An Oral History Of Apple Design: 2013

Following Steve Jobs’s death, the company continues its founder’s design legacy.


Most efforts to explain design at Apple end up reducing a complex 37-year history to bromides about simplicity, quality, and perfection–as if those were ambitions unique to Apple alone. So Fast Company set out to remedy that deficiency through an oral history of Apple’s design, a decoding of the signature as told by the people who helped create it. This is the final online installment, but a longer version of the story that includes material not published elsewhere is available in the Byliner original ebook, Design Crazy.


2013: “Apple branches, grafted onto new trees”

ABIGAIL SARAH BRODY, user interface designer, now working on a stealth startup:
I watched WWDC online, and they were all trying so hard. But for me, Apple is a different place without Steve. It’s a good place, but it’s different. What really makes me happy is to see people like Tony Fadell doing new things. They’re like Apple branches, grafted onto new trees.

At Apple, we were always asking, What else can we revolutionize? We looked at video cameras and remote controls. The craziest thing we talked about was something like Google Glass. We said, “What if we make visors, so it’s like you’re sitting in a theater?” I built a bunch of those prototypes. But we had such success with the things we were already doing that we didn’t have time.

MATT MACINNIS, now founder, Inkling, an e-book publisher:
Visual design and interaction design are things I learned at Apple. Marketing, branding–I learned a lot of that at Apple. What I have learned since I’ve left is that confidentiality doesn’t work. If you try to replicate it, you just look like an asshole.

JEREMY KUEMPEL, former intern (now founder, Blossom Coffee, manufacturer of an $11,000 coffeemaker):
I worked on the iPad SIM-card ejector. It’s got a really nice click. You’re welcome, world. There were opportunities to stay at Apple, but I didn’t want to because I realized that I wouldn’t be designing a product–I’d be designing a SIM ejector. I wanted to create whole products and define an industry in the way that the iPad created the tablet market.

DAVE MORIN, former Apple marketing manager (now cofounder, Path, a mobile social-networking app): The pursuit of quality above all else is something we aspire to learn from Apple and that drives us at Path.


PHIL LIBIN, CEO, Evernote, a note-taking app:
There had always been products that had been beautifully designed. But they were high end, and very few people actually owned them. Apple was the first company that took high design and made it mainstream. It taught the world taste.

TRIP HAWKINS, former marketing and product manager, Apple Lisa group (later founder of Electronic Arts): In 500 years, Steve Jobs will be the only guy from our generation that anybody knows about.

GADI AMIT, founder, NewDealDesign (designer of the Fitbit activity tracker and the Lytro camera): Around 1990, I was in Israel, working at a company called Scitex, but I was spending a lot of time at the Frog Design office in San Francisco. The guy next to me was working on NeXT for Steve Jobs. I saw three identical mice on his desk, and I couldn’t tell the difference between them, so I asked. He said, “Can’t you see?” And he pointed to the bottom plate of the mouse. One was 1 millimeter thick, one was 1.5 millimeters, the other 2 millimeters. And then I saw the difference–and it transformed my worldview about details in design. That’s the reason I moved to California.

That is Apple’s contribution: this dogmatic, beautiful, striving for perfection, that chasing for the last millimeter. It drove the world of design to a completely new level.

Additional reporting by Austin Carr, Skylar Bergl, and Mark Wilson.


[Illustrations by Benoit Challand | Amanda Mocci]