Why Apples Don't Grow on Trees

This post by John Maeda first appeared in WSJ, 12/14/13

I’m often asked, “What’s another successful design-led company besides Apple?” And I have to pause—not because companies like Ferrari and IKEA aren’t great examples of design-led organizations but because I find myself wondering why Apple dominates popular conversation about design to the extent that it does. After reading Hartmut Esslinger’s “Keep It Simple” and Leander Kahney’s “Jony Ive,” however, it all made sense. What we love about Apple isn’t necessarily the company’s approach to design, which in truth isn’t much different from other great design-led businesses like Muji or Bang & Olufsen. What makes Apple unique is that, nearly from its founding, Steve Jobs placed an emphasis on creating sublime objects and experiences in the computer industry, when technological advances alone were enough to make his products stand out.

Traditionally, design is treated like marketing—a superficial way to make a product seem more desirable. This proverbial “lipstick on a pig” approach to design has always been a generally reliable strategy for an existing product in a mature market with many similar competitors. But in industries in the midst of rapid technological advancement—like the car industry in the 1910s or the personal-computer industry in the 1980s—companies tend not to prioritize design as part of their appeal. There is no need.

Jobs, by contrast, made design central to Apple’s product-development process when it wasn’t a “need to have.” Its designers helped imagine how their devices would feel to people rather than superficially “spraying on” design as the finishing coat to the technical requirements of engineers. The designers, in fact, were the ones creating the requirements for the technologists to achieve. This was risky in the early days, because it made Apple’s products more expensive and unnecessarily different. Yet decades later, this experience of being a design-led company, with technology as a close second, has sustained Apple’s success in a highly competitive market.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started putting together the first Apple computers from a Palo Alto, Calif., garage in 1976. The Apple I was followed by the more successful Apple II (and later the Apple III, the Lisa and the Macintosh). At that point, the personal computer was an object you’d have a hard time finding anywhere, and if you did, after parting with thousands of dollars at an electronics shop, you’d bring it home and plug it in to the wall, and it would do absolutely nothing—just blink at you and respond with “Syntax Error” to most everything you typed.

Then, in 1982, Jobs ambitiously retained the German designer Hartmut Esslinger to shape Apple’s “design language,” or “distinctive style.” Jobs took the paradoxical approach of introducing sophisticated, classical design concepts to a market that was still full of early adopters. These adventurous souls, ready and willing to stand up to the blinking cursor, weren’t necessarily looking for an object of beauty. Or even one of intuitive elegance. Jobs gave them one anyhow, and along the way, taught many technologists (myself included) how to appreciate design in the digital age.

Most of the iconic Apple products that followed incorporated Mr. Esslinger’s “Snow White” design language. (“Snow White” refers not to the color of the products, which were beige, but to a design-competition entry by Mr. Esslinger that introduced seven members of a product family like the seven dwarfs.) Mr. Esslinger’s “Keep It Simple” is filled with prototypes and drawings in the “Snow White” style, as well as many familiar finished designs. The one he will likely be remembered for is the original Macintosh, whose compact, appliance-like appearance gave it an approachable friendliness that helped change the way people thought about computers in their homes.

We need to give credit to Mr. Esslinger for being a true visionary. He worked with Jobs on what the latter called a “bicycle for the mind” during a period when the computer was hardly a bicycle—it was more like a hand-carved stone wheel with a bamboo stick through it. Patiently, meticulously, Mr. Esslinger identified numerous relationships between a virtual rectangle of space and a person sitting or standing in front of it. Mr. Esslinger also dared to imagine that the little box that did absolutely nothing might one day do something important, as Jobs had promised all along.

After Jobs was forced out in 1985 by Apple CEO John Sculley, Mr. Esslinger stopped designing for the company. During the next decade, Apple’s fortunes slid. Microsoft improved its Windows software to match that of the Mac. Apple’s hardware design—at least according to Leander Kahney’s account in “Jony Ive”—gradually became an afterthought, with designers doing “skin jobs” for products created by committee rather than dreaming up objects themselves. In other words, putting lipstick on a pig.

When Jobs returned to Apple as CEO in 1997, design head Robert Brunner had recently resigned, and his deputy Jonathan Ive was thinking of leaving, too. Mr. Ive decided to stick around, though, and he and his team proceeded to craft some of the most memorable products in decades. The translucent, candy-colored iMac helped arrest Apple’s nosedive, and Mr. Ive and his team went on to devise new form factors for all the new i-devices that Apple kept developing—iPods, iPhones, iPads. Mr. Kahney’s biography takes us inside the creation of these memorable objects, if not inside the mind of the man himself.

Mr. Ive is a true genius in crafting the physical feeling we get when holding one of his devices. Mr. Kahney shows how, as a student in England, Mr. Ive was trained from a young age as a maker—someone who could draft and sculpt exquisitely with his own hands. As a result, he wasn’t afraid to delve deeply into the minutiae of a problem—one time he went over his boss’s head to Jobs to fight for using a specific type of screw on the Power Mac G4. It’s a choice that may have seemed minuscule to others but was gravely important to him—like a skilled chef who knows the taste of a dish using salt from one region can be completely different than salt taken from another.

But all that genius might have gone to waste if Jobs hadn’t elevated design to the role he did. To Jobs, design was never just about plastic versus aluminum (though such choices were always made with great care). Apple’s approach under Jobs recognized that great design had to be flawlessly manufactured and marketed at a profit margin advantageous to Apple. That is, producing the right product required not only Mr. Ive identifying the perfect aluminum but CEO Tim Cook locking down the raw materials at a sustainable price. Though on the surface Apple appears to be dominated by the guys in black turtlenecks, what truly distinguishes the company is how integrated its efforts are—the manufacturing requirements and supply-chain logistics are included in the design process.

In the past decade, when the “computer for the rest of us” really started to be for “the rest of us,” Apple carried the integrated design philosophy that it had pioneered for early adopters to the mainstream, which now wanted a computer in every pot and in every pocket. The company’s early investment in design is paying off because, for consumers, the marginal value of new technologies is fading. We used to make purchasing decisions based on technology, always wanting more, like a faster processor to play videogames on our phones or more hard-disk space to fit all our photos. Now we care less about gigabytes and more about how a computer makes us feel, or look, or aspire to live. In other words, our technological needs are largely met. Computing devices have matured as a category, and design is becoming the defining factor in the industry—indeed, the tech industry sometimes seems about to merge with the fashion industry.

So much of Apple’s current decision-making process is shrouded in secrecy. For more insight into how Apple’s organizational expertise held up in this next generation, we might need to wait a few more decades, until Mr. Ive produces as generous a volume as Mr. Esslinger. The latter nods to Mr. Ive’s brilliance, though somewhat grudgingly. The ultimate irony revealed in the book, given the amount of credit Mr. Ive gets today, is the code name of Mr. Esslinger’s last design for Apple: “Jonathan.”

Mr. Maeda is the outgoing president of the Rhode Island School of Design. He will be joining Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as their first design partner.