Co.Design

4 Myths About Apple Design, From An Ex-Apple Designer

What's life really like designing for Apple? An alum shares what he learned during his seven years in Cupertino.

Apple is synonymous with upper echelon design, but very little is known about the company's design process. Most of Apple's own employees aren't allowed inside Apple's fabled design studios. So we're left piecing together interviews, or outright speculating about how Apple does it and what it's really like to be a designer at the company.

Enter Mark Kawano. Before founding Storehouse, Kawano was a senior designer at Apple for seven years, where he worked on Aperture and iPhoto. Later, Kawano became Apple's User Experience Evangelist, guiding third-party app iOS developers to create software that felt right on Apple's platforms. Kawano was with the company during a critical moment, as Apple released the iPhone and created the wide world of apps.

In an interview with Co.Design, Kawano spoke frankly about his time at Apple--and especially wanted to address all the myths the industry has about the company and about its people.

Myth #1

Apple Has The Best Designers

"I think the biggest misconception is this belief that the reason Apple products turn out to be designed better, and have a better user experience, or are sexier, or whatever . . . is that they have the best design team in the world, or the best process in the world," Kawano says. But in his role as user experience evangelist, meeting with design teams from Fortune 500 companies on a daily basis, he absorbed a deeper truth.

"It's actually the engineering culture, and the way the organization is structured to appreciate and support design. Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that's what makes everything about the product so much better . . . much more than any individual designer or design team."

It has often been said that good design needs to start at the top--that the CEO needs to care about design as much as the designers themselves. People often observe that Steve Jobs brought this structure to Apple. But the reason that structure works isn't because of a top-down mandate. It's an all around mandate. Everyone cares.

"It's not this thing where you get some special wings or superpowers when you enter Cupertino. It's that you now have an organization where you can spend your time designing products, instead of having to fight for your seat at the table, or get frustrated when the better design is passed over by an engineering manager who just wants to optimize for bug fixing. All of those things are what other designers at other companies have to spend a majority of their time doing. At Apple, it's kind of expected that experience is really important."

Kawano underscores that everyone at Apple--from the engineers to the marketers--is, to some extent, thinking like a designer. In turn, HR hires employees accordingly. Much like Google hires employees that think like Googlers, Apple hires employees that truly take design into consideration in all of their decisions.

"You see companies that have poached Apple designers, and they come up with sexy interfaces or something interesting, but it doesn't necessarily move the needle for their business or their product. That's because all the designer did was work on an interface piece, but to have a really well-designed product in the way Steve would say, this 'holistic' thing, is everything. It's not just the interface piece. It's designing the right business model into it. Designing the right marketing and the copy, and the way to distribute it. All of those pieces are critical."

Myth #2

Apple's Design Team Is Infinite

Facebook has hundreds of designers. Google may have 1,000 or more. But when Kawano was at Apple, its core software products were designed by a relatively small group of roughly 100 people.

"I knew every one of them by face and name," Kawano says.

For the most part, Apple didn't employ specialist designers. Every designer could hold their own in both creating icons and new interfaces, for instance. And thanks to the fact that Apple hires design-centric engineers, the relatively skeleton design team could rely on engineers to begin the build process on a new app interface, rather than having to initiate their own mock-up first.

Of course, this approach may be changing today.

"For Apple, having a small, really focused organization made a lot of sense when Steve was there, because so many ideas came from Steve. So having a smaller group work on some of these ideas made sense," Kawano says. "As Apple shifted to much more of a company where there's multiple people at the top, I think it makes sense that they're growing the design team in interesting ways."

Notably, Jony Ive, who now heads usability across hardware and software, is reported to have brought in some of the marketing team to help redesign iOS 7. It's a coup, when you think about it, for marketers to be deep in the trenches with designers and engineers. (That level of collaboration is frankly unprecedented in the industry.)

Myth #3

Apple Crafts Every Detail With Intention

Apple products are often defined by small details, especially those around interaction. Case in point: When you type a wrong password, the password box shakes in response. These kinds of details are packed with meaningful delight. They're moments that seem tough to explain logically but which make sense on a gut level.

"So many companies try to mimic this idea . . . that we need to come up with this snappy way to do X, Y, and Z. They're designing it, and they can't move onto the next thing until they get a killer animation or killer model of the way data is laid out," Kawano explains. The reality? "It's almost impossible to come up with really innovative things when you have a deadline and schedule."

