The “Bad Guys” Of Engineering: What Defines “Design-Centric” Companies Like Apple

What does it actually mean to be a talented engineer in a “design-centric” company? You’re the (necessary) bad guy.

The “Bad Guys” Of Engineering: What Defines “Design-Centric” Companies Like Apple

On the back of every iPhone and iPad, on the underside of every iPod and iMac, glistens the signature of Apple’s products: “Designed by Apple in California.” Apple, it’s often said, is a design-centric company; its products are not “Engineered by Apple in California,” like they might be in, say, Redmond, where Microsoft is widely regarded as an engineering-focused company. What actually divides the two approaches though?


During our extensive reporting for Fast Company‘s oral history of Apple, which is comprised of interviews with more than 50 topflight insiders, we tried to get at the core of what distinguishes a design-centric company from an engineering-centric one. We already know Apple’s DNA is unlike that of any other company’s, infused with a spirit of design and reverence for designers. It’s not just a fanciful, overblown reputation, despite its almost mythical status, driven by brand-synonymous characters such as Jony Ive and the late Steve Jobs. No, design has upended all aspects of Apple, from its product development processes to its executive food chain.

In fact, what we found most telling was that even Apple’s own engineers revere Apple’s design-driven approach, despite it meaning they have less agency than they would at other organizations. Nitin Ganatra, the former director of iOS application engineering who worked under ousted engineering SVP Scott Forstall, explains why:

We very deliberately did this with my engineering team: You let the design team come up with the absolute best possible design, regardless of engineering constraints. Many times, designers are well aware of engineering limitations as they’re designing, and while that means the development process is going to be smoother–because the design already has built-in constraints based on engineer feedback–it can also mean that you’re not shooting for the best possible design.

So one of the many novel things that Apple did in this area was to very intentionally let the designers come up with the best possible design, and then have us figure out how to actually make it work. You might say, “Oh, of course you would work that way! You don’t want your designers to have their hands tied!” But that’s not how it works at so many other companies, and the designs are just compromised right from the start. It can be a little frustrating: As a manager of engineers, it can be hard on the team, because you see something that’s clearly well beyond the hardware capabilities of today, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. That’s one of the things that Apple does really well, and I think more companies need to work that way.

Andy Grignon, another former top engineer and a founding member of the iPhone team, seconds Ganatra’s assessment. “A lot of companies start the design process by blocking things out with wireframes, like, the contact list goes here, and there’s a big wireframe with an X through it,” he says. “Apple would start with these gorgeous mock-ups in Photoshop and Flash–or Shockwave at the time. There’s no code behind it, and you can only do one thing, but you get the feel.”

The not-so-dirty secret about Apple is that the company actually empowers designers at the highest levels. While other business giants eager to tap into the Apple’s magic are busy appointing chief design officers, an increasingly popular title that’s become a corporate cliché, Apple isn’t just paying lip service to the idea. As Jobs once said of Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of design, “He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me.”

Don Lindsay, who worked as a design director for years at Microsoft after heading up the Mac OS user experience group at Apple, zeroes in on the actual results of such an organizational structure. “The challenge in delivering simplicity is, marketing wants to bring more functionality to bear, engineering wants to bring more options to bear–and all of that just adds to confusion and clutter. That’s when a task like printing a document becomes confounded with all these buttons and fields and tabs,” he explains. “If anything, this was one of Steve’s greatest strengths, because he was able to reinforce that principle again and again. He was in a position where he could turn to marketing and say no. Or turn to engineering and say no. He was a champion for design, a stick we could use against everyone else who was trying to see that their needs were met.”

At other organizations, designers often do not have that leverage or champion, especially in the technology space. Even Apple struggled to give its design team a voice in the 1990s, not recognizing its potential. “Under [then-CEO] Gil Amelio, design didn’t mean anything. You’d design a product, and marketing would say, ‘Well, we only gave you $15 to do this and it’s gonna cost us $20, so we’re gonna badge a Dell computer or Canon printer,'” recalls Doug Satzger, Apple’s former industrial design creative lead. “We were a marketing-driven company that wasn’t focused on design.”


