Apple computer

Design at the very core

E&T meets some of the industrial designers whose work has made Apple a style icon for more than three decades.

When you think about design-led products, there is one company that immediately springs to mind as constantly setting the benchmark, whether in hardware or software. That company is California-based Apple Inc.

Like everything else that has come out of Apple in recent years, the new iPhone 3GS was designed by a team led by a young Englishman who some regard as the company's saviour. Jonathan Ive was born in London and gained a BA at Newcastle Polytechnic. Since 1996 he has led what many feel is one of the best industrial design teams of all time.

"I get an incredible thrill and satisfaction when I see someone using one of our products," he says. "If you're on a plane and see somebody with those tell-tale white headphones coming out from their iPod, or using a Powerbook, it is a thrill. 

"I think that innovating is actually within Apple's DNA, and I first realised that when I first used the Mac as a student. Firstly there was nothing there to help me as I would never, ever look at an instruction book, and I could just use the product straight away. It was a really profound moment and I don't think I've ever had quite the same sense of 'wow' with a product before that."

One of Ive's early successes was the first iMac in 1998 - a striking machine that incorporated translucent gum-drop colours. Ive and his team consulted with experts in the confectionery industry about colours before experimenting with various plastics. "A lot of people at that time were really nervous around computers so one of our clear goals was how we could make the product more accessible, for it not to be intimidating," Ive says. "We were playing around a lot simply with degrees of opacity, and we found that the different colours seemed to work better with differing degrees of opacity. I don't think there had been much experimentation with materials for a long time."

The following generation of iMac in 2002 was an altogether different shape, likened to an angle-poise lamp, but Ive found greater inspiration in the garden. "One of the points of reference for this design was the sunflower - the way in which a connection was made between a plane and essentially a stalk," Ive says. "We had decided where particular components were going to be, so we had a base and we wanted to keep the display as simple and as pure and as uncluttered as possible. The challenge was actually a fairly pragmatic challenge around how we connected those two components of a system. The neck is stainless steel - some parts are forged then machined and polished, and some parts are pressed and laser-welded; that alone is a major engineering feat."

Other companies also put a premium on design, but Ive feels that many competitors short-change their users. "Customers deserve products that are a result of designers taking care - I think that we are surrounded by products that testify to companies that don't really care about the design. Every time we finish a design we are haunted by the feeling of whether it is good enough; whether there is a way we could have made it better. I love that sensitivity of my design team at Apple. They are constantly pushing to see how we could make it better."

Before Ive, the mantle of Apple design guru fell upon Robert Brunner - although he claims that's not how he will be remembered. "I think when I die 'The guy who hired Jonathan Ive' will be my epitaph," he says.

Robert Brunner: the guy who paved the way for Jonathan Ive

"I have been out of Apple for over ten years and virtually every interview that I do, still people want to talk about Apple and then I get: what was Jonathan like? I hired him in 1992 and when I left I recommended him to run the group, which is probably one of the better recommendations I ever made."

One of Brunner's first projects at Apple was the troublesome Powerbook. "At the time I had a Mac Portable," Brunner says. "When I travelled with this, I had to get a first-class seat because the thing was about 18in wide. It should have been called a 16-pound Mac portable, which was about what it weighed."

About that time Compaq had just come out with the LTE, which was about half the weight of the Apple. "There was a huge amount of pressure on the designers," Brunner recalls. "In retrospect that was one of the best things for a designer because when you were playing catch-up, the aversion to risk went way down, and everyone was saying we have to do something.

"So we came up with this really interesting design that I would love to take full credit for, but there was a guy in the hardware development group, who was the proverbial loose cannon. He fancied himself as a renaissance man. He was an electrical engineer. I walked into his cubicle one day and he had hacked up this Powerbook and moved things around." The basic premise was to move the battery and hard-drive to the front, and push the keyboard to the back, with the pointing device in the middle. 

Apple latched on to this idea of a constant work surface. "Virtually every notebook on the market today utilises this configuration: I just wish I had patented it under my name," Brunner sighs.

Within a short time two Powerbooks were released. The Powerbook 100 was actually built by Sony, while the Powerbook 140 was developed internally by Apple. "The thing that was interesting about the Powerbook was that it was the first time we looked at computers as personal objects. We used to have this mantra about: it's not a shrunken desktop."

According to Brunner, the Powerbook family was one of the best pieces of design ever done. "It was ahead of the time because it had no removable media in the device," he explains. "It didn't have a floppy drive and the majority of the world was not used to that idea. Those of us who understood networking thought this was an amazing product, small, light and easy to carry. It was a fantastic product and we developed the docking system that would allow you to connect to the network and peripherals."

