If you pointed to one single company as being the absolute best in the world at giving design a voice in corporate direction, it would be Apple. Because it was design that led to a string of massive hits—the Macintosh, the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone.
So it’s a bit surprising when Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of Frog who worked with Steve Jobs on both Apple’s iconic "Snow White" design language and the Next computer—and recent author of Keep It Simple—says Apple’s current problem with innovation is that designers don’t have enough power in the company, and that leadership is shifting Apple’s focus from innovation to marketing, adopting a defensive posture around the iPhone.
"I don’t want to trash Apple," Esslinger cautions. "I don’t want a Samsung phone!"
"[But] when, something is copied so often, and better and better, then it’s time to create the next innovation. It’s [also] a sign you have to transform from innovation strategy to a marketing strategy, and I think that’s a point Apple has reached. They’ve reached a level of saturation for a particular product. Even with superior design, you have to think the most advanced way to apply technology that will be fun and useful for people that also protects your profits."
"I think what Apple should do is not to rest on its laurels but invest radically into something. The iWatch would be incremental. That’s not a really a big jump."
If not the iWatch, then what? Esslinger circles back to a piece of advice he gave Steve Jobs back in 1997, when Jobs asked for his input on where to take Apple next. His response was personal electronics—something Jobs certainly agreed with in pursuing the iPod—as well as "micromechanics," or small, smart machines with mechanical functions. If micromechanical machines sound like the stuff of sci-fi, there’s good reason: They haven’t really been invented yet. And that’s where Esslinger sees a company like Apple, flush with a large war chest along with the best designers and engineers in the business, as perfectly poised to truly shift paradigms rather than copy a phone’s functions to a wrist. But there’s a catch:
"I think Jony Ive needs more power, and more cautious people should give in," Esslinger says. "He’s great. It’s not a matter of talent. He can do it. I think he tries really hard to do it. Give Apple designers some credit; they try hard. They need more power. That’d be my suggestion."
It’s worth noting that Jony Ive was recently given more power within Apple, assuming the role of head of human interface design, overseeing both Apple’s hardware and software. But to Esslinger, that promotion wasn’t enough to embolden Apple’s designers to create the next big thing—not without Steve Jobs connecting design to the c-suite in his unconventional but ultra-effective way.
"Steve and I never discussed design much. But what Steve really communicated was about his goals," Esslinger explains. "One million computers is a different animal than 100,000 computers. And what does it mean in terms of logistics, materials, semantics, symbolism?"
In that sense, Esslinger believes that Jobs’s obsession with scaling technology for mass consumption brought him naturally down the path of a more human-centric approach to computers, MP3 players, and smartphones. Or put differently, if Steve Jobs wanted to put a computer in every home back in the 1980s, then his team couldn’t create a computer as anyone knew it in the 1980s.
"He always wanted magic," Esslinger says. "What worked between me and Steve worked between him and Ive: We could translate what Steve really wanted."