“The man behind Apple’s design magic” 18 Sep 2006
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Especially noteworthy is the attention paid by Apple’s design team to the manufacturing process…
They work closely and intensely with engineers, marketers, and even outside manufacturing contractors in Asia who actually build the products. Rather than being simple stylists, they’re leading innovators in the use of new materials and production processes. The design group was able to figure out how to put a layer of clear plastic over the white or black core of an iPod, giving it a tremendous depth of texture, and still be able to build each unit in just seconds.
It started with the first iMac…To understand how to make a plastic shell look exciting rather than cheap, Ive and others visited a candy factory to study the finer points of jelly bean making. They spent months with Asian partners, devising the sophisticated process capable of cranking out millions of iMacs a year. The team even pushed for the internal electronics to be redesigned, to make sure they looked good through the thick shell.
This push for innovation in manufacturing is a big reason why Apple changes the rules of what’s possible. Most companies buy off the shelf stuff which means things look and feel the same (i.e. usually like crap). Apple’s efforts to discover new materials and production processes enables them to build things no one else can build.
There’s a parallel here with software too. The best hackers understand that they can not only change their programs, but they can also change the language that defines and limits the programs they write. An example close to home is Ruby on Rails. Our products are built out of Rails. But it’s not a one-way street. Our team is constantly looking at what can be changed and improving Rails based on what the products need to do.
Some more interesting excerpts from the piece:
It’s a team that has worked in idyllic comfort for many years. Some designers were at the company long before Ive arrived in 1992. They rarely attend industry events or awards ceremonies. It’s as though they don’t require outside recognition because there isn’t any higher authority on design excellence than each other.
His design process revolves around intense iteration — making and remaking models to visualize new concepts. “One of the hallmarks of the team I think is this sense of looking to be wrong,” said Ive at Radical Craft. “It’s the inquisitiveness, the sense of exploration. It’s about being excited to be wrong because then you’ve discovered something new.”
By the time he graduated, Ive was already something of a legend in British design circles. Grinyer visited him once in his flat in the very tough Gateshead section of Newcastle and was shocked to find it filled to the rafters with hundreds of foam models of Ive’s final project, a microphone and hearing aid combo that teachers could use to communicate better with kids with hearing problems (not surprisingly, in white plastic). “I’d never seen anything like it: The sheer focus to get it perfect,” recalls Grinyer.
Robert Brunner, then with Lunar Design, was floored when Ive showed him an elegant question mark-shaped phone — not just a foam block but an actual model with all the internal components machined separately. “It wasn’t just that the product had heart, but it was engineered; he was thinking about how to make it in volume,” recalls Brunner.
For more on Ive, check out this Design Museum interview with him where he talks more about how materials/processes drive design.
Materials, processes, product architecture and construction are huge drivers in design. Polymer advances mean that we can now create composites to meet very specific functional goals and requirements. From a processing point of view we can now do things with plastic that we were previously told were impossible. Twin shooting materials - moulding different plastics together or co-moulding plastic to metal gives us a range of functional and formal opportunites that really didn’t exist before. The iPod is made from twin-shot plastic with no fasteners and no battery doors enabling us to create a design which was dense completely sealed. Metal forming and, in particular, new methods of joining metals with advanced adhesives and laser welding is another exciting area at right now.
Some other excerpts from the DM interview:
I went through college having a real problem with computers. I was convinced that I was technically inept, which was frustrating as I wanted to use computers to help me with various aspects of my design. Right at the end of my time at college I discovered the Mac. I remember being astounded at just how much better it was than anything else I had tried to use. I was struck by the care taken with the whole user experience. I had a sense of connection via the object with the designers. I started to learn more about the company, how it had been founded, its values and its structure. The more I learnt about this cheeky almost rebellious company the more it appealed to me, as it unapologetically pointed to an alternative in a complacent and creatively bankrupt industry. Apple stood for something and had a reason for being that wasn’t just about making money.
The memory of how we work will endure beyond the products of our work.
Related: Jonathan Ive: Apple of the iMac [BBC News]