An Oral History Of Apple Design: 2010

As skeuomorphism and Apple Maps laid bare the company’s weaknesses, one of the company’s former bright lights stepped down.

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 5 in the series.


2010: “It started as this green felt thing”

In the years following the launch of the iPad, there were no major new product releases, and competitors such as Samsung and Google started catching up to Apple with their own touch-screen phones and tablets. A sense of drift was perhaps best epitomized by Game Center, a social networking app for iPhone games released in September 2010. Game Center took Jobs’s preference for visual metaphors and realistic 3-D icons–known as skeuomorphism–to garish new extremes.

NITIN GANATRA, director of engineering, iOS applications (now executive director, Jawbone): Game Center was a rough one. All the faults with skeuomorphism were front and center. It started as this green felt thing, and they struggled to come up with something that was a true metaphor.

JASON WILSON, senior UI designer (now lead product designer, Pinterest):
Forstall took Steve’s design taste without understanding the sensibilities behind it. I left Apple because I couldn’t stand the design under Forstall.

GANATRA: A lot of the press latched on to the fact that Forstall was the guy who was really pushing skeuomorphism. The truth is, it was Steve. He would look at wood and leathers, and there would be these extensive reviews of materials just to see what would look best on the calendar app or the bookshelf app.

ZWERNER: The hardest thing at Apple is recruiting. You are going to the best designers in the world and saying, “Can you imagine coming to Apple and putting pictures of things on white, with one line of typography–for years?” I really admire the people who stayed there, and their ability to see the big picture. Steve saw this as kind of a life’s work. And the question is, in the absence of that careful management, that thread that ties everything together, how will it stay intact?

With Jobs’s death in 2011, Apple’s software problems only seemed to get worse. The release of a new version of Apple Maps, which had nice visuals but had highly publicized problems directing users to the right location, prompted a public apology from CEO Tim Cook. The debacle reportedly led to Forstall’s resignation in October 2012. Ive, who had rarely had any input in Apple’s software decisions, took over for Forstall and began working on an ambitious redesign of iOS.


MACINNIS: One of the key ingredients in Amazon, Facebook, and Google is data. Those businesses were built on deep technical understanding of how to manage swaths of data. Apple doesn’t know how to do that.

WILSON: The software has been falling off. The web services have all been failures. And Google is kicking ass.

This past June at its Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple unveiled Ive’s new modernist reworking of iOS 7, which includes a new gesture-based interaction model; a futuristic Mac Pro desktop; and, perhaps most important, a sense of swagger. “We completely ran out of green felt,” quipped Craig Federighi, senior VP of software engineering. “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass,” groused Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief.

SEGALL: Surprise was always an important factor to Steve. That’s the feeling I get from the new Mac Pro. I look at that and think of the G4 Cube. Apple will probably get slammed for it, but the way it opens up, the turbine fan, and the thermal core–it’s very Apple. Who on earth but Apple would redesign a desktop computer? That makes me feel good about Apple as an innovator.

BRICHTER: I have nitpicks with iOS 7, but I’m really happy they did something big. It’s more than just the veneer. The way they’re reimplementing the UI framework with physics–it just feels natural. They’re mimicking the real world. So in a way, the skeuomorphism, which was previously going into visual design, is now going into interaction design.

Additional reporting by Austin Carr, Skylar Bergl, and Mark Wilson.


[Illustrations by Benoit Challand | Amanda Mocci]