Kawano told us that Apple designers (and engineers!) will often come up with clever interactive ideas--like 3-D cube interfaces or bouncy physics-based icons--during a bit of their down time, and then they might sit on them for years before they make sense in a particular context.

"People are constantly experimenting with these little items, and because the teams all kind of know what other people have done, once a feature comes up--say we need a good way to give feedback for a password, and we don't want to throw up this ugly dialog--then it's about grabbing these interaction or animation concepts that have just been kind of built for fun experiments and seeing if there's anything there, and then applying the right ones."

But if you're imagining some giant vault of animation ideas hiding inside Apple and waiting to be discovered, you'd be wrong. The reality, Kawano explains, was far more bohemian.

"There wasn't a formalized library, because most of the time there wasn't that much that was formalized of anything that could be stolen," Kawano says. "It was more having a small team and knowing what people had worked on, and the culture of being comfortable sharing."

Myth #4

Steve Jobs's Passion Frightened Everyone

There was a commonly shared piece of advice inside Apple--maybe you've heard it before--that a designer should always take the stairs, because if you met Steve Jobs in the elevator, he'd ask what you were up to. And one of two things would happen:

1. He'd hate it, and you might be fired.
2. He'd love it, the detail would gain his attention, and you'd lose every foreseeable night, weekend, and vacation to the project.

Kawano laughs when he tells it to me, but the conclusion he draws is more nuanced than the obvious Catch 22 punchline.

"The reality is, the people who thrived at Apple were the people who welcomed that desire and passion to learn from working with Steve, and just really were dedicated to the customer and the product. They were willing to give up their weekends and vacation time. And a lot of the people who complained that it wasn't fair . . . they didn't see the value of giving all that up versus trying to create the best product for the customer and then sacrificing everything personally to get there."

"That's where, a lot of times, he would get a bad rap, but he just wanted the best thing, and expected everyone else to want that same thing. He had trouble understanding people who didn't want that same thing and wondered why they'd be working for him if that was the case. I think Steve had a very low tolerance for people who didn't care about stuff. He had a very hard time understanding why people would work in these positions and not want to sacrifice everything for them."

As for Kawano, did he ever get an amazing piece of advice, or an incredible compliment from Jobs?

"Nothing personally," he admits, and then laughs. "The only thing that was really positive was, in the cafeteria one time, when he told me that the salmon I took looked really great, and he was going to go get that."

"He was just super accessible. I totally tried to get him to cut in front of me, but he'd never want do anything like that. That was interesting too, he was super demanding . . . but when it came to other things, he wanted to be very democratic, and to be treated like everyone else. And he was constantly struggling with those roles."

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57 Comments

  • Irina Mărincaș

    If you don’t build your dream, someone else will hire you to help them build theirs.

  • Joey Lopez

    This just in, reality happens and everyone knows it.

    I’ll opine on one point here: Google’s “thousands” of designers - is a laughing stalk. G openly bragging about over a thousand “assistants, designers, etc.” working on the Roboto typeface family, was the most hilarious thing ever uttered and screams ineptitude of both PR team, upper management, or both (because it’s either not true, or if it is true, it’s the stupidest thing ever to happen in human history). Apple has around a hundred designers? SAY IT AIN’T SO! how is “infinite” a myth? who here ever thought “gee apple must have 19,000 designers” no, we’re probably reading this blog because we are a designer, and know that it can be one, or ten, or one hundred people working on projectS but it’s ludicras to even fathom design by committee with large numbers. who possibly believes that? NOBODY! so why was it brought up as a MYTH????? omg this article has broken my brain.

  • The idea that if you don't want to work on weekends or give up your vacation time, you aren't committed enough to your career or company is so insulting and manipulative.

    That's the same as saying, "If you want to actually cash your paycheck, use your health benefits or contribute to your 401K you don't care about your job." Vacation time is part of your compensation package. It's negotiated before you are hired and your employer agreed to let you have it as a term of your employment. It's also time we all need to rejuvenate ourselves so we don't get burnt out at our jobs.

    Don't ever let a boss like this guy tell you differently. It absolutely steams me when I hear employers act like you have done something wrong by actually taking the vacation you were promised when you were hired. There's no rule that says you have to offer paid vacation. If you don't want your employees taking vacations, just say that. Don't lie to them and say you offer vacation time because you really don't.

