“This is our signature,” Apple’s gauzy television ads proclaim, referring to the familiar words that the company stamps on the undersides of its products: designed by apple in California. The ads fall in the grand Apple tradition–beginning with the “1984” Super Bowl spot–of seeming to say a great deal while revealing little. The singular Cupertino computer company is one of the most intensely competitive, pathologically secretive organizations in the world.
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. It wasn’t easy. Precious few designers have left Sir Jonathan Ive’s industrial design group since he took over in 1996: Two quit; three died. (We talked to the two who quit, among dozens of other longtime Apple veterans.) What we found is that the greatest business story of the past two decades–how Apple used design to rise from near bankruptcy to become the most valuable company in the world–is completely misunderstood.
Outsiders have tended to assume that because longtime CEO Steve Jobs was a champion of products in which hardware and software work together seamlessly, Apple itself was a paragon of collaboration. In fact, the opposite was often true. What’s more, the myth of Jobs’s exile in 1985 and restoration in 1997 has obscured the fact that much of the critical design work that led to Apple’s resurgence started while Jobs was running Pixar and NeXT. Ive–of whom Jobs once said, “He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me”–joined the company in 1992. And since Ive added software to his domain, in 2012, the industrial designer has even more power now.
Neither Ive, nor anyone else at Apple, was willing to speak on the record for this article. As a result, this story is different from any other you’ve read about Apple. It is an oral history of Apple’s design, a decoding of the signature as told by the people who helped create it. Its roots go back to the 1980s, when Jobs’s metaphor that the computer is a “bicycle for the mind” became a touchstone for design at Apple, an expression of the ambition to turn high tech into simple and accessible devices. In the immediate aftermath of Jobs’s 1985 ouster, Apple had some commercial success, thanks in part to the work of Hartmut Esslinger’s Frog Design (now Frog). But Esslinger followed Jobs to NeXT in the late 1980s, and as the 1990s wore on, Apple struggled as a me-too PC maker, and its market share plummeted. Our creative conversation starts in those dark days, when a hardy few trying to hold onto Jobs’s ideals are heartened by the arrival of a soft-spoken, young industrial designer from the United Kingdom.
ROBERT BRUNNER, founder, Apple’s industrial design group (now founder of Ammunition and the designer of Beats headphones): I sometimes joke that when I die, my tombstone will say, “Here lies the guy who hired Jonathan Ive.” Jonathan had shown up at my old firm, Lunar, on a bursary scholarship. He was this quiet, polite English kid with these models. They weren’t just well-designed objects; he’d actually engineered them. I thought, wow, this is someone I’d like to have on my team.
When I first got to Apple in 1989, I called Jony to see if he was interested in coming to work at Apple. He said no. He’d just started his own firm, Tangerine, and he wanted to see it through. In 1992, I hired Tangerine for this mobility project called Juggernaut. I have to admit part of the reason was because I wanted to see if I could get him interested in Apple. They built some wonderful models. When Jony came over to show them, it was a beautiful, sunny weekend in California. And when I asked again if he was interested, he said yes.
THOMAS MEYERHOFFER, senior industrial designer, Ive’s first hire (now runs his own design firm): We wanted to put design forward as a competitive tool for Apple, but nobody really understood what design could do. There was a great urge from us in the design group to say: Apple is different, Apple has always been different.
BRUNNER: There was a guy on our team, Thomas Meyerhoffer, who was working on the eMate. We took the guts and the operating system of the [proto tablet] Newton and put it in a clamshell. The idea was a very simplified computer for kids. That’s where the whole translucent, bulbous form of the iMac got started.
MEYERHOFFER: Every laptop you’d seen before was square and a big chunk of beige plastic. I wanted to make this product look light and fun. And because nobody knows what’s inside those beige boxes, I wanted to give the feeling that there was something intelligent in there. I used a translucent plastic because that’s the only way you can do that. It gave the product more life.
DOUG SATZGER, industrial design creative lead (now VP, industrial design, Intel):
We worked on a lot of cool concepts. But still, under [then-CEO] Gil Amelio, design didn’t mean anything. You’d design a product and marketing would say, “Well, we only gave you $15 to do this and it’s gonna cost us $20, so we’re gonna badge a Dell computer or Canon printer.” We were a marketing-driven company that wasn’t focused on design, or even delivering a product. I saw that if this was the way it was going to continue, then I should probably leave. Jony knew that, and we had discussions about how the whole team would move if that were to happen.
Meanwhile, things were even worse in the software division, where Apple’s operating system had been surpassed by the far-superior Windows 95.