Thomas Meyerhoffer, a former senior industrial designer and Ive’s first hire, agrees. “We wanted to put design forward as a competitive tool for Apple, but nobody really understood what design could do,” he recalls. “It wasn’t until Jobs came back that what we were trying to do got any traction.”

The problem is that many companies don’t truly dedicate themselves to this design-centric approach, even with the influx of CDOs and design VPs. Many sources I spoke with felt the competition’s adoption of design values was more of a symbolic gesture–if not a superstitious reaction to Apple’s success. One source joked how it seems that if it came to light that Ive’s stealthy design team had, say, 300 designers who worked in the third office on the 30th floor in a 3,000 square-foot space, then Apple’s competitors would inevitably replicate that exact set up–as if it would produce the same results, without the soul.

Of course, that’s not to say a design-centric approach is the only approach or even the best one. An endless number of companies have found success by other means, Google perhaps being the best example now of an engineering-centric organization that also deeply values design.

There are also myriad downsides to being so biased toward design. Most dangerous is the unbalanced dynamic it can create between engineers and designers, where the latter group is seen as being responsible for all the creativity and innovation and out-of-this-world thinking. Too often engineers are at risk of being made the scapegoat–the conservative pessimists not bold enough to execute futuristic ideas. This arguably unfair dynamic is on display in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, with Jon Rubinstein, Apple’s former SVP of hardware engineering, portrayed as not being imaginative enough to implement Ive’s designs:

Rubinstein was repeatedly clashing with Jony Ive, who used to work for him and now reported directly to Jobs. Ive was always pushing the envelope with designs that dazzled but were difficult to engineer. It was Rubinstein’s job to get the hardware built in a practical way, so he often balked. He was by nature cautious…His job was to deliver products, which meant making trade-offs. Ive viewed that approach as inimical to innovation, so he would go both above him to Jobs and also around him to the mid-level engineers. “Ruby would say, ‘You can’t do this, it will delay,’ and I would say, ‘I think we can,’ ” Ive recalled. “And I would know, because I had worked behind his back with the product teams.” In this and other cases, Jobs came down on Ive’s side.

According to Rubinstein and others, it comes with the engineering territory at Apple. As Rubinstein tells Fast Company, “Steve didn’t like being the bad guy, so that was my role,” even if it meant frequent fights with Ive. “That was my job, and I was okay with that. My job was to manage all the different requirements from all the different teams and make it work: partners in Asia, material suppliers, operations, legal, product development. And yeah, that means you’ve got to be the bad guy.”

Ganatra agrees. “In order for the model to work, someone has to be the bad guy,” he explains. “Someone has to root it in real engineering, and bring the bits down from design. It’s definitely tough on the engineering side, because you have to say ‘No.’ You don’t want to say ‘No’ too early–you want try as hard as you can to implement that fantastic design they came up with. But often times you’re going to say ‘No’ or, ‘Hey, that’s a really cool effect, but instead of nine moving layers, can we cut it down to six? Because it’s going to consume this much CPU and eat up this much battery life.’ It’s hard because designers are very uncompromising, so they’ll be like, ‘Oh jeez, you’re going to crap up my design if you make it use six layers.’ It’s never going to be as good as the design. If you get close, that’s pretty good. But you’re still going to have a disappointed designer when you’re done with it.”


The approach, at least at Apple, has made creative heroes out of designers like Ive, while at times making engineers such as Rubinstein and Forstall out to be the uninspired villains.

The question now is whether that arrangement is sustainable, whether Apple engineers can continue seeing the greater merits of this relationship. Today, there’s likely a larger pool of talented engineers than there is of talented designers. But will those engineers maintain the desire to work for Apple if the chances of gaining favor are so lopsided?

A team of Fast Company reporters spent months interviewing more than 50 former Apple execs and insiders, many of whom had never spoken publicly about their work. Read their oral history of Apple’s design approach here. An extended version of this oral history is available in the iBookstore and from Amazon.

[Image: Bad Guy via Shutterstock]

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.