Editors’ note: The following is an excerpt from Design Forward: Creative Strategies for Sustainable Change (Arnoldsche Art Publishers), by Hartmut Esslinger.
In 1982, Apple was in its sixth year of existence, and Steve Jobs, Apple’s cofounder and Chairman, was twenty-eight years old. Steve, intuitive and fanatical about great design, realized that the company was in crisis. With the exception of the aging Apple IIe, the company’s products were failing against IBM’s PCs. And they all were ugly, especially the Apple III and soon-to-be-released Apple Lisa. The company’s previous CEO, Michael Scott, had created different “business divisions” for each product line, including accessories such as monitors and memory drives. Each division had its own head of design and developed its product line any way it wanted to. As a result, Apple’s products shared little in the way of a common design language or overall synthesis. In essence, bad design was both the symptom and a contributing cause of Apple’s corporate disease. Steve’s desire to end this disjointed approach gave birth to a strategic design project that would revolutionize Apple’s brand and product lines, change the trajectory of the company’s future, and eventually redefine the way the world thinks about and uses consumer electronics and communication technologies.
The idea for the project was inspired by the work of the Richardson Smith Design Agency (later acquired by Fitch) for Xerox in which the designers collaborated with multiple divisions within Xerox to create a single high-level “design language” that the company could implement throughout its organization. Jerry Manock, the designer of the Apple II and head of design in Apple’s Macintosh division, and Rob Gemmell, head of design in the Apple II division, created a plan in which they would invite global designers to Apple headquarters and, after interviewing all of them, stage a competition between the two top candidates. Apple would choose a final winner and then use that design as the framework for its new design language. No one knew at that time, however, that we were in the process of transforming Apple into a company whose design-based strategy and innovation-over-money approach would make it a global success.
Early in 1982 i met with Steve Jobs in Cupertino, California. In comparison to Sony’s well-established (and well-funded) Design and Product Planning Center and R&D departments, Apple was just a start-up. But meeting Steve Jobs was a life-changing and career-transforming event. We began by talking about my work–Steve was especially taken by frog’s designs for Sony, all of which had become globally successful products. Then, he explained what he wanted Apple to achieve with its design: “We want to sell one million plus Macs”–more than ten times the number of Apple II computers the company had shipped. I explained that great design alone wouldn’t get him to that number.
I offered Steve a number of proposals for meeting his goal. First, Apple would need totally different systems for engineering, third-party partnerships, manufacturing and logistics as well as design. I also proposed that Apple could compensate for its lack of world-class mechanical engineering by using Sony, Canon, Samsung, and other electronic consumer companies in Asia as development and manufacturing partners. Most importantly, I explained, Apple needed one design team that directly reported to him, and that design had to be involved far ahead of any actual product development in Apple’s strategic planning. This system would enable Apple to project new technologies and consumer interactions for years ahead, which would avoid shortsighted ad-hoc developments.
Frog had yet to win the competition, but Steve agreed with my ideas about his company. He promised that when the competition was over, design would move up in Apple’s hierarchy and report directly to him. He also promised that if frog won the competition and I became a consultant to Apple, he would name me the company’s corporate manager of design–a promise Steve went on to keep. Naturally, this promise was both motivating and inspiring, but I knew it upped the ante of the challenge I was facing. Neither Apple’s division managers nor its designers would accept this restructuring without a fight. Steve said, “That’s your task, now.” And so, my work began.
Each design project starts with research to discover what’s out there and to explore the possibilities of what could be, but isn’t yet. When we launched the Snow White project, computers offered little in the way of design, but their technologies were advancing rapidly. Performance was growing, physical sizes were shrinking, and–thanks to “professional” pricing versus “consumer” pricing–profit margins were still healthy. Personal computers were in their infancy, and Apple had an edge with its use of Xerox Parc’s bitmap user interface, which appealed to everybody, not just professional computer users. However, most of Apple’s products were primitive in their mechanical design, and their manufacturing costs were absurd. By leveraging the advanced electronics production methods being used in Germany or Japan, I projected that we could lower housing costs by 70 to 90%. So, we decided to use the same technically radical design approach for Apple’s products that we used for Sony’s. In fact, we could make the designs even better and more ecologically sound by using a case-production technique that resulted in a world-class, high-quality surface that didn’t require paint.
We had no clear demographic market data, as there was no true precedent for our new approach in the technical market. We had to create a new paradigm for computers as the first industrial, mass-produced form of artificial intelligence for use by general consumers. As i explored ideas for designing the “face” of this new form, I looked at history, in particular Native American mythology, because I thought that Apple’s design should be rooted in the West Coast’s past. This search led us to the geometric sand paintings of the Navajo, then on to the art of the Aztecs, whose carved stone reliefs often resembled astronauts. Those images inspired us to design Apple’s computers to look like little people and to transform the display screen into a face.