CORDELL RATZLAFF, manager, Mac OS human interface group (now a user experience director at Google): There was a project code-named Copland, which was supposed to be Apple’s next-generation operating system. It was probably one of the worst-managed projects ever at Apple. After a couple of years, it was clear that it was never going to ship.
DON LINDSAY, design director, Mac OS user experience group (now VP, user experience, BlackBerry): Shortly after that, Apple acquired NeXT–and, of course, along with that package comes Steve Jobs.
The deal to acquire NeXT for $429 million closed in December 1996. Jobs would be named interim CEO of Apple the following summer. One of his first moves: teaming up with Ive, who replaced Brunner as head of the industrial design group in 1996, to redesign the company’s desktop computers. Ive was just 30 years old at the time.
SATZGER: For Steve’s first interview with us, we cleaned up in the studio. We knew Steve was a loud talker but that he wanted his voice to be focused on whom he was talking to. When he walked in the door, we turned up the music, so his conversations stayed between the person he was with.
JEFF ZWERNER, creative director, packaging (now a VP at Evernote):
Jony manufactured every facet of that space as if to make Steve feel comfortable–from what they wore to the ambient techno music that was playing. There was an unwritten rule that if Steve came in, everyone had to slowly and deliberately move to the other side of the space.
JON RUBINSTEIN, senior VP, hardware engineering, Ive’s boss until 2004 (now an Amazon board member):
Steve spent a lot of time in the studio because it was his happy place. Running the business wasn’t as much fun as hanging around with the design team.
SATZGER: Steve told us he wanted an Internet computer. His daughter was going to college, and he wanted to develop a computer that he felt was good enough for her to take to school. He had this idea for a product that didn’t need a hard drive.
RUBINSTEIN: The network computer just didn’t work. There wasn’t enough bandwidth. The original design looked like a shrunk-down version of what became the iMac. It had a tunnel underneath where you could put the keyboard, because there was almost nothing inside it.
KEN SEGALL, creative director, Chiat/Day (now a writer and consultant):
When we first saw the iMac prototype, it was shocking. Somebody lifted a cloth and you could see the guts of the computer. It looked like a cartoon version of the future.
TIM KOBE, cofounder, Eight Inc., an architecture firm that initially worked on display designs at Macworld conferences (now works on the design of the Apple Stores):
Steve said, “All it takes is for the word color to get out, and we’re screwed.” He was really sensitive to the fact that that core idea–that it had color and a personality–was a shift in thinking.
SATZGER: We delivered the Bondi Blue iMac, and as soon as Steve got offstage after the announcement, he said, “I love the iMac, but we just delivered it in the wrong color.”
TRIP HAWKINS, former marketing and product manager, Apple Lisa group (later founder of Electronic Arts):
I was like, “Man, he managed to make a monitor look sexy.” No one had done that, ever.
The iMac, which was offered in five candy colors, was a hit, the first computer that felt like a consumer product and not a business appliance. The next step in Jobs’s companywide redesign was software.
LINDSAY: Shortly before the unveiling of the iMac, Steve turned his attention to the user experience on the Mac OS X. He hauled the entire software design team into a room, and in typical Steve style, he just declared everybody in the room to be an idiot.
RATZLAFF: It went downhill from there. We spent the next few weeks working night and day building a prototype of what we wanted Mac OS X to be. We started by thinking about every other operating system out there. They were all big, dark, gloomy, and chunky. Our approach was, Let’s do the exact opposite. In that prototype, there were the initial ideas for the dock, the Mac as your digital hub, a completely new color scheme, and the animations.
LINDSAY: Steve was taking his knowledge from the hardware, which at the time was about translucency and glossiness and color, and he was bringing that to bear on the interface.
RATZLAFF: We’d meet with Steve on Tuesday afternoons. He would come up with the craziest ideas. At one point, Steve wanted to do all of our error messages as haikus. He would leave, and we would all think, What is he smoking?
In one of our meetings, Steve said, “I want this to look good enough to lick.” After that, one of the designers stuck a half-sucked Life Saver to his monitor.
The new user-interface system was known as Aqua. Using a fixed dock on the bottom of the screen and relying heavily on visual metaphors and animation, it would evolve into the modern versions of both OS X and iOS while exerting an obvious influence on operating systems offered by Microsoft, Google, and pretty much every other major software company.
Come back tomorrow for part 2: “He Wanted To Control Everything That Touched His Product”
Max Chafkin led a team of Fast Company reporters that spent months interviewing more than 50 former Apple execs and insiders, many of whom had never spoken publicly about their work. An extended version of this oral history is available from Byliner. Purchase it here.
[Illustrations by Benoit Challand | Amanda Mocci]