If there is one thing that CEO Tim Cook doesn't want people to know, it's what dwells behind his company's "signature." As a result, most efforts to explain design at Apple end up reducing a complex 37-year history to bromides about simplicity, quality, and perfection—as if those were ambitions unique to Apple alone. So Fast Company set out to remedy that deficiency through an oral history of Apple's design, a decoding of the signature as told by the people who helped create it. This is part 3 in the series.
TONY FADELL, senior VP, iPod division (now CEO, Nest Labs):
Design at Apple was product, product, product until about 2001. Then Apple's design became experiential. There was a product—the iPod—and then software that hinged to the product, iTunes. And then a retail experience. That's what created the Apple design philosophy as we know it today.
WALKER: All of the wonks were saying the personal computer was dead. And then one day—you never quite knew where Steve would get his ideas, because he would sometimes lay claim to others' ideas as his own—Steve woke up and decided not only was the computer not dead, but it was more important than ever. The computer was the center of this ecosystem and there were spokes: pictures, work, music.
Jobs unveiled the "Digital Hub" strategy at Macworld in January 2001, announcing a simple MP3 application, iTunes, that would allow Mac users to burn custom playlists and listen to Internet radio stations.
RUBINSTEIN: We were looking at all the devices you could use with a Mac. We looked at cameras and we just didn't see where we could add enough value. With cell phones and PDAs [personal digital assistants], we concluded that the PDA was just going to get consumed by the phone. Music players really stood out as the one thing where there were no entrenched competitors. The products on the market were crap.
WALKER: I'd like to tell you the iPod was because of some deep skunk works R&D operation, but it didn't happen that way. It started because Jon Rubinstein was at the Toshiba factory in Japan. They had these tiny hard drives, and Ruby saw the potential.
RUBINSTEIN: I would do regular visits with all of our suppliers to review all the products they were doing and see how they fit into our product road map. We went into Toshiba, and at the end of the meeting, they showed us the 1.8-inch hard drive. They didn't know what to do with it. I said, "We'll take all you can make." I went to Steve: "Hey, I'm gonna need about 10 million bucks." That's when I went looking for someone to manage the team—and that's when I found Tony.
FADELL: That hard drive—there was nothing else like it on the planet. It was the enabler that made the iPod work. At Fuse Systems [Fadell's previous company], we were creating this MP3 player for home stereos. It was rack-mounted because there was no storage that was small enough.
RUBINSTEIN: Tony has tried to rewrite history where he says that he came up with the idea, that he was working on it independently. That's total nonsense.
SATZGER: If you look up iPod creator, they called Jony "Jony iPod." The "Godfather of the iPod" is Tony. And there's "Mr. iPod" Rubinstein. It's like none of those three guys can accept that it was a team of people who changed the world when they created this product.
FADELL: I started in January 2001 as a contractor. The idea was "1,000 songs in your pocket"—a long-battery-life device that syncs with the Mac. In the fourth week of March, I showed the first design to Steve. It had a navigation control, and [marketing chief] Phil Schiller said, "You should do a jog shuttle wheel." And that was it. It all happened in a one-hour meeting. I made the device in foam models. We gave it to Jony to skin it.
SATZGER: Tony brought in a stack of foam models about the size of a cigarette package. We looked at soft shapes, metals, and the double-shot plastic that we ended up using. It couldn't get too wild. The package size was really defined by its components.
FADELL: It was basically a two-piece shell—a plastic top with a metal back—because we could get that done really fast. Once the iPod came out, all of the other products started looking like it: It was all the same language.
The minimalist design for the iPod did not come out of nowhere. Ive's team had been toying with similar designs for years, beginning with the G4 Cube desktop computer as well as the Titanium PowerBook G4, which was released shortly before the iPod.
RUBINSTEIN: The Cube was our only real crap-out, which was too bad, because it was actually a great product, just too expensive. We learned a lot about materials, curved plastics, touch switches—and it was a tremendous piece of industrial design. It set the foundation for almost all of our future products.
SATZGER: The market had outgrown the transparent stuff. Shortly after the iMac, we did the Titanium PowerBook, and then we redesigned the iBook in white. The white definitely came from Jony. I had to go to a couple of suppliers and say, "We want to do the whitest white." We pushed them to the limit of adding titanium to the base resin, and then we had to make sure we adjusted the blue levels, because too much blue makes it look like a washing machine.
LINDSAY: Steve always wanted to stay one step ahead. When the industry started to become very colorful and lickable, then he realized—and Jony and I realized—that we needed to take a different path. Let's go minimalistic, less color, focus more on patterns and textures, and different inspirations for design.
ZWERNER: We were kind of like, Who needs another Walkman? While the design [of the iPod] was great, it was just an MP3 player. The iPod languished for a while. It wasn't until the iTunes Store that everyone was like, Holy shit, this is gonna be phenomenal.
[Illustrations by Benoit Challand | Amanda Mocci]