Like the introduction of the iMacs, things are done over and over again until they are done right. After its initial release, the iMac was continually updated. In addition to upgrading the chips and hard drives, the iMac’s Bondi-blue case was replaced with a range of bright colors—at first, blueberry, grape, lime, strawberry, and tangerine; and later more sedate hues: graphite, indigo, ruby, sage, and snow.
Throughout, Jobs insists on an unprecedented attention to detail that ensures that Apple turns out products with a fit and finish worthy of an artisan. Apple’s products have consistently won design awards big and small, and instill in customers a loyalty bordering on mania.
Jobs’s pursuit of excellence is the secret of Apple’s great design. For Jobs, design isn’t decoration. It’s not the surface appearance of a product. It’s not about the color or the stylistic details. For Jobs, design is the way the product works. Design is
not form. And to properly figure out how the product works, it has to be thoroughly hashed out in the design process. As Jobs explained in a 1996 interview with
: “Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.”
As the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi said: “Simplicity is complexity resolved.” The original Macintosh took three years to design. Three years of incredibly hard work. It wasn’t knocked out in the hectic schedule typical of many technology products. It went through revision after revision. Every aspect of its design, from the precise beige of its case to the symbols on the keyboard, was exhaustively worked on, and worked on, and worked on, until it was right.
In the Beginning
“When you start looking at a problem and think it’s really simple, you don’t understand how complex the problem really is,” Jobs told the Mac’s designers in 1983. “Once you get into the problem ... you see that it’s complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s where most people stop, and the solutions tend to work for a while. But the really great person will keep going, find the underlying problem, and come up with an elegant solution that works on every level. That’s what we wanted to do with the Mac.”2
Of course, part of design
aesthetics. Jobs’s interest in computer aesthetics goes all the way back to the company’s first computer, the Apple I. Designed by Steve Wozniak and assembled by hand in Jobs’s parents’ garage, the Apple I was little more than a bare-bones motherboard covered in a few chips. At the time, personal computers were sold to a tiny niche audience: bearded engineers and hobbyists. They bought their computers in parts and soldered them together on a workshop table. They added their own power supply, monitor, and case. Most built cases from wood, usually old orange crates. One put his Apple I motherboard in a leather briefcase—a lamp cord trailing out the back—to make the first laptop.
Jobs disliked this amateurish, hobbyist aesthetic. He wanted to sell finished computers to paying customers, the more the merrier. To appeal to ordinary consumers, Apple’s computers had to look like real products, not half-finished Heathkits. What computers needed were nice cases that signaled their function as consumer products. The idea was to build ready-assembled computing appliances—an appliance good to go, no assembly required. Plug it in and you’re ready to start computing.
Jobs’s design crusade began with the Apple II, which came off the drawing board shortly after the company’s incorporation in 1976. While Wozniak worked on the groundbreaking hardware (for which he won a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame), Jobs focused on the case. “It was clear to me that for every hardware hobbyist who wanted to assemble his own computer, there were a thousand people who couldn’t do that but wanted to mess around with programming ... just like I did when I was 10. My dream for the Apple II was to sell the first real packaged computer ... I got a bug up my rear that I wanted the computer in a plastic case.”3
No one else was putting computers in plastic cases. To figure out what it might look like, Jobs began scouting department stores for inspiration. He found it in the kitchen section of Macy’s while looking at Cuisinart food processors. Here was what the Apple II needed: a nice molded plastic case with smooth edges, muted colors, and a lightly textured surface.
Knowing nothing about industrial design, Jobs went looking for a professional designer. Typically, he started at the top. He approached two of Silicon Valley’s top design firms, but was rejected because he didn’t have enough money. He offered them stock in Apple, which was worthless at the time. They’d later regret that decision.
Asking around, Jobs eventually found Jerry Manock, a freelance designer who’d just left Hewlett-Packard a month before and needed work. It was a good match. Jobs only had a little money, and Manock was nearly broke. “When Steve asked me to design the case for the Apple II, it didn’t occur to me to say no,” he said. “But I did ask to be paid in advance.”4
Manock designed a utilitarian case whose shape was dictated by Wozniak’s motherboard. The most important consideration was that it could be quickly and cheaply cast. Manock put a sloping wedge at the front for the built-in keyboard, and made it taller at the back to accommodate the expansion slots. Jobs wanted it to look pretty when users opened the case, and asked Manock to have the cases chromed inside, but Manock ignored him and Jobs didn’t press it.
To get the case ready for the Apple II’s big debut at the first West Coast Computer Faire in April 1977 (which is now considered the event that heralded the birth of the personal computer industry), Manock had a small batch of cases made at a local low-price plastic molding shop. When the molds came back they were pretty rough. They had to be sanded to make the lids fit the bases, and some had to be filled and painted to look presentable. Manock prepared twenty for the Faire, but only three were finished with circuit boards inside. Jobs put these machines on the front desk. He stacked the remaining empty machines—very professionally—at the back of the booth. “Compared to the primitive stuff on view elsewhere at the Faire, our finished plastic blew everyone away,” recalled Manock. “Even though Apple was only a few months old, the plastic cases made it look like we had already achieved high-volume production.”5
The molded case helped Jobs position the Apple II as a consumer item, just as Hewlett-Packard had done with the pocket calculator. Before Bill Hewlett designed the first “pocket” calculator, most calculators were large, expensive, desktop models. Early HP marketing studies estimated that there was a market for perhaps fifty thousand pocket calculators. But Bill Hewlett instinctively felt that scientists and engineers would love a small, pocketable calculator in a slim plastic case. He was right. HP sold fifty thousand of the iconic HP-35 calculators in the first few months.