After many talks with Steve and other Apple executives, we determined three directions for further exploration:
• Concept 1 was defined by “what Sony would do if it built computers.” I didn’t like this idea, as it could create conflicts with Sony, but Steve insisted. He felt that Sony’s simple, cool design language should be a good benchmark, and Sony was the current pacesetter in making high-tech consumer products smarter, smaller, and more portable.
• Concept 2 would express “Americana,” reconnecting high-tech design with classical American design statements, especially Raymond Loewy’s streamlined designs for Studebaker and other automotive clients, the Electrolux line of household appliances, Gestetner’s office products, and (naturally) the Coke bottle.
• Concept 3 was left to me. it could be as radical as possible–and that made it the best kind of challenge. Concept A and B were well-founded in proven statements, so Concept C was my ticket for a voyage toward a mysterious destination. It also would become the winner.
Working on Concept 1 was easy because I “knew” Sony’s design strategy. I didn’t copy that strategy but used it rather as a starting point as I conceptualized a system of modular elements that would allow Apple to create many different products with fewer parts. But this concept had drawbacks: The assembly costs were high and the result simply wasn’t cool enough. Clearly, creating nice shapes was only one aspect of the challenge we were facing.
Working on Concept 2 was great in the beginning, and we got quick results. But the concept’s retro-futuristic approach was not innovative enough. We designed some beautiful shapes but with little conceptual content, and the entire concept simply didn’t express the new semantics we were aiming for. I began to wonder whether the streamline design was too young to feel historic. I understood the attraction of the concept; people are quick to reject any true innovation and so always want to find something familiar in anything new. Nevertheless, the idea behind Concept 2 simply didn’t work, and so we moved on.
Concept 3 offered a golden opportunity to create and visualize a revolution–and I got stuck. Due to my work for electronics companies such as Wega and Sony, I knew that I was going to have to stretch myself beyond my comfort level. Looking at Mario Bellini’s and Ettore Sottsass’s work for Olivetti didn’t help: Their designs were too expressive, and their elitist style wouldn’t appeal to the mass audience we were targeting. Steve Jobs liked Dieter Rams’s design for Braun, and I admired Dieter’s understated approach to design, but I found it a bit too exclusive for the time. In fact, Apple wasn’t a “computer company.” Apple was about a new paradigm: artificial intelligence products for consumers–children, seniors, and everybody in between. My past work didn’t inform this project.
What helped me to catch the right spirit was the time I spent hanging out with programmers like Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson. They talked of software almost poetically while their screens just showed lines of abstract-looking code. Those lines became a key inspiration for my work. The second inspiration was Bill’s prediction that all bulky, physical technology, from monitors to CPU boxes, would eventually give way to elegant “slates.” So the visual DNA for Concept 3 was “lines and slates,” which also meant “no angles,” just transitions. And the color had to be white–or as white as possible.
We shipped the first set of models to California, and after discussions with all of Apple’s teams, we agreed that Concept 3, “lines, slates, and no angles”–a design language we would name “Snow White”–was the way to go. We also created a brief description of the concept’s signature elements and visual treatments:
• Slates with a zero-draft character shape, minimal surface texture, no paint, minimal transitional angles when needed (monitors), and volumes/sizes as small as possible.
• Symmetry, whenever possible.
• Thin lines from front to rear, 2 mm wide, 2 mm deep, grid 10 mm, recessed at front = 30 mm, recessed at rear = 4–10mm.
• Color = white, soft olive gray as a contrast [in late 1984 the lone color would become a light gray called “platinum”].
• Branding = solitary Apple logo badge with seamless inlay into the design. Product naming in tampon-print, dark gray. Typestyle: Adrian Frutiger’s Univers condensed italic and Garamond condensed.
After discussing the technology and possible trends with Apple’s managers and engineers, Bill Atkinson challenged me to include projections about future developments like flat screens, touch interfaces, and the merging of telephones into computers. Back in germany, frog went to work again, and I used Bill’s input to go beyond the basic Snow White project requirements and conceptualize possible new future products as well. Bill even combined a European vacation with a work session in our Black Forest studio. The results were probably the world’s first concept of a wireless mobile flip-phone, a touch-pad computer, and a laptop computer with a screen as large as a keyboard and touch interface. When Steve presented the laptop Mac model to the Mac team during the final recess in 1983 as “the next Macintosh we will build,” they gasped in disbelief. But I knew this work was extremely important. After more than a decade in electronic design, I had seen many technologies and companies come and go, and I was sure that Apple needed a design strategy that went beyond computer boxes, keyboards, mice, and monitors.
