Why We Buy

Computers are a commodity: They’re all the same shape and color. The iMac changes all of that. Jonathan Ive, designer of the iMac, describes the rules behind design that has power, passion, and purpose — design that makes us buy.

About the tamest description offered of Apple’s saucy iMac computer is that it is “postbeige” — a neat phrase that is simultaneously descriptive and hopeful.


More typically, the 15-month-old iMac has inspired a blossoming of puns, metaphors, colorful language, and just plain silliness:

The iMac is egg-shaped, gumdrop-shaped, pear-shaped, hood-shaped, and beach-ball-like.

It is cute ‘n’ jazzy, retro-curvy, funky and snazzy, and extremely friendly.


It is a glowing, fruit-hued, Lifesaver-colored, trendoid status symbol.

It is an accessory, not just a tool.

You want to touch it, to hug it, to tickle it under its chin.


The iMac has put the crunch back into Apple. It is electrifying the entire computer industry. It is a design breakthrough.

Buying an iMac makes you feel hopeful again. It is a revolution in a box.

The iMac’s design evokes such an emotional response that it even fires the imaginations of its critics. Tom Wolfe, who might have been prefiguring the iMac when he wrote “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” recently grumped that the iMac symbolized the death of 20th-century American design. The iMac, he said, is a “blobjet.” On its own Web site, Apple calls it a “rocket computer.”


Call it what you will, the iMac is indisputably successful. In its first year on the market, 2 million iMacs were sold. During most of that time, the iMac was the number one — selling computer model in the country.

And, not surprisingly, the computer has had a direct impact on Apple’s bottom line: The iMac has helped pull Apple back to profitability for two years in a row and has helped boost the company’s stock price from 15 to 70.

As no computer has done since the early days of Apple computers, the iMac has captivated consumers. Apple claims that one-third of individuals who bought iMacs never owned a computer before; independent surveys cut that figure in half. Either way, it’s an amazing statistic. People have been moved to purchase a first computer because of the image that the iMac conveys — because of its colors, its approachability, its simplicity. The iMac has even managed to silence the decadelong crossfire — PC or Mac? Apple seems to be winking broadly at that question and asking one of its own: Which color? It may be difficult to believe, but until the iMac came along, no manufacturer had produced a computer in a rainbow of colors. Colors pose inventory problems. Who needs the extra hassle? Khaki computers work just fine.


The iMac won a spot in popular culture almost instantly — it has come to represent all turn-of-the-century computers. On shows like “Ally McBeal,” office workers use iMacs simply because their appearance says, “I am a cool computer in a cool office.”

The iMac’s role as icon is no accident. Orchestrated by Steve Jobs, Apple’s cofounder and interim CEO (iCEO), the iMac is the labor of Jonathan Ive and the industrial-design group that he heads. Ive, 32, a Brit, started his career in London, designing everything from washbasins and bathtubs to TVs and VCRs for Japanese companies. As a contractor, Ive also helped design Apple’s early PowerBooks, and he headed from London to Cupertino, California to join Apple full-time in 1992.

Almost everything that’s striking about the iMac — its unassuming shape, its candy-shop colors, its inviting cable cover — had been carefully calculated. A case in point: Ive himself talked to companies that produce translucent candy to make sure that the iMac’s translucence worked just right.


Ive’s development group — which also produced the iMac’s new sibling, the iBook — is intensely secretive. Reporters aren’t allowed to interview Ive in his office because there’s too much cool, futuristic stuff lying around. Ive won’t say how many people work in industrial design, and he won’t hint at what will come after the iBook, except to say, “We feel that we’re just getting going.”

Fast Company talked with Ive about the design principles that infuse the iMac, the iBook, and the ongoing work of his design group. From bathtubs to computers, here are some of Ive’s fundamental rules for creating a design that sells.

Good Design Starts a Good Conversation

The right conversation is one that’s meaningful to customers. Part of that is about design. And a lot of that is about making the design understandable. Because the technology is powerful, and because we’re very confident about that, we don’t have to obsess about trying to communicate just how powerful the iMac is. We can be more overtly concerned about, and put a lot of energy into, other attributes.


When people shop for an iMac, I love that the discussion is now much more egalitarian, more accessible, and more open, instead of being about technologies that many people don’t understand. I like that you can go into a store and have a discussion about which color you want. That’s something that the whole family can do. That’s exciting. We’ve made the whole process of buying and using computers more accessible.

A Computer Is Not a Teacup . . .

The iMac is a holistic product. The price is right, the performance is right, and the combination of those two attributes, along with the design, has made it a well-balanced, relevant product.

But design alone would not have been sufficient to make it successful. It’s important to understand the contribution that design can make. It’s significant. But if factors like performance and price are not right, then design would be fairly irrelevant.


One thing that is in the genes of Apple Computer, the company, is connecting people with technology in a friendly and accessible way. If you’ve got technology on the one hand and you’ve got people on the other, then an object’s design — no matter what that object is — defines the nature of that connection.

