For those who can’t get enough information about the new iPhone or those who, like me, are eager to find more information about the Apple design innovation process, here’s a BusinessWeek article from a few months ago on the designer of the iPhone. And the iMac. And the iPod. Given his name, I guess we know what the “i” stands for.
Jonathan Ive heads Apple’s design group, a team that primarily works in San Francisco. The relationship between Ive and Jobs is interesting to read about given Ive’s quiet public demeanor and Steve’s attention-grabbing one. More interesting are the details of Ive’s design process.
I won’t regurgitate details from the article, but there are two aspects of Ive’s process that are worth noting.
Ive works closely with engineers to understand what’s possible, marketers to understand usability and consumer needs, and manufacturers to understand, well, manufacturability. As BW puts it,
Ive’s team at Apple isn’t the usual design ghetto of creativity that exists inside most corporations.
People and companies look at the success of the iPod and Apple’s dominance of design and conclude that they can emulate that design genius by focusing on cool new looks or on the latest business mantra Simplicity. Focusing on design as a creative-only process, as if the iPod dominates its market because someone designer rubbed the right genie bottle one day, misses the point and the value that Ive brings to Apple. His design process is one of intensive hard work and the ability to reduce expertise from multiple disciplines into the form factor of a single product. Great design exists in the harmonious combination of function and aesthetics, and processes to achieve this do exist and are perfected at Apple.
Edison’s maxim, Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, applies to design as well as it does to engineering or science. All three require innovation processes that include trial and error, intuition, investigation, and hard work. The lone genius creating innovations through flashes of creativity rarely exists in these fields. A description of Ive’s career makes clear that his and Apple’s success in design is the product of an incredibly disciplined process and a daunting amount of work. And, of course, terribly brilliant people for whom their job is their passion.
Which leads to the second point worth noting from the story, which is Ive’s process of creating hundreds of prototypes in the process of investigating ideas and refining designs. Ive has invested heavily into advanced tooling capabilities that allows his team to rapidly prototype ideas and quickly determine what’s good and bad about design ideas. While most companies examine designs by looking at 3–D CAD drawings projected onto a meeting room wall, Ive creates the designs as physical objects that he can hold and physically assess, sometimes using materials as simple as sculpted styrofoam, and figures out what aspects work and what ones don’t. This is also part of the IDEO way: to rapidly create prototypes so that designs can be assessed in terms of usability in a way that can never be done just by looking at a CAD design, and to iterate quickly on alternate designs, integrating the best concepts of each prototype to create a superior product.
Reduce to practice, investigate, try again, dare to create faulty designs so that they can inform the path to better ones. Apple’s success (and IDEO’s, and a few others’) has clearly proven this process as a valuable approach to successful design innovation. Not only can other companies learn by examining this approach closely, but other disciplines could probably improve their approaches to innovation as well by emulating aspects of this process. I’m sure that there are several business school dissertations developing those ideas already…