  • Agreed. I definitely would not have been liked by Steve then. Nothing is more important to me than family. But I also believe that near his death, Steve revealed in an interview that he wished he had spent more time with his kids..... That is a regret that I choose to never have.

  • Absolutely agree with you here. I think if you are an entrepreneur or high level leader then it makes sense to want to give up your vacation time and personal time to your endeavor. Like for Steve, he sacrificed so much of himself for his company's success.

    However if you are an employee you are working for someone else, you should not have this expectation. You should be expected to work hard, yes, and even dedicate your career. But by no means should anyone take away the time they were promised for vacation and so on. We should have a democratic society that affords individuals the ability to succeed in their careers but also spend time with their families or seeking new experiences outside of work. If you are an employee and not an employer, I think this is only fair.

    Question for you, how do you feel about so-called "unlimited vacation" companies? I get the sense that since there is an undefined number of vacation days, this may also mean "no vacation".

  • I disagree.

    Places with "unlimited vacation," in theory, are built on the idea of trust.

    Trust that you'll get the work done.

    You know what? Sometimes in the real world, you have to work late.

    And sometimes, in the real world, you have a family obligation that bleeds into the 9-to-5.

    Some years you may (from a financial or workload standpoint) not be able to take a vacation.

    Other years, you may be able to go on a two-week holiday in Hawaii.

    The trust is, you're going to get your work done. And everything else balances out in the end.

    If more companies started (and followed through) with this trust in their employee relations, retention would not be an issue.

  • This comment and the above totally miss the point. This isn't about an expectation from the company that you miss your vacations. It is about an internal drive to create something spectacular that drives you to work towards that perfection. You are the driving factor behind missing vacation.

    Jobs was like that and so he wanted to surround himself with people like that.

    Just like you guys are 9-5ers who just want to do "Only what is expected" and then go home and enjoy other parts of your life. Which is why you'll probably never be a major part of something like the iPhone or iPad creation.

  • mrmarcburrage

    Rubbish - being focussed on your family has nothing to do with whether or not you'll ever create something amazing. I'd like to think I'm MORE likely to because I have a more rounded life and am not just focussed on my job.

    The title 9-5ers is both insulting and infuriating.

  • As someone in design industry, I totally understand there is just that moment, you just don't care about everything else but the piece you are working on. It will be unhealthy, if this obsession becomes too much in my life. I've kinda learned myself the art of balancing "being obsessed" and "Don't give a ####" about work, and things in general.

    I always find somewhat warm and relieved, when on Apple "Give thanks to everyone and their families" upon new product launch. They may be the cause of daddies and mammies coming home late, but they are also the ones who understand the values of their sacrifices, with financial compensation.

    There are some companies which just don't understand that there is "Sacrifices" behind a great product. Either they fear of legal obligations or they try hide the great guy, as an anonymous creature that is replaceable a any time.

  • Evelyne Kanakis

    Interesting article... Thanks to Apple that educated the business world on the importance of UX within a corporation, rather than just developers, developers, developers!

  • I think Jobs design centeric engineering was almost autocratic and I wonder if the environment was anything but democratic.

    Nobody questioned Steve's vision, and where his tastes aspire from. I don't know if or do Apple have the best design, I believe they took a very different approach from any other design/marketing company, and their products stood out. Marrying the peculiarity with hype, and yes - the legibility and simplicity worked wonders.

    Nokia was equally really good at design, their design had purpose and are truly appealing. I don't know if they were very sure of the market or succeeded in building the hype around their products. IMHO, they launched too many products and canabalized on their novelty factor, in which Apple gains huge points.

  • Another myth I often here is, "Apple does not test with 'users'." I was hoping Kawano might address that myth. The context in which it comes up is something like, "We don't need usability testing or qualitative research - look at Apple, they don't test with users, Steve just had great ideas that resonated with people."

  • petere1917

    Really? I've never heard it raised in the context - normally it's by way of comparison with the popular image of Microsoft as a company which develops products half-way and then releases them, using early adopters as de facto beta testers (while still making a profit off them). Apple, on the other hand, is often seen as "not testing with users" and instead testing out all the bugs internally, prior to release.

    Where popular image and reality start and end in all of that I'm not quite sure, and obviously it's anecdotal, but often as I've heard that sentiment raised it's always been intended to mean nearly the exact opposite of what you posit it to mean here.