Attention to Detail: Invisible Design
Ive’s team pays attention to the kind of details that other companies often overlook, like simple on/off lights and power adapters. The power cord of the first iMac was translucent— like the computer it plugged into—revealing the three twisted wires inside. Few other manufacturers pay such close attention to seemingly insignificant details. But doing so distinguishes Apple from other companies. This kind of attention to the little things is usually reserved to handcrafted goods. Apple products have those little touches that are more characteristic of bespoke suits or handmade pottery than mass-produced items churned out of Asian factories. “I think one thing that is typical about our work at Apple is caring about the smallest details,” Ive said. “I think sometimes that’s seen as more of a craft activity than a mass-production one. But I think that’s very important.”31
Even the insides of the machines are carefully pored over. At an exhibit at the Design Museum, Ive displayed a dismantled laptop so that visitors could see the careful design of its interior layout. “You can see our preoccupation with a part of the product that you’ll never see,” Ive said.32
Many of Apple’s products are characterized by this kind of invisible design. Recent-model iMacs are large, flat screens with the computer housed behind. The screen is attached to a pedestal made from a single piece of aluminum bent at an angle to form a foot. The aluminum pedestal allows the screen to tilt back and forth with a gentle push. But getting it to move so effortlessly, and to stay in place, was the result of months of work. The computer had to be perfectly balanced to ensure the screen stayed in place. “This was very difficult to get right,” Ive said at a design conference.
The foot of the iMac’s aluminum base is made from a special nonslip material to prevent the machine from shifting when the screen is tilted. Why a special material? Because Ive doesn’t like rubber feet. Rubber feet would have been trivially easy to add to the base, and few people would notice whether they were there or not. But to Ive, using rubber feet doesn’t advance the state of the art.
Ive also hates stickers. A lot of Apple products have product information laser etched right into the case, even their unique serial numbers. It’s obviously a lot simpler to slap a sticker on a product, but laser etching is another way that Apple has advanced the way products are made.Materials and Manufacturing Processes
There have been several distinct stages in the design of Apple’s products over the last few years, from fruity-colored iMacs to black MacBook laptops. Every four years or so, Apple’s design “language” changes. In the late 1990s, Apple’s products were distinguished by the use of brightly colored translucent plastic (the eBook and first Bondi-blue iMac). Then, in the early 2000s, Apple started making products from white polycarbonate plastic and shiny chrome (the iPod, the iBook, the Luxo-lamp iMac). Then came laptops in metals like titanium and aluminum (the PowerBook and MacBook Pro). More recently, Apple has started to use black plastic, brushed aluminum, and glass (the iPhone, iPod nano, the Intel-powered iMacs, and MacBook laptops).
The transitions between Apple’s different design phases are not planned ahead of time, at least not consciously. Rather, the transition between design phases is gradual—first one product sports a new design, then another. And it follows naturally from experimentation with new materials and production methods. As Apple’s designers learn how to work with a new material, they start to use it in more and more products. Take aluminum, a difficult metal to work with, which made its first appearance in the PowerBook’s casing in January 2003. Then the metal was used for the Power Mac’s case in June 2003, and the iPod mini in January 2004. Aluminum is now used in a lot of Apple’s products, from the back of the iPhone to the iMac’s keyboard.
Ive has said many times that Apple’s design is never forced. The designers never say to each other, “Let’s make an organic, feminine-looking computer.” The iMac may look friendly and approachable, but that was never part of the machine’s design brief. Instead, Apple’s designers say, “Let’s see what we can do with plastics, maybe we can make a translucent computer.” And it proceeds from there.
Ive and his designers pay close attention to materials and material science. For many companies, materials are an afterthought in the production process. But for Ive and his design team, the materials come first. The first iMac, for example, was always intended to be “an unashamedly plastic product,” Ive has explained. But plastic is usually associated with cheap. To make the iMac classy instead of chintzy, the team decided to make the computer’s shell transparent. But initially they encountered problems with spotting and streaking—the clear plastic cases weren’t coming off the production line uniformly clear. To ensure color consistently, the design team visited a candy factory, where they learned about mass-production tinting processes.
Talking about the aluminum foot of the recent-model, flatpanel iMac, Ive said, “I love that we took one raw piece of material—a thick piece of aluminum—and achieved that sort of utility: you bend it, stamp a hole into it and anodize it.... We spent time in Northern Japan talking to a master of metal-forming, to get a certain kind of detail. We love taking things to pieces, understanding how things are made. The product architecture starts to be informed by really understanding the material.”33
As well as materials, Ive and his team are keen students of new manufacturing processes. The team is constantly on the lookout for new ways of making things, and some of Apple’s most iconic designs are products of new manufacturing techniques. Several generations of the iPod, for example, had a thin transparent fascia bonded to the top of its plastic body. This thin coating of transparent plastic gave the iPod the appearance of extra heft and depth, without adding extra heft or depth. It also gave it a much more sophisticated look than a simple flat plastic surface.
The thin sheet of transparent plastic is the product of a plastic molding technique known as “twin-shot,” where two different kinds of plastic are injected into a mold simultaneously and bond together seamlessly. As a result, the iPod’s front appears to be made from two different materials—but there are no visible seams connecting them.
“We can now do things with plastic that we were previously told were impossible,” Ive told the Design Museum. “Twin shooting materials gives us a range of functional and formal opportunities that really didn’t exist before. The iPod is made from twin-shot plastic with no fasteners and no battery doors, enabling us to create a design which was dense and completely sealed.”34
Before the iPod, Ive’s team had been experimenting with these new molding techniques in a series of products made from clear plastic, including the Cube, several flat-panel studio monitors, and a speaker and subwoofer set for Harman Kardon. The iPod appeared fresh and new, but its look was actually the result of several years of experimentation with new molding techniques. “Some of the white products we’ve done are just an extension of that,” says Ive.
