Let’s pick up where we broke off last week and talk about the Apple Watch — shown in public for the first time last week — and ask the question: is the new Apple Watch a bellwether for future industrial design? Well it’s only been a week since we first saw a glimpse of it, yet since then many others have observed (as we did last week) how strongly Apple’s latest design language follows in the footsteps of design precepts promoted by Dieter Rams, head of industrial design at Braun from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. Why is this? Let’s take a moment to go back in time and look at the history of Apple industrial design starting around the time the original Macintosh was launched.
A Brief History of Apple Industrial Design
Dieter Rams, Industrial Designer at Braun
Dieter Rams — whose twenty-year reign as head of design at Braun helped burnish the reputation of quintessentially good German design — was reaching the end of his career just as Apple was beginning to break out of the pack.
We suggest you take a look at the documentary film about product design, called objectified, that premiered at Austin’s SXSW festival a few years back. You’ll get a deeper understanding of how much Dieter Rams influenced the world around us. Rams maintained a list of Ten Design Principles, which — like the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament — hangs over the head of every serious industrial designer who has since come onto the scene.
While Dieter Rams never established a design practice in Silicon Valley, he nonetheless strongly influenced two young European designers who moved to California during the early days of the Apple Computer and the PC revolution.
Bill Moggridge, Industrial Designer at ID2, IDEO
Bill Moggridge, a gifted graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, established his design practice ID2 in Palo Alto. He became well-known for designing the GRID computer — the first portable PC. Moggridge possessed a rare combination of design talent and old world charm which enthralled everyone who was lucky enough to meet him — from Silicon Valley clients to up-and-coming students at the Product Design department at Stanford University where he taught. Moggridge later merged his firm with David Kelly Design (which had been responsible for engineering the original Macintosh mouse) to form IDEO, the industrial design powerhouse consultancy. More recently (before his untimely death at only 69 years of age) Moggridge was leading the transformation of New York’s Cooper-Hewitt in its quest to be the world’s leading institute and exhibit space for industrial design. Here is a Stanford talk by Moggridge which gives you an idea of the breadth and depth of his design sensibilities, his charm and his wit:
Hartmut Esslinger, Industrial Designer at Frog Design
The second European to establish a beachhead in Silicon Valley in the 1980s was Hartmut Esslinger who formed Frog Design. Esslinger was responsible for Apple’s so-called “snow white” design language, which replaced the putty-colored beige plastic of the early Macintosh with clean horizontal lines and brilliant white injection molded plastic, beginning with the Mac IIc. In short order, the whole Macintosh line was transformed into objects of desire that could demand higher prices than the clunky contemporary IBM PC and its countless knock-off clones. Later, when Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple Computer (which he had co-founded with Steve Wozniak), Esslinger followed. Jobs conjured up his second act, which he called NeXT. Esslinger’s firm created the spare iconic metal cube design for Job’s $10,000 NeXT computer — with its revolutionary operating system, visual interface and conspicuous (capricious some would say) lack of a then common diskette drive. It’s hard to overstate Esslinger’s influence on Apple and Steve Jobs, yet perhaps it has been done — by Esslinger himself — in his recently released memoir, called Keep It Simple, which recounts his close relationship between Apple, Steve Jobs and Frog design.
Steve Job’s ousting from Apple — which one might euphemistically call a ‘temporary sabbatical’ — led to numerous unexpected changes in the PC computing industry. So much so that in retrospect his temporary fall from grace seems like the work of a master plan — like the plot of a Greek tragedy — where the hero must endure a journey of hardship in order to achieve his ultimate reward.
Three Design Consequences from Steve Jobs’s Forced Exile from Apple:
- The strong industrial metal look that Esslinger’s Frog Design created for the NeXT computer makes it the clear ancestor for the brushed metal design of Apple’s recent personal computers.
- The slick object-oriented operating system of the NeXT computer was used by Tim Berners-Lee and Rober Cailliau to develop the first web browser and Web server at CERN.