That’s particularly true of high-technology products, because the internal workings of the machine are enigmatic. The majority of people simply do not understand how those things work. And there is no physical expression of the object’s function. Unlike, for example, a teacup or a comb, which are what they do.

A washbasin is a good example; that’s something I’ve actually designed in the past. A washbasin’s form and function are exactly the same. The object’s appearance and meaning are completely accessible: It looks like a washbasin, because that’s what it is. You look at it, and you think, “Okay, I understand that.” People make an immediate connection with it.


With technology, the function is much more abstract to users, and so the product’s meaning is almost entirely defined by the designer. I think that’s an incredible opportunity, but with that opportunity comes an enormous responsibility. If you are designing an object, you are defining what it means to people: You are conveying what the object is, what it does, how it does it, where it does it, and how much it’s going to cost. So especially if you’re dealing with incredibly compelling technology like computers, the responsibility is to make the relationship between people and the technology as effective, as natural, as accessible, and as enjoyable as possible.

. . . But a Computer Might Be an Entire Tea Set

When we started designing the iMac, we were wrestling with the question, What is the function of a computer? One thing that really struck us was that a computer’s function can change radically: It can be a digital video-editing station, a content browser, or a typewriter. That’s a unique ability — for something to change its function so dramatically. So we were wrestling with the fluid nature of the object. At the same time, we were trying to make the technology as accessible, as friendly, and as nonthreatening as possible. That involves focusing on a couple of levels.

The first level we focused on was the overall form of the product. It absolutely needed to be about tomorrow, and we really wanted to define something new. But something dramatically new can actually alienate people. That design challenge represented an interesting paradox for us: how to create something for tomorrow that people are comfortable with today.


A lot of energy went into defining an overall form that was in some senses “strangely familiar” but that was also about tomorrow.

Design Is All about Understanding

We didn’t come up with an architectural solution. That’s one of the things that struck us about how a computer’s function changes. The design should be something that feels fluid and dynamic. I think the iMac looks like it’s just arrived or is just about to leave. It’s not something that’s grounded permanently to the surface that you put it on.

A number of details reflect that sense as well. The handle, for instance, clearly makes the iMac something that’s not permanent. It makes it approachable, accessible. Obviously, the primary function of a handle is to be able to carry a product around. Another thing about the handle is that when people see it, they immediately understand its purpose. It unambiguously references your hand. So when you first meet the product, you understand something about it, and it understands something about you.


People don’t necessarily understand the internal components and the essential function of the machine. But they can look at its exterior and actually understand elements of it immediately.

Beyond understanding the iMac, people want to touch it. When you see a handle, you want to use it: That reaction is instinctive, immediate, and universal. When you look at an object like a handle, you instantly form subconscious opinions about it.

Another attractor is the nature of the surfaces. The surfaces look like they’d be good to touch. There’s a real unity to the iMac. There’s no traditional front, top, back, and sides. I think that makes it inviting. Most design tends to focus on an object’s front — as the one surface that people will address themselves to. But inherently, when you present the front, people assume that the front is better than the back. The back is merely a consequence; it’s just hanging on for the ride. One of the things that we’ve accomplished with the iMac is to create a design that gives integrity to the shape of the whole: The computer’s back and sides are as interesting, arresting, and important as its front.


Also, there’s the nature of the translucent material. Most computers are made of materials that keep everything on the surface. But with the iMac, you get this fluid effect, the way the light transforms the material and the color. It’s not just about surface, it’s about depth.

Sometimes a Designer Has to Think inside the Box

The primary purpose of the handle, of course, is to make the product easy to move, which is what we knew people would want. But it also suggests something else: When you can move something, you dominate it. Making it easy to move helps people feel less intimidated by the object or by the technology, which many, many people are.

In fact, one of our goals for designing the packaging was to have the handle be one of the first things you see when you open the box. The idea is that the first piece of packing foam you pull out becomes a little table for the manual, the keyboard, and the accessories. After you remove that piece of foam, you see the handle. You know what to do next. That’s the great thing about handles: You know what they’re there for.

Once you take the iMac out of its packaging, you can put the accessory box on the little table. You open that, and it’s clear what to do next. One cable is for power, one is for Internet access, and one connects the keyboard.

It sounds simple and obvious. But often, getting to that level of simplicity requires enormous iteration in design. You have to spend considerable energy understanding the problems that exist and the issues people have — even when they find it difficult to articulate those issues and problems themselves.

So when you ask why the iMac has been such a success, the answer is, the design combined with the Macintosh interface. It’s just how easy the product is to take out of the box, set up, and use. That simplicity is about removing the obstacles that have made so many people intimidated by the technology in the past.

