Fast Company interviews reveal Apple design history

Fast Company is on the cusp of concluding an extensive feature story titled “An Oral History of Apple Design.” The story has interviews from many interesting figures throughout Apple’s recent history, revealing a number of details that were little-known or unknown before. As the piece notes, very few designers have left the design team of Apple Senior Vice President Jony Ive — “Two quit; three died.” Fast Company interviewed the two designers who quit, along with a number of other Apple veterans. The series is set to end tomorrow, and it’s a recommended read for anyone with a remote interest in Apple design. We’ve highlighted a few interesting tidbits and revelations within the expansive article.

The feature starts in 1992. It notes that Ive personally tailored the design studio’s every facet to make former Apple CEO Steve Jobs comfortable, ranging from the clothing people wore to the music they played, to the rule that people had to slowly move away from where Steve was when he came in. It became the CEO’s “happy place.” Apple designers chose translucent plastic for the iMac because it gave “the feeling that there was something intelligent” inside the computer, which were all previously opaque beige boxes, a design theme that carried over to the iPod.

Keep reading for many additional interesting details.
2000: The initial relationship between Jobs and Retail VP Ron Johnson was seemingly challenging, as Johnson offered textbook answers and Jobs tried to pivot from conventional wisdom. They threw away three and a half designs—one trade-show, one museumlike—before settling on the early Apple Store look, which they later evolved to use maple tables as the products became whiter. The starkness of the stores was inspired by Apple’s industrial design studio.

2001: Tony Fadell, Jon Rubinstein, and Jony Ive have all been credited as fathers of the iPod, but the article suggests that their egos haven’t allowed them to acknowledge each others’ contributions properly. One of the interviewees notes that Rubinstein saw the potential in Toshiba 1.8” hard drives during a visit to Japan, and brought Fadell on to do the UI; Ive’s team then created the “skin” borrowed from the G4 Cube and Titanium PowerBook G4. In an interview, Rubinstein described the Cube as Apple’s “only real crap-out, which was too bad, because it was actually a great product, just too expensive,” and “set the foundation for almost all of our future products.”

2004: With the growing success of the iPod line and iPod mini, Apple split the iPod division from the rest of Apple, putting Rubinstein at the head, while enabling Ive to directly report to Jobs. Ive’s studio became a top-secret area of 10,000 to 15,000 square feet, including a space for Ive with a custom desk, a chair, shelves, lamp, computer, and colored pencils—oddly, no images of families or anything else around the studio.

Ive cultivated a friendly English gentleman image but was quietly extremely political, and “many people… are not at Apple because Jony has decided that person was in his way.” Rubinstein and Ive specifically clashed on performance versus design, with Ive insisting that a PowerBook’s antenna enclosure needed to be smaller, compromising performance. Ive eventually threatened to leave Apple if Rubinstein didn’t, which led Rubinstein to announce his retirement in 2006, leaving Fadell in charge of the iPod division.

The iPhone was, as previously hinted in prototype leaks, originally called “Skankphone,” and developed by very small groups of people. “There’s no magic to the product planning cycle at Apple beyond a ruthless focus on a limited set of use cases. What each product does in the first iteration is going to be narrow, but those things are going to be airtight,” said Marketing manager Matt Macinnis, who notes that the iPad originally was going to have two separate Dock Connectors, so it would change functions depending on how it was docked. “If you put it on its side by your bed, it would be an alarm clock. But if you put it upright in the kitchen, it’d be a recipe book” — a feature that got cut.