- Not long after Steve Jobs was triumphantly welcomed back into the leadership role at Apple, they acquired NeXT — which gave Apple a modern UNIX-based operating (OS X) that Microsoft lacked.
How Apple Got its Industrial Design Groove Back
While Steve Jobs had been away from Apple, IBM and other PC manufacturers had steadily copied the breakthrough snow white design language championed by Frog Design. On his return, Jobs went bold. Jobs established the Apple Industrial Design Group, and hired promising designers, including one young Englishman — Jonathan Ive — who is credited with creating the iMac G3 design. The G3’s strong industrial design statement — built on color, translucency and curves — re-captured the friendly, lighthearted spirit of the original Macintosh first introduced back in 1984. Today, of course Ive is Senior Vice President Industrial Design at Apple. He’s also the recipient of the Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Thus we may more correctly refer to him today as Sir Jonathan Ive. Here’s another clip from the documentary Objectified, which juxtaposes Dieter Rams (speaking in German with subtitles) and Jonathan Ive:
Over the years, Apple has kept experimenting with new product lines in its quest to breakout from dependence on its solitary personal computer product offering. Early product attempts like the Apple Newton failed in the marketplace, but Apple regrouped and eventually met with success. In fact, lessons learned from the Newton informed the Apple iPod, which in turn helped launch Apple into the music business. And the influential iPod served as a critical bridge platform that enabled Apple to conquer the mobile phone industry head on — with the iPod-derived iPhone.
The Rise of UX
For the Apple iPod and later iPhone products, the user interface experience (UX) has become as important if not more important than the industrial design of the product itself. One of the early design leaders for these Apple projects, Tony Fadell, saw a hole in the market; he struck out on his own to create an entirely re-imagined version of the lowly home thermostat.
Fadell’s new company, Nest, applied some of the same Apple user interface magic to create a much more interactive and visually appealing and — dare we say smart — thermostat. In fact it blew traditional electromechanical thermostats out of the water, which had for the most part gone unchanged since Honeywell’s round design from 1958. Google took notice of design capabilities of the Nest team and bought the entire company for a cool $3.2 billion in January 2014.
Where Does the Apple Watch Lead Us in a Design Sense?
Now that we’ve looked at Apple’s past to get a sense of where it’s been, we can make a couple of observations. The first is Apple hasn’t really strayed all that far from Dieter Ram’s 10 Design Principles. And, of course there’s been criticism that the new Apple Watch appears to be fairly thick and clunky. (An unfortunate comparison has been made that the Apple Watch looks like a Nest Thermostat strapped to your wrist.)
That’s a little unfair. As the technology gets a smaller and lighter, Apple industrial designers will have the kind of freedom to innovate in more playful ways, much like they did with the progression of the different iPod models over the years. In fact, it’s hard not to think about the iPod introduction when watching the current Apple television commercials featuring Bono and the band U2 performing their new song. These look like an updated version of the silhouetted iPod dancers shaking their groove thing.
What is in Apple’s Future? Is it a Closed Circle or Open to Change?
When looking for trends that predict the future, it’s tempting to look for any kind of sign. As you’ve probably heard, Apple’s new World Headquarters is built in the form of a circular ‘O’. It stands for infinity according to Apple. But you could also interpret the ‘O’ shape as a metaphorical closed circle, a castle fortress where it’s all too easy to draw the bridge up away from the moat. Apple also recently announced the hiring of star industrial designer, Australian Marc Newson, who will be based in the UK. Charlie Rose interviewed Marc Newson and Jonathan Ive to learn more about their collaborative work in support of Bono’s Product (RED) initiative.
Newson, one of Ive’s design BFFs, clearly fits in the Dieter Ram’s school of design as evidenced by his signature large radiuses and cool Teutonic lines. But we have to ask: Is this type of collaboration a sign Apple may be lingering too long in its comfort zone? Do they need a shock — like they got when Steve Jobs was forced out and then welcomed back into the fold? Time will tell. And if we had to predict, it will be an Apple Watch telling us what time it is.
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