The ability to make seamless objects led to a design decision on the iPod that’s been bitterly criticized by consumers— the inability to change the iPod’s battery. The iPod’s battery is tightly sealed inside the device’s body, inaccessible to most owners unless they are willing to prise off the metal back. Apple and several third-party companies offer battery replacement services, but at extra charge.
Apple has said the battery is designed to last for many years, often longer than the useful life of the iPod, but to some consumers the sealed battery smacks of planned obsolescence, or worse—it makes the iPod seem disposable.
Lessons from Steve
Jobs’s obsession with excellence has created a unique development process that churns out truly great products.
. For Jobs, design is the way the product
Hash it out
. Jobs thoroughly figures out how the product works during the design process.
Design isn’t just for designers. Engineers, programmers, and marketers can help figure out how a product works.
Avoid a serial process.
Jobs constantly passes prototype products between teams, not one team to the next.
Generate and test
. Use trial and error—creating and editing— to make an “embarrassing” number of solutions to get to one solution.
Don’t force it
. Jobs doesn’t try to conciously design a “friendly” product. The “friendliness” emerges from the design process.
. The iMac was plastic. The iPhone is glass.
Their forms follow the materials they are made from.
Elitism: Hire Only
Players, Fire the Bozos
“In our business, one person can’t do anything anymore. You create a team of people around you.”
—Steve Jobs, Smithsonian Institution Oral and Video Histories
Steve Jobs has a reputation as the boss from hell, a terror-inspiring taskmaster who’s forever screaming at workers and randomly firing hapless underlings. But throughout his career, Jobs has struck up a long string of productive partnerships—both personal and corporate. Jobs’s success has greatly depended on attracting great people to do great work for him. He’s always chosen great collaborators—from his Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak to the London-born design genius Jonathan Ive, who’s responsible for the iMac, iPod, and other iconic designs.
Jobs has successfully struck up working relationships with some of the most creative people in his field, relationships that frequently last for many years. He’s also forged (mostly) harmonious relationships with some of the world’s top brands— Disney, Pepsi, and the big record labels. Not only does he choose great creative partners, he also brings out the best in them. Through judicious use of both the carrot and the stick, Jobs has managed to retain and motivate lots of top-shelf talent.
Jobs is an elitist who believes that a small A team is far more effective than armies of engineers and designers. Jobs has always sought out the highest quality in people, products, and advertising. Unlike a lot of companies that recruit more and more staff as they get bigger, Jobs has kept the core of Apple relatively small, especially the key A team of select designers, programmers, and executives. Many of Jobs’s A team have worked at Apple, and for Jobs, for years. After he returned to Apple, most of the company’s top management were executives he brought with him from NeXT. It’s not easy working for Jobs, but those who can weather it tend to be loyal.
Jobs’s strategy is to hire the smartest programmers, engineers, and designers available. He works hard to maintain their allegiance with stock options, and fosters the identity of small working groups. “I always considered part of my job was to keep the quality level of people in the organizations I work with very high,” said Jobs. “That’s what I consider one of the few things I actually can contribute individually to—to really try to instill in the organization the goal of only having ‘A’ players. In everything I’ve done it really pays to go after the best people in the world.”1
In Jobs’s view, there’s not much difference between a bad taxi driver and a good one, or a bad restaurant cook and a good one. Jobs has said that a good taxi driver is maybe two or three times as good as a bad one. In the taxi-driving profession, there aren’t that many levels of skill dividing good from bad. But when it comes to industrial design or programming, the difference between good and bad is vast. A good designer is one hundred or two hundred times better than a poor one. In programming, there are many, many levels of skill separating great programmers from mediocre ones, Jobs believes.2
Jobs is the kind of person who wants the best—the best car, the best private jet, the best pen, and the best employees. “He does tend to polarize things,” Jim Oliver, Jobs’s former personal assistant, told me. “People are geniuses, or bozos. There was a Pilot pen that was his favorite. All the others are ‘crap.’ ” When working on the Mac, everyone not on the Mac team— even inside Apple—were “bozos.” “There was a lot of elitism at the company,” said Daniel Kottke, a close friend of Jobs’s who traveled with him around India. “Steve definitely cultivated this idea that everyone else in the industry were bozos.”3
Jobs’s first partner, and perhaps the most important, was his high school friend Steve Wozniak. Wozniak was the nerdy hardware genius who made his own PC because he couldn’t afford to buy one. It was Jobs who thought of making and selling Wozniak’s designs, and arranged for them to be assembled by their teenage friends in a garage. He also arranged for them to be sold at a local hobbyist electronics store. Jobs was soon recruiting outside talent to grow the company and develop its products. True to form, Jobs tried to persuade the two top design firms in Silicon Valley to design Apple’s early computers, but couldn’t afford them. Since then, Jobs has followed the same modus operandi—recruit and retain the best, from the original Mac team to the storytellers at Pixar.Pixar: Art Is a Team Sport
Jobs’s dedication to building an A team is best illustrated by Pixar, the animation studio he sold to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion. In 1995, Pixar released
, the first feature-length, computer-animated movie, which went on to become the highest grossing film of the year and won an Oscar. Every year since 1995, Pixar has released one hit after another—
A Bug’s Life
Toy Story 2
. The movies have earned $3.3 billion and won a clutch of Oscars and Golden Globes. It’s a remarkable record, unrivaled by any other studio in Hollywood. Even more remarkable, it was achieved by flipping Hollywood’s traditional working method on its head.