Brain Pickings

How Apple Went from Underdog to Cult in Six Design and Innovation Strategies from the Early Days

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“Apple had to make real the dreams people didn’t know were dreamable.”

In 1982, Apple hired German-American industrial designer and inventor Hartmut Esslinger to overhaul the company’s design strategy. He created the Snow White design language, which would come to define Apple, and turned the Silicon Valley underdog not only into a global force of design and innovation, but also into a singular culture — an aesthetic cult, even. Esslinger’s design work went on to be included in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum and the MoMA. When Jobs resigned from Apple in 1985 after a power struggle and founded NeXT — the logo for which another iconic designer created — Esslinger joined him. When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 as interim CEO, Esslinger followed and was tasked with advising Jobs on a strategy for lifting Apple out of its sunken market position and establishing the company as a true leader of innovation in technology and design.

In Keep It Simple: The Early Design Years of Apple (public library) — a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Esslinger and Jobs, chronicling the gestational period of Apple’s greatness in more than 380 photographs and illustrations — Esslinger shares the six recommendations he made to Jobs in 1997. What’s striking about them isn’t only how prescient they are — from cultural phenomena that Apple didn’t capitalize on directly, like social networks, robotics, and augmented reality, to specific technologies that Apple brought to market, like Siri, AppleTV and the iPhone — but also how clearly they map onto the strategies of countless contemporary startups that have attempted to copy, with varying degrees of success, Apple’s aesthetics and ethos.

Esslinger itemizes the strategy:

  1. Make Apple’s design a game changer again … by returning to the classic values of “simple is best,” invigorating the products through fresh ideas, and re-focusing the overstretched product lineup.

    (Jonathan Ive’s and Thomas Mayerhoffer’s sensational iMac design would become the urgently needed game changer, and Jonathan Ive also would reconnect Apple’s design approach to its Snow White roots. Steve made the right move and had Jonathan Ive working as an Executive Vice President directly with him. Again, leadership in design was at the top, and ranked equally with all other top executives at Apple. . . . There is no other way to make design the core of a human-centric company.”

  2. Make peace with Microsoft and Bill Gates. The Macintosh platform had been eroded to low single-digits market share, and Apple needed to tap into the life-saving software suite, Microsoft Office. Therefore Steve had to repair Apple’s relationship with Microsoft. In the “peace talks” that followed, Bill Gates actually came to Steve’s family home in Palo Alto and, during several walks around the block the two men forged the beginnings of a working relationship. Afterward, Microsoft invested $50 million in Apple. The announcement of their alliance at the MacWorld conference in Boston was greeted with boos from Apple’s die-hard fans, but both the alliance and Microsoft’s support built trust in the marketplace — and helped Apple’s battered balance sheet.
  3. Make Apple a leader in “digital consumer technology” by converging “consumer electronics” into digital technology and media content. Convergence already was a reality; computing and communication were converging, along with media content from information to music to movies, with the Internet and the Worldwide Web providing an asynchronous distribution platform. Within the new marketplace these advancements were creating, Steve’s biggest concern was Sony, [which], as a leader in micro-electronics that also owned Sony Music and Sony Studios, could be Apple’s most dangerous competitor. But … Sony was asleep at the wheel, as was Samsung and a number of mobile phone companies such as Motorola and Nokia, who were expected to move into the emerging market of universal digital convergence. These companies made good and well-designed products, but they didn’t understand that they actually were putting computers into people’s hands, which could enable them for a totally new experience and culture. . . . We advised Steve to take on the competition with a product strategy focused on people’s real needs and proven innovations — a strategy that would avoid stupid risks. Instead of looking for inspiration in the developments of its existing and potential competitors in the space of consumer technology — whether Dell, HP, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Samsung, Canon, or others — Apple needed to focus on creating new ways to exploit the potential of proven technology to fulfill people’s unrealized dreams. In fact, Apple had to make real the dreams people didn’t know were dreamable.
  4. Create a Virtual Apple “community.” By connecting its customers, followers and fans and enabling them to communicate with each other, Apple could establish its brand beyond technology, as part of a lifestyle. In that environment, innovation would be defined by what people could achieve with an Apple product, rather than by the product’s level of advanced technology.
  5. Out-innovate and integrate television, audio and communication into a new paradigm. We projected that digital technology was going to replace analog line-interlace standards in television (NTSC, SECAM and PAL) and so Apple should create its magic and put away with the primitive user interfaces that still reigned in those technologies. Sound had already made the digital leap, both in 44.1KHz CDs and 92KHz PCM tapes.
  6. Explore and pioneer smart physical-virtual devices and useful robotics. We encouraged Steve to make Apple interfaces “human,” with controls activated by gestures, speech and emotional sounds. We also recommended that Apple form strategic partnerships for co-creation with MIT and other top universities around the world with programs in mechatronics, nano technology and advanced brain research.

It’s easy to see how this foundational vision shaped Apple’s output, both creative and cultural, in decades to come. Esslinger adds a note on the toxic cultural conceit that doing well and doing good are somehow diametrically opposed, a myth perhaps most famously discredited-by-example in the story of Jim Henson. Esslinger writes:

Yes, Steve also achieved stunning financial success, but it is his cultural contribution that makes his life story truly unique. Apple, like no other company, has brought world-class design and pristine branding to a new mass market — a market it actually created. And Steve takes his place in that small and exceptionally rare collection of entrepreneurs such as James Watt, Henry Ford, Robert Bosch, Thomas Watson Jr. and Walt Disney, who converted a technological revolution into a humanistic vision — one that resulted in fundamental social and cultural change. Nobody can copy the genius of Steve Jobs, but … what might this world be like if all of us followed his advice to “stay hungry and foolish”?

Keep It Simple, which follows Esslinger’s Design Forward, is an excellent read for anyone interested in the history of innovation and in design as a force of culture and commerce. Hear Esslinger discuss his collaboration with Jobs, including the secret to resolving disagreement, in this excerpt from Debbie Millman’s altogether fantastic Design Matters interview with the design legend:

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