Likewise, the packaging of the Apple II in a friendly plastic case transformed the personal computer from a build-it-yourself project for geeky hobbyists into a plug-and-play appliance for ordinary consumers. Jobs had hoped the Apple II would appeal to software junkies, rather than only hobbyists interested in tinkering with electronics, and so it did. A couple of student programmers from Harvard, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, created VisiCalc—the first spreadsheet—which soon became the Apple II’s “killer ap.” VisiCalc allowed tedious business calculations to be automated. Business ledgers that used to take hours to calculate by accountants were suddenly trivially easy to maintain. VisiCalc—and the Apple II—became a must-have for every business. Sales of the Apple II went from $770,000 in 1977 to $7.9 million in 1978—and then $49 million in 1979—making the Apple II the fastest-selling personal computer of its time.Jobs Gets Design Religion
With the runaway success of the Apple II, Jobs started to get serious about industrial design. Design was a key differentiator between Apple’s consumer-friendly, works-right-out-of-the-box philosophy and the bare-bones, utilitarian packaging of early rivals like IBM.
In March 1982, Jobs decided Apple needed a “world class” industrial designer, a designer with an international reputation. Jerry Manock and other members of Apple’s design team didn’t fit the bill. In the early 1980s, design was becoming a major force in industry, especially in Europe. The success of Memphis, a product and furniture design collective from Italy, convinced Jobs that the time was right to bring the flair and quality of high design to the business of computers. Jobs was especially interested in crafting a uniform design language for all the company’s products. He wanted to give the hardware the same design consistency that Apple was starting to achieve in software, and make it instantly recognizable as an Apple product. The company set up a design competition, instructing candidates plucked from design magazines like
to draft seven products, each named after one of Snow White’s dwarfs.
The winner was Hartmut Esslinger, a German industrial designer in his mid-thirties who, like Jobs, was a college dropout with strong drive and ambition. Esslinger had gained notice working for Sony designing TVs. In 1983, Esslinger emigrated to California and set up his own studio, Frog Design, Inc., providing exclusive services to Apple for an unprecedented $100,000 a month, plus billable time and expenses.6
For Apple, Esslinger crafted a distinct look that came to be known as the “Snow White” design language, which would dominate computer case design for a decade—and not just at Apple, but throughout the whole computer industry.
Esslinger’s Snow White language was characterized by the clever use of chamfers, bevels, and rounded corners. A good example is the Macintosh SE, an iconic all-in-one computer that’s often seen these days as a fish tank. Unable to throw out their beloved machines, many owners turn them into aquariums!
Like Jobs, Esslinger had an eye for detail. One of his signature motifs was the use of vertical and horizontal stripes, which cleverly broke up the bulky lines of cases, making them seem smaller than they were.
Many of these stripes also doubled as ventilation slits, precision crafted into S-shaped cross sections, which prevented objects like paperclips being poked inside. Esslinger also insisted on using the highest quality manufacturing processes, and talked Jobs into adopting a specialized molding technique known as zero-draft. Though expensive, zero-draft molding made Apple’s cases small and precise, with the kind of fit and finish Jobs approved of highly. It also made the cases very difficult for counterfeiters to copy; Apple had a problem with cheap knockoffs at the time.
Apple’s Snow White designs went on to win scores of design awards, and the ideas eventually became so widely adopted by competitors that they became the unspoken industry standard for case design. All the beige computers shipped throughout the 1980s and 1990s by Dell, IBM, Compaq, and others now look pretty much the same and that’s because of Snow White.The Macintosh, Jobs’s “Volkscomputer”
In 1984, while working on the original Macintosh, Jobs began to develop a design process marked by the constant revision of protoypes. Under his close guidance, Jobs charged Manock to come up with the Mac’s exterior case. Then a full-time Apple employee, Manock worked closely with another talented Apple designer, Terry Oyama, who did most of the initial drafting.
Jobs wanted the Mac to be a kind of crankless Volkswagen—a cheap, democratic computer for the masses. To make his “volkscomputer” cheap to produce, Jobs took a leaf from the book of one of his heroes, Henry Ford. Jobs would offer only one configuration for the Mac, like the Model T, which notoriously was said to come in any color as long as it was black. The original Mac would come in beige, and it would have no expansion slots and very limited memory. These were controversial decisions at the time, and many predicted they would doom the machine. No one would buy such an underpowered computer that couldn’t be easily upgraded. But like Ford, Jobs made the decision primarily to save money on production costs. But it also had a secondary effect that Jobs predicted would be beneficial to the consumer: it simplified the machine.
Jobs wanted the Mac to be immediately accessible to anyone who picked it up, whether they’d laid eyes on a computer before or not. He insisted the new owner shouldn’t have to set it up; they shouldn’t have to plug the monitor into the case; and they definitely shouldn’t have to learn any arcane commands to use it.
To make it easy to set up, Jobs and the design team decided the Mac’s screen, its disk drives, and its circuitry would all be housed in the same case, with a detachable keyboard and mouse that plugged in the back. This all-in-one design would allow them to dispense with all the wires and plugs of other PCs. And to make it smaller on the desk, the Mac would have a then-unusual vertical orientation. This put the disk drive below the monitor, instead of to the side like other machines at the time, which were shaped like flat pizza boxes.
The upright layout gave the Mac an anthropomorphic appearance: it looked like a face. The slot for the disk drive resembled a mouth and the keyboard recess at the bottom, the chin. Jobs seized on this. He wanted the Mac to be friendly and easy to use, and guided the design team to make the case “friendly.” At first, the designers had no idea what he meant. “Even though Steve didn’t draw any of the lines, his ideas and inspiration made the design what it is,” Oyama said later. “To be honest, we didn’t know what it meant for a computer to be ’friendly’ until Steve told us.”7