Apple and the value of design

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On Monday night, I headed down US 101 to attend a lecture at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View on industrial design at Apple over the years. My original plan was to post this write-up Tuesday morning, but that quickly got scuttled by MacBook Pro Update Madness. So let’s take another stab at this, with the hope that Apple won’t release another round of product updates by the time it takes me to type out a few paragraphs.

The featured speakers for this industrial design lecture were Jerry Manock and Robert Brunner. Manock’s name should be familiar to anyone well-versed in their early Apple folklore —he was employee No. 246 at Apple, involved in the design of the Apple II, Apple III, and original Macintosh. Brunner’s time at Apple came during a comparatively less publicized era—he was the company’s Director of Industrial Design from 1989 to 1996. His design work during his Apple tenure included the Mac Color Classic, the Macintosh LC 520, and the original PowerBook—the very first Mac I bought with my own money, a PowerBook 145B, is sitting right here on my desk and bears some of Brunner’s handiwork.

Of course, Brunner is responsible for something else that’s still having an impact at Apple more than a decade after he left the company. “When I die, what’s going on my tombstone is, ‘This is the guy who hired Jonathan Ive at Apple,’” Brunner told the several hundred attendees at Monday’s lecture. “And when I left [Apple], I recommended him to run the Industrial Design Group, which is probably the best recommendation I ever made.”

As befits an event held at a museum, there were plenty of old Mac materials on display. Brunner, in particular, had an assortment of PowerBooks from the 100 series, a 20th Anniversary Mac, and some other examples of his time at Apple. When putting together this collection of artifacts, he said, his 20-something receptionist stared at these 10- to 15-year-old pieces of hardware “like they were a ’57 Chevy… it shows you how quickly things age, how quickly things age.”

It also illustrates, from my point of view, how critical design has been to what Apple has produced over the last 30 years. Manock designed products in the ’70s and ’80s, Brunner primarily in the early ’90s, and Ive today, but, even accounting for different eras and styles, you can see some common themes emerging over the decades to how Apple’s designers go about their business.

Apple designers do things differently: Manock told a story about the early days of Apple when it came time for the engineering labs to test the heat flow on hardware. They would take machines back into a windowless room in the lab and light some incense sticks to see how the air would flow off the product. “You can imagine two to three hours of doing this in a closed room… [people] would open the door and be all, ‘What are they doing in there?” Manock said. “But it was a really cheap way to see how the air flow was going.”

Apple designers consider the little things: Here’s another story from Manock that he told to illustrate the open-door atmosphere on the original Mac team—one day, Manock visits the software programming team and notices that Andy Hertzfeld is working on a version of the desktop with square corners. Wouldn’t it be nice, Manock wondered aloud, if those corners were rounded so that they matched the rounded-corner bezel that the design team was working on? The desktop corners were changed. “Two seconds, it was done,” Manock said. “Little details like that made the Mac a success.”

Apple designers take risks: Brunner talked about the birth of the PowerBook, which came in the wake of the monstrous Macintosh Portable —a 16-pound “laptop” that was so unwieldy, Brunner recalled, you needed an aisle seat in the first-class section of an airplane just to be able to use it without jostling anyone. At about the same time, Compaq came out with the Compaq LTE, which weighed in at a little less than 7 pounds. “That was the best thing to happen,” Brunner said, “because the aversion to risk went way down.” That freed up Brunner and his team to introduce design elements in the PowerBook that were unusual at the time—moving the battery and the drive up front and creating a handrest area in front of the keyboard—but wound up informing laptop design over the next decade. (To hear more about PowerBook 100 series, listen to my interview with Robert Brunner in the latest Macworld Podcast.)

Apple designers see the big picture: Manock talked about the lessons he had taken away from his time in the Stanford Design Program, one of which was to consider what he called “the profundity factor: Is what you’re doing going to make any difference in the world?”

That question may have been specific to Manock’s education, but it seems to be one that gets asked a lot at Apple. Consider the list Macworld put together last year to recognize the 30 most significant products in Apple’s history. Several of the products we included—the Apple II, the PowerBook 100 series, the 20th Anniversary Mac, and, of course, the Macintosh 128k —were discussed in detail Monday night. And some of the credit for why these products made such an impact rightly belongs to the designers at Apple and the decisions that they made.

It was an interesting talk, and one that a mere blog entry can’t really do justice to. Fortunately, the Past Events page on the Computer History Museum’s Web site includes a link to a Windows Media file of the lecture, so you can watch and listen for yourself, if you’re so inclined.

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