Before It Persuades Customers, a New Product Has to Persuade Its Own Company

What drove the design of the iMac was a vision and a commitment to create the best consumer computer that we could. In other words, we made the needs of the customer our highest priority. And when you do that, it places significant demands on different parts of the company.

For example, we found that the right place for a lot of the cable connectors was on the side of the iMac, which is where they are more accessible. You don’t have to get up and go around to the back or move the entire machine to get to them. That was an example of trying to address issues of utility and function.

But from an engineering perspective, the easiest place to put connectors is on the back. Putting them on the side was actually very difficult and would mean elevating the concerns of the user way above those of the engineers. That drove having an easy-to-adjust keyboard and also the flip-out foot. It’s sort of intuitive.

Another example: We knew people wanted a choice of colors. But if we offered people one color, we knew the next question would be, When can we have other colors? That poses a number of significant challenges for manufacturing, distribution, and managing inventory — especially if you have demands for a certain color. Color options have never been offered in our industry.

In that sense, I think the iMac reflects the original mission: to create a great consumer product. More broadly than that, it stands as a testament to a company that not only shared the same vision but could also implement that vision. Somebody asked me how we’d convinced the people at Apple that what we were proposing with the iMac and the iBook was the right thing.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we’d spent zero energy trying to cajole the people at Apple into believing that what we were proposing was right. We’d put all of our energy into coming up with the content and into creating just the right design. We’d been incredibly self-critical. And as a result, it took us many iterations to get to the right solution — the one that we ultimately wanted to develop and to market.

But, by genuinely trying to design a product for people in a very natural way, people were intrigued by the product — whether they were our managers or our customers.

What You Can’t Measure Is Often What Matters Most

The computer industry is immature; it has been preoccupied with technology and driven by technologists. In some senses, the value proposition for consumers has degenerated into an argument that “Five is a greater number than two.” Go back a year, and the value proposition was, “Our machine has a larger hard drive than yours,” or “Our machine is cheaper than yours.”

There was an obsession with product attributes that you could measure with numbers. And that’s an easy value proposition to articulate: Five is a bigger number than two. It’s much more difficult to articulate the value of product attributes that are less tangible. I think it’s at the heart of Apple, in the genes of the company, that these other attributes do matter.

A lot of that is knowing how an object elicits an emotional reaction from people. The response can range from a perception to a physical reaction. That is, people touch it and pat it. One of the things we’ve seen repeatedly with the iMac is that people in stores want to touch it.

There are a number of simple ways that you can physically connect with the iMac. You can pick it up by the handle. Or you can open the door on the side to get to the connectors. When you open that door, you discover that it’s a really simple circle — a hole. It’s obvious. You put your finger inside the hole to pull the door open.

Now there were lots of solutions we could have used to open that door, including discreet, technical latches. But there was something so simple and so human about the solution we eventually pursued.

These are the less-tangible product attributes, but they’re still important. We made some major life decisions based on stuff that’s difficult to assign a number to.

With the iBook, we’re trying to engage people even more. If you think about people touching an object, the iBook takes that experience to another level. We’re combining materials with different attributes and properties. We’re combining rubber with polycarbonate to get strength and warmth.

We’re doing those things because when we started working on the iBook, we defined a list of all the attributes that we wanted the product materials to have. That list ranged from robust, strong, structural, and hard, to attributes like soft, yielding, and warm. We included those attributes because the iBook is something you’ll be taking with you. That makes it a highly personal product; you’re going to spend a lot of time carrying it.

That list of attributes contained polar opposites. Although we couldn’t find one material with all those properties, we found that by developing some processes to combine materials, we could design a case that really did have all those properties.

Another example of less-tangible attributes is the sleep light on the iBook. When traditional products go into sleep mode, the light blinks on and off. That solves the functional problem, which is to describe a state the object is in. But we felt that a blinking light did it in a machinelike way.

For the iBook, we developed a sleep light that glows on and off. When people describe it, they say that it looks like the computer is breathing or beating. Rather than just having it switch on and off in a very mechanical way, the iBook breathes on and off. It’s actually been remarkable how many people have commented on that. The design of that one feature has made the iBook seem more fluid, more organic.

That light illustrates the difference we’re seeking to make in the industry. The traditional blinking light works; it addresses the functional imperative. But I knew that we could find a more organic, human solution. When you see the iBook, when you pick it up, when you turn it on, or even when you put it to sleep, you get a sense that it was designed and manufactured by a group of people who care — maybe fanatically — about the details.

Do we acknowledge that it’s not functionally critical to care about all those details? Absolutely. We know that. But we also know that we’ve got overarching design principles that we’re seeking to express: simplicity, accessibility, honesty — and enjoyment. We’re really seeking to design products that people will enjoy.

Why does it matter whether you enjoy using something?

Because it makes you happy. And it’s good to be happy.

Charles Fishman (, a senior editor at Fast Company, set up his mom and dad’s iMac. You can read more about the iMac and the iBook on the Web (


About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.


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