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The Secret of Apple Design

The inside (sort of) story of why Apple’s industrial-design machine has been so successful.

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.

In the details: Clear plastic coats parts of the first iPod, an example of the “double-shot” manufacturing process.

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.


  • View a slide show of Apple design images.

  • Video: Bruce Sterling, the writer and design expert, explains why so many technology designs seem hostile.

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.

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.’”

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.

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.”

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.”

Why 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.

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