Is Apple a Design company?

Lahesh Kavinda
8 min readOct 2, 2017

Apple is more than a tech company; it became a culture unto itself, a passion of most of people and the birthplace of the world’s most revolutionized products.

So let’s get into the topic. Is Apple actually a design company? Well, answer to that very cloudy questions is, technically ‘No’. So is it? is that all?.. Nope. But indirectly ‘Yes”, of course apple is one pioneering design mastermind. Then how does it be? how does this tech product selling company became a design mastermind?. So that’s worth a shot to dig in.

Apple’s philosophy

It is truly remarkable (in Jony Ive’s voice =) ) that how Apple came out with an excellent marketing philosophy to structure their goals. In Early 1977 Steve Jobs hires a marketing man to set up Apple’s future marketing plan. So collaborating with Jobs, they came up with sharp, groundbreaking 3 points that were strong enough to bring the company to this level where nowadays it is. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs he states;

“ The Apple Marketing Philosophy” that stressed three points. The first was empathy, an intimate connection with the feelings of the customer: “We will truly understand their needs better than any other company. The second was focus: “In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.” The third and equally important principle, awkwardly named, was impute. It emphasized that people form an opinion about a company or product based on the signals that it conveys. “People DO judge a book by its cover,” he wrote. “We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc.; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.”

So you read it right?, and yup, that’s it. That’s how “truly remarkable” it is. Although that’s where this whole design part plugs in. Despite other so called tech companies like IBM, Samsung or whatever it is, apple does not position them as a tech brand or a similar competitor to others. The golden two points from the Apple’s marketing philosophy is “Empathy” and “Impute” where it describes the ‘User’ which is the most important attribute to them in business.

So starting with any product they design, they mainly start to think about the “User Experience” or how the user perceive the product through their senses. “Empathy” means that, go into the user’s shoes and understand how they use this particular product, their interests towards it or their ‘pains’ about it. So when recalling an Apple product, they may be revolutionary, high-tech magic boxes, but they look so elegantly simple that you know what they are for and how to use them the moment you first pick them up. And initiating with the software products (Xerox Alto by Xerox PARC in 1973 was the first personal computer with a GUI) without arguments Apple is the pioneer of the proper GUI experience. With introduction of their Apple Lisa in 1983 they actually changed the way how people look at computers. With the introduction of their next gen personal computer, Apple Macintosh in 1984, it said “A computer for rest of us” where they address the regular consumer who had a dream about a personal computer. And despite all other things have you ever seen on an Apple product that it says “Made in US” or “An Apple product” or any other fancy high-tech term? No. They simply say “Designed by Apple”, and that’s why these products are more ‘human’.

Macintosh 1984

So the next phase, “impute” or presenting the product to the customer, the huge and the most important role in the designer’s perspective, where Apple successfully and directly won, winning and will win its ways into the customer mind. When Microsoft first introduced their tablet computer in 2000 and 2002 what they said?, they said “here this is a table computer, a computer full mobilized and blah blah blah”, so who cares?. And a decade later Jobs introduced iPad in 2010, everybody loses their minds. So what is this? some kind of a magic? Nope. It is the “impute” or power of the presentation of the product. So when it says the presentation it includes the User Interface design of the product (tangible and intangible), look and feel, the mood it creates and how familiar it is to the user and the newness of it or the innovation attribute. When introducing every single product Apple carefully addressed all these matters.

“We try to solve very complicated problems without letting people know how complicated the problem was. That’s the appropriate thing.” — Jony Ive

Jobs — Ive integration

When talking about the Apple Design, Sir Jonathan Ive is one of the main domains we should talk about. With his integration from 1992 and from 1996 collaborating with Steve Job’s extraordinary mind Apple’s designs became more innovative and more human. As Jony Ive states he always loved the simplicity of everything.

With starting from 1996 with Jony, Jobs created an engineering and design aesthetic that set Apple apart from other technology companies and ultimately helped make it the most valuable company in the world. Its guiding tenet was simplicity — not merely the shallow simplicity that comes from an uncluttered look and feel and surface of a product, but the deep simplicity that comes from knowing the essence of every product, the complexities of its engineering and the function of every component. “It takes a lot of hard work,” Jobs said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.” As the headline of Apple’s first marketing brochure proclaimed in 1977, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

“We wanted to get rid of anything other than what was absolutely essential, but you don’t see that effort. We kept going back to the beginning again and again. Do we need that part? Can we get it to perform the function of the other four parts?” says the Jony.

So that’s not theory of deduction (unlike Sherlock Holmes) that’s how he applies simplicity through design.

From Power Mac to todays Mac Pro, from click wheel to touch screen, from Macintosh to iMac and Macbooks they did a significant job to express the humanity of Apple’s products which people love. And with his lead Apple won the ‘Best Design Studio’ in past 50 years at one-off D & AD Ceremony.

From Then to Now; Apple Design

When looking at the Apple’s product timeline, it is beautiful to see how the designs became more and more user friendly. The most important thing to learn from it is, that some products (some means several) they brought in were failed as they went on the user’s hands. You think that iPhone is their first mobile phone? No. So believe it or not ridiculously Jobs introduced a mobile phone named “iTunes Phone” (Rokr E1) back in September 2005 collaborating with Motorola. As referring it to a utter failure of them, they learnt lessons from it and introduce the shape of the future, the iPhone.

Jobs’ Keynote on iTunes phone. (Sept. 2005)

The main reason behind the popularity of the iPhone is because of how the product presented to the people. Apple was very well aware of the user who gonna buy the product and they shot to that exact point identifying those user insights. During the keynote of the iPhone Jobs said “Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus, so let’s not use a stylus”, and use the finger instead. So that’s how they positioned the product. Instead of making it is a magic high-tech device which some people afraid to use, they made it is a day-to-day device addrresing the user needs. That is where the Apple’s ‘truly remarkable’ (again in the Jony’s voice) user experience design framework comes in.

So from the original iPhone back in 2007 it’s been a decade through all the iPhone models they made and recently last September (2017) Apple introduced the iPhone X; the latest addition to their iPhone legacy. Within the release of the iPhone X they also released the latest and updated Human Interface Guideline for designers/developers to design for the iPhone.

Although across all the other home and desktop devices Apple makes including iMac, Macbook, PowerMac, Macmini, Apple TV you can find out they all comes to your hand with this powerful and minimalist experience. Apple always tries to lift up this human-machine relationship to a next level, not compromising familiarity and user friendliness in those devices. Coming into the wearable technology, Apple introduced their first smartwatch ‘Apple Watch’ in 2015 with an extremely user centric approach. In latest apple watch keynote Tim Cook states that Apple watch is the no.1 watch brand across the globe. So again, is it magic? aren’t there any smartwatches existed before they come up with a watch? Nope. There were plenty of smartwatches before that like Samsung Gear, Motorola Moto 360 etc. But why Apple won the race? That’s again the presentation and their positioning of the product. They never said it is a so called ‘smartwatch’, but they said it’s a ‘watch’; the most personal thing a person will ever has. Yup, that’s where they won, they positioned it with other watch brands, not smartwatches.

Wrapping Up..

Apple always understands the user’s perspective, how they perceive their products and their original insights. Then come up with a powerful and user centered design approach to make that user experience part of the product. After that they present and position it where people love and ultimately they win. That is Apple’s design story in short.

“That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” — Steve Jobs.

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