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 2 in the series.
DAN WALKER, chief talent officer (now an HR consultant):
I was in my kitchen in Orange County, and my wife answers the phone and says, “Sure, he’s right here.” She hands me the phone and says, “It’s Steve Jobs.” He said, “Mickey Drexler is on our board of directors, and he told me that I should give you a call because I’m thinking about opening retail stores for the Apple brand. Would you come up and talk to me?” [Walker had worked with Drexler at Gap.]
I went to the fourth floor of the Loop. The side opposite the elevators, that’s where Steve dwelled. Valhalla. He told me that he was creating a premium product that really needed to have a story told. He wanted to control everything that touched his product–the creation, the manufacturing, how it went to market, and how the customer interacted with it.
With advice from Walker as well as Drexler, Jobs began assembling a team for retail stores, led by a former Target executive named Ron Johnson. The goal was to capitalize on the excitement over Ive’s wildly successful iMacs and to begin selling people on the idea that would become central to Apple’s design over the next decade: the digital hub.
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): My partner, Wilhelm Oehl, and I were the first ones hired on the Apple Stores program. We started in 1999, on a whiteboard with Steve. He was asking us a lot of questions like, “How big is the Nike store?” He wanted to do a store with a large presence, but at the time Apple had two laptops, two desktops, and not a lot of software. So we had to come up with a lot of other things: the photo zone, the kids area, the Genius Bar, the theater. Those were all outcomes of trying to create an experience that was distinctly Apple and different from the kind of experience most people would have had with technology.
WALKER: Ron Johnson wanted to brainstorm what it was going to be. We had the global head of customer service for the Ritz-Carlton and two kids who sold Macs at CompUSA. We had the architects who were going to design the store. We had this incredibly brilliant graphic artist. We sat in that room for a couple of days. That’s where the Genius Bar was invented. I still remember Ron sketching it out.
MICHAEL KRAMER, CFO, Apple Retail (later COO, JCPenney):
When Ron told me about the Genius Bar, I asked, “So how big is it?” He said, “Five people in every store.” “So you’re going to take away 20% of the sales floor?” “Yeah.” “What are we going to charge?” “Nothing.” Most CFOs would say, “Are you fucking crazy?” But even as a financial guy at Apple, you have to have a reverence for the creative side of the business. You have to figure out ways to say yes.
KOBE: I got the sense that Ron was quite frustrated by Steve. Ron would always give a textbook answer to any retail question, and Steve would always go a few degrees off of that. I always thought Steve was just being mean, but later I realized that he was using Ron as a barometer of conventional wisdom of what his best competitors would do. I think it drove him crazy.
GEORGE BLANKENSHIP, Former VP, real estate development (now a VP at Tesla Motors):
Retail was Ron’s show, but Steve was the guide. We had a meeting every Tuesday morning with Steve for three hours where we went over store design. We built three full stores in a warehouse in Cupertino before we opened the first one–and trashed three-and-a-half designs. One was very trade-show feeling, like at a Macworld. One was very much museumlike. We ended up with the design of those early stores with those kidney-shape tables.
KOBE: We started with the white Corian tables, because the first products were brightly colored and we needed a neutral palette for them to look good on. And then as the products started getting whiter, we switched to the maple tables.
SATZGER: The alignment of those big 5-by-10-foot tables that are 36 inches high? That came from the industrial design studio. If you think about how stark the Apple Stores are, that’s the ID studio.
BLANKENSHIP: We had to go to the heart of the malls and have people stumble on us when they weren’t thinking about buying a computer.
KOBE: We were trying to get emotion as an outcome, as opposed to utility. That’s a core attribute of the design at Apple.
The first Apple Store opened in Tysons Corner, Virginia, on May 19, 2001. The following day, BusinessWeek ran a column entitled, “Sorry, Steve: Here’s Why Apple Stores Won’t Work.” The piece–remarkable for its improvidence–derided Jobs’s “perfectionist attention to aesthetics,” his decision to lease extremely expensive real estate, and his “focus on selling just a few consumer Macs.” Today, there are 412 Apple Stores, averaging roughly $6,000 in sales per square foot per year–or more than twice that of any major retailer.
KOBE: For the first two or three years, people didn’t talk about the stores; they talked about the experience in the stores. Because the people who worked there were so different, and the way you engaged with technology was so different.
MIKE FISHER, director, visual merchandising (later chief creative officer, JCPenney):
There was nothing except the computer. We had to sell the sexiness of just a computer.
Come back tomorrow for part 3: “Then Apple’s Design Became Experiential”
[Illustrations by Benoit Challand | Amanda Mocci | Flickr user Andreas Dantz]