For the final presentation, we turned a room at Apple’s Mariani building into a showroom. Even by today’s standards, it was one of the best presentations I can remember. Steve Jobs was really excited and so were Apple’s board members, who also had the treat of viewing the slides show and models, and hearing us discuss our concept. frog won, and to make our success complete, Apple awarded us an annual $2 million contract and put us in charge of all Apple designs. Even though i remained a consultant, I was named corporate manager of design–as Steve had promised. Now, the real work would begin.
Steve Jobs had acquired much more than a new look; our collaboration had resulted in a new direction for Apple, as the world’s first digital consumer electronics company. And Steve had also advanced his understanding of products and their effects in the marketplace. He had embraced the new concept of simple, additive shapes, presented in white with no added color. In fact, when he spoke at the 1983 Aspen Design Conference later that year, he even condemned Sony’s “dark metallic paint.” For Steve, everything was black or white. That kind of direct, no-prisoners mentality combined with his unique ability to listen and eventually change direction when confronted with a better way made him an ideal partner for progress.
[Snow White Concept 3, “Jonathan Mac,” 1982]
Even though I had the full backing of Steve Jobs, most of Apple’s designers still considered themselves to be in charge of design, and nearly all of them refused to cooperate with me. I felt that the company was still in crisis mode in view of the Apple III flop and the growing Lisa disaster, and it could not afford such a lack of professional discipline. So, I didn’t budge. as a result of our standoff, some designers–including Jerry Manock–left Apple, and others had to be asked to leave or moved to other departments, including Rob Gemmell, to whom I am still thankful. John Sculley–Apple’s new CEO–didn’t help the situation, either. His response to any dispute brought before him was to ask in full corporate voice, “Is this professional or personal?” It all was professional, as far as i was concerned. So i was incredibly grateful for the support by Steve Jobs and determined to repay him with my own commitment to excellence. He had asked for the world’s best design, and he would get it. It was a simple as that.
When the “whimsical” Apple IIc won Time magazine’s recognition as 1984’s Design of the Year, Steve’s vision was validated in a way that went beyond great sales numbers. Unfortunately, Apple’s overall performance wasn’t strong that year. Macintosh sales were well below expectations, due to the computer’s subpar design and sharply higher price, which John Sculley had ratcheted up from $1,900 to $2,500. In spite of the Apple IIc success, therefore, we were in no position to sit down and take a breather. Now, we had to keep feeding the Snow White design into Apple’s other product lines.
We next shifted our focus to Apple’s printers and a final redesign of the Apple II desktop line. In close collaboration with Canon, we launched a major innovation breakthrough with the LaserWriter. To get away from the ugly “dot-matrix” printing that was the accepted norm at that time, Steve licensed typesetting-quality typestyles from the Berthold type foundry in Berlin. Apple’s developer improved anti-alias technology so much that the postscript programming became the new standard of desktop publishing.
As we moved more deeply into Apple’s future product development, we felt that the Snow White design language was a bit too soft and a bit too complex in its details. To make the design more competitive, we sharpened the details and extended its application to smaller products and new technologies. As our “show cars,” we created telephones (in collaboration with AT&T), TV-connectable Macs, and a collection of products that could become viable for future digital electronic development, such as music and video players. At Steve’s insistence, we added the color “black-anthracite” to our spectrum.
The studies we created for this Snow White 2 initiative were actually quite dramatic and somehow timeless, as was proven when Jonathan Ive picked up on the design again with the iPod and subsequent Apple products. The lineup for the Apple II GS with CPU, keyboard, mouse, connectors, cables, and printers (made by Tokyo Electronics) was the first full implementation of the Snow White 2 design language. Ironically, these were the last products in the life of the Apple II line, but their great economic success was vital for Apple; the Mac didn’t sell well enough to carry the company. In hindsight, A am very happy about the Apple II GS line because it brought a long journey to a close.
We then determined that the next generation of a compact and “insanely great” Mac–dubbed BigMac and Baby Mac–had to bring Apple to the absolute forefront as a source of cool and friendly digital machines that everyone could use. We worked with Toshiba on a new cathode ray tube (CRT) front in order to avoid the cheap look of a regular CRT screen, and we also looked at flat-screen technology. To make the Mac as small as possible, we experimented with wireless keyboard and mouse connections. During the development of the baby Mac, Steve brought on prominent new team member Allan Kay. Given the great progress we were making with both our software team and Susan Kare’s work on the user-interface side, I felt that the Baby Mac would become one of the greatest products ever. But fate was against Steve and me; he lost a power struggle with John Sculley and was kicked out of Apple. With that, Baby Mac became my best design never to be produced. And with Steve gone, Apple had lost its soul, only to regain it twelve years later, when Steve returned in 1997.
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[All images taken from Design Forward, published by ARNOLDSCHE Art Publishers, and copyright Hartmut Esslinger & frog team]