply committed to being a computer company (see “The ‘New’ Apple”). Get insights on the state of Web design from print-design legend Roger Black (see “Help Me Redesign the Web”), and find out what Bill Moggridge, a cofounder of Ideo and designer of the GRiD Compass, thinks makes good design (see Q&A). Take a glimpse at the pieces of technology that the prominent industrial designers featured in these articles say have influenced the way they think about their work (see “Objects of Desire”). Finally, hear from Technology Review’s Editor in Chief, Jason Pontin, on the well-designed technologies that are “beautiful machines” in this video.