Apple’s Key To Innovation: Iterations, Not Just Breakthroughs

Today’s Apple news may not yield a groundbreaking product. But that doesn’t mean the company’s lost its innovative edge.

Apple is poised to announce new iPhones today. And we fully expect the world to express its disappointment.


From shareholders and analysts to fanboys and critics, no one can deny that it’s much more interesting when Apple announces the big things–the disruptions, the firsts–than when they merely improve their current products. It’s undeniable that when Apple comes out with a tectonic innovation that shifts industries, we sit up and take notice.

But the underestimated–and equally important–power behind Apple’s dominance is the foundational behaviors that lead to that game-changing breakthrough. Creating a charismatic brand is not about striving for the breakthrough, the novelty, or the headline. It’s often about the obsession, persistence, and focus to keep things simple, improve the details, and continue making technology a more seamless extension of ourselves.

While everyone wants to see industry disruptions, what a design mindset does for Apple is more about “going deep.”

Case in point: When Lunar’s creative director, Ken Wood, designed the very first Apple PowerBook in 1990 with the head of industrial design at Apple, Robert Brunner (the guy who hired Jony Ive), they fundamentally changed portable computers forever.

Notebooks had been around for 10 years, and Apple had even made portable computers before, but the PowerBook 100 was the first that challenged everything about what a portable computer should be through the lens of design, the lens of the user. The team obsessed over the details because this is what designers do, iterating, evolving, prototyping, refining, and starting over. (Apple has always had design in its DNA, even during phases when Steve Jobs wasn’t there, as in the period when the first PowerBook was designed and today.)

Just like the typewriters that early portable computers emulated, all notebooks had placed the keyboard out at the front edge of the computer footprint. It was the accepted norm, the archetype of what a portable computer was. The mouse was carried as an accessory.


But when Ken and the Apple team looked at the notebook with fresh eyes, they saw opportunities to simplify the equation, to embed the mouse in front of the keyboard and–as the early prototypes almost magically demonstrated–create another huge benefit: wrist pads. The extra real estate gained at the front of the computer meant, and still means today, that you can type comfortably with your arms extended while crammed in an airline seat. (You’re welcome.)

In the context of so many companies that pump out novel technology products at an ever increasing pace hoping that something will stick, going deep has helped Apple build the brand because it supports the promise of making technology understandable to and desirable by everyone.

Parenthetically, it’s not just Apple. Nest made us care about a home thermostat by going deep into what technology could do for us. Tesla is changing century-old laws about how you can sell a car to make it better for customers. Southwest Airlines saves money while setting the standard for empowered human-to-human customer service. All these companies and others have iterated through design to find meaningful improvements, sometimes evolving and sometimes revolving without caring which.

So here’s what we’re hoping for this week: more of the same. Whether or not the time has come for “breakthroughs” like the iWatch, a new generation of Apple TVs, or an NFC chip in the iPhone that’s supported by an entire retail payment ecosystem, we hope for a continuation of the design heritage that led to the first PowerBook and to every Apple notebook since then. So long as its leadership continues to place value in the design approach (not an insignificant question), Apple will continue to go deep and capture our desire for technology that makes sense, that makes us feel good, and that is beautifully crafted.

Or maybe they will just jump the shark: gold iPhone, anyone?


About the author

John Edson is president of LUNAR, a global design and development firm in its 30th year of creating stand out physical and digital products and experiences for clients including Apple, HP, Oral-B, Abbott, Illumina, Siemens, Philips and Bosch. He is the author of Design Like Apple, (Wiley, 2012), and Lecturer in design at Stanford University