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The Apple Design Process

The author's old Apple badge on top of Ken Kocienda's book

I recently came across Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs by former software engineer Ken Kocienda. It was in one of my social media feeds, and since I’m interested in Apple, the creative process, and having been at Apple at that time, I was curious.

I began reading the book Saturday evening and finished it Tuesday morning. It was an easy read, as I was already familiar with many of the players mentioned and nearly all the technologies and concepts. But, I’d done something I hadn’t done in a long time—I devoured the book.

Ultimately this book gave more color and structure to what I’d already known, based on my time at Apple and my own interactions with him. Steve Jobs was the ultimate creative director who could inspire, choose, and direct work. 

Kocienda describes a nondescript conference room called Diplomacy in Infinite Loop 1 (IL1), the first building at Apple’s then main campus. This was the setting for an hours-long meeting where Steve held court with his lieutenants. Their team members would wait nervously outside the room and get called in one by one to show their in-progress work. In Kocienda’s case, he describes a scene where he showed Steve the iPad software keyboard for the first time. He presented one solution that allowed the user to choose from two layouts: more keys but smaller keys or fewer keys but bigger. Steve asked which Kocienda liked better, and he said the bigger keys, and that was decided.

Before reading this book, I had known about these standing meetings. Not the one about software, but I knew about the MarCom meeting. Every Wednesday afternoon, Steve would hold a similar meeting—Phil Schiller would be there too, of course—to review in-progress work from the Marketing & Communications teams. This included stuff from the ad agency and work from the Graphic Design Group, where I was.

My department was in a plain single-story building on Valley Green Drive, a few blocks from the main campus and close to the Apple employee fitness center. The layout inside consisted of one large room where nearly everyone sat. Our workstations were set up on bench-style desks. Picture a six-foot table, with a workstation on the left facing north and another on the right facing south. There were three of these six-foot tables per row and maybe a dozen rows. Tall 48” x 96” Gatorfoam boards lined the perimeter of the open area. On these boards, we pinned printouts of all our work in progress. Packaging concepts, video storyboards, Keynote themes, and messaging headlines were all tacked up. 

There was a handful of offices at one end and two large offices in the back. One was called the Lava Lounge and housed a group of highly-skilled Photoshop and 3D artists. They retouched photos and recreated screenshots and icons at incredibly-high resolutions for use on massive billboards in their dim room, lit only by lava lamps. The other office was for people who were working on super secret projects. Of course, that was badge access only. 

My boss, Hiroki Asai, the executive creative director at the time, sat out in the open area with the rest of us. Every day around 4pm, he would walk around the perimeter of the room and review all the work. He’d offer his critique, which often ended up being, “I think this needs to be more…considered.” (He was always right!) A gaggle of designers, copywriters, and project managers would follow him around and offer their own opinions of the work as well. In other words, as someone who worked in the room, I had to pin up my work by 4pm every day and show some progress to get some feedback. Feedback from Hiroki was essential to moving work forward.

So every Wednesday afternoon, with a bundle of work tucked under his arms, he would exit the side door of the building and race over to IL1 to meet with Steve. I never went with him to those meetings. He usually brought project managers or creative directors. Some of the time, Hiroki would come back dejected after being yelled at by Steve, and some of the time, he’d come back triumphant, having got the seal of approval from him.

I like to tell one story about how our design team created five hundred quarter-scale mockups to get to an approval for the PowerMac G5 box. In the end, the final design was a black box with photos of the computer tower on each side of the box corresponding to the same side of the product. Steve didn’t want to be presented with only one option. He needed many. And then they were refined.

The same happened with the Monsters, Inc. logo when I was at USWeb/CKS. We presented Steve with a thick two-inch binder full of logo ideas. There must have been over a hundred in there.

Steve always expected us to do our due diligence, explore all options, and show our work. Show him that we did the explorations. He was the ultimate creative director.

That’s how Steve Jobs also approached software and hardware design, which is nicely recounted in Kocienda’s book. 

In the book, Kocienda enumerates seven essential elements in Apple’s (product) design process: inspiration, collaboration, craft, diligence, decisiveness, taste, and empathy. I would expand upon that and say the act of exploration is also essential, as it leads to inspiration. In Steve’s youth, he experimented with LSD, became a vegetarian, took classes on calligraphy, and sought spiritual teachers in India. He was exploring to find his path. As with his own life, he used the act of exploration to design everything at Apple, to find the right solutions.

As designers, copywriters, and engineers, we explored all possibilities even when we knew where we would end up, just to see what was out there. Take the five hundred PowerMac G5 boxes to get to a simple black box with photos. Or my 14 rounds of MacBuddy. The concept of exploring and then refining is the definition of “creative selection,” Kocienda’s play on Darwin’s natural selection. But his essential element of diligence best illustrates the obsessive refinement things went through at Apple. Quality isn’t magic. It’s through a lot of perspiration.

© 1995–2022 Roger Wong. All rights reserved.