Jerry Manock: slab designer

The design ethos that has stood Apple in such good stead over the years can be traced back to the Stanford University design programme that produced Jerry Manock, one of Apple's early leaders. His name is familiar to anyone versed in early Apple history. As employee number 246 at the company, he was responsible for design of products such as Apple II, III and the original Macintosh.

"The Stanford design programme is unique in that it stresses the technical side as well as the aesthetic, and it values them equally," Manock says. "We were taught to design from the inside out as a mechanical engineer would and then turn around and design from the outside in as a traditional industrial designer would design. Then we were taught to iterate as many times as we could. We were also taught to match the manufacturing processes with marketing forecast of how many units were to be made.

"Obviously it made sense to be labour-intensive when the volume was low and to be tooling-intensive when the volume was high. This was also part of our Stanford education."

Manock calls himself a slab designer, having plied his trade before the days of computer-aided design. "Everything I did was an intersection of flat planes, because we had to come up with dimension drawings to the thousandth of an inch so the tooling people could make the tool to make the part," he explains. "I couldn't dimension multi-curved linear surfaces."

An insight into the development process comes from the work on the original Macintosh rear housing. Once Manock's team had completed the drawings they were turned over to a very talented machinist who made an acrylic model accurate to five thousandths of an inch. "It took him over 30 days to do that," Manock says. "When I consider now with some of the rapid prototyping tools you can see results in a matter of hours rather than months. The whole purpose of this long process of dimension drawing - make a model, measure the model, see if it agrees with the drawing - was to validate and verify the database. If and when the part that came away from the machinist matched the print we called that the golden drawing."

Something that Manock says he is really proud of from his reign at Apple was the Macintosh's iconic labelling. "My design team and I went to the Hannover Fair in '82 looking for how international companies identify the different connective ports on the backs of their products," he says. "We found out a really surprising thing: the predominate method was to do nothing: absolutely nothing, no words, and no symbols.

"We were an international company and we thought 'by God we're going to do iconic representation where people don't need to know a language to find out were to plug things in'. We actually contributed some of these symbols to the international community at no charge to try and get the usage out there."

When it came to testing airflow, there were no computational fluid dynamic programs, so Manock's team came up with its own solutions. "We had a back room with no windows," he recalls. "We bought a bunch of incense sticks and we'd take a product in there and light the incense stick and stick it in by where the product circuit board was and watch how the heat coming off the board flowed through the product. You can imagine two or three hours of doing this in a closed room, when visitors would open the door they must have wondered what we were doing in there. But it was a really cheap way to see how the airflow was doing."

Growing pains and the Apple III

Manock's era at Apple had its problems - chiefly growing pains. How do you get free flow of ideas going across a company where the divisions are growing rapidly? "We came up with the idea, which we took from the early years in London, of Guilds: the locksmiths had a guild, the carpenters had a guild.

"We came up with the product design guild and all designers from all divisions met once or twice a month to talk about what products were coming out of those divisions and how they could look uniform across the whole company. I think that's one of the contributions that a lot of people don't know about."

His biggest regret, he says, was making a compromise on the Apple III power supply. "In talking to the analogue engineers we discovered that the mean time between failure of the power supply was a lot lower than the motherboard, he says. "So we thought that, unlike the Apple II, we would sink the power supply up inside the body of the machine and that'll give us the whole bottom footprint of the Apple III for the motherboard.

"We went into a review meeting with engineering manager Tom Whitney and Steve Jobs, and we presented the idea to them. Much like the dictum that our computers will never have any fans, the dictum was told to us that all Apple power supplies will be separately removable which we accepted. Therefore, what happens to the motherboard? It shrinks by 33 per cent."

The company held a huge launch party at Disneyland in California. "Steve invited 40,000 of his best friends to come down," Manock says. "All of a sudden, reports were coming in that the machine had intermittent failures. Everyone pointed their finger at me - thermal thermal thermal, it's completely enclosed. Well we'd figured out that there's enough surface area inside this to dissipate most, if not all, the heat that would ever be generated by the machine.

"But I did hours and hours and hours of testing with my incense stick to try to prove to them it wasn't a thermal problem. It turned out the problem was basically this was the last circuit board that Apple laid out hand-taped. The lines had very slight waver to them and when the lines got close together there were microscopic hairs of solder jumping over that caused the intermittent problem. Once that was solved, the Apple III was the most rock solid computer that Apple had designed at that time.

"The moral of the story, as Davy Crockett said, was be sure you're right and go ahead. If I'd insisted on that and been a little more diligent in proving my design concept, the Apple III might not have failed and Apple might have $500bn in the bank rather than $200bn."

Still, with products such as the iPod and iPhone now must-have accessories, Apple remains a shining example of the success that can be achieved by manufacturing companies that allow themselves to be led by design.

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