Decoding Apple Design: 6 Rules

Working in marketing I have watched hundreds of presentations about branding, innovation and design. Although it's usually a repackaging of existing learnings and information, presentations of this type do serve a purpose as they allow you to focus and think about the mystery of innovation.
It goes without saying that people routinely mention Apple in presentations like this. And it always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. It is as if they had something to do with the development of one of these iconic products, when all they are doing is trying to take part of the credit and the cool factor, just for being able to put an iphone photo on a PowerPoint slide.

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with Apple: I love the design, but I guess I had more than my fair share of defective products from Apple. Either way, I recognize and admire the magic of their design and although I have mixed feelings about their corporate culture, I would like to be a fly on the wall for one day and observe Mr Jonathan Ive and Co in action. For those not familiar with Mr Ive, he is the SVP of design for Apple, or the Man Behind Steve Jobs.

A couple of days ago, I read that he won a few more awards from D&AD. To quote Claire Beale "there are few creative awards more jealously coveted than a D&AD pencil. Yellow pencils can be career makers. But the elusive Black Pencil is a marker of creative genius". Now, Jonathan Ive has won 6 Black Pencils over the last 10 years. This is more than anyone else in the world. But of course, this shouldn't be a surprise, it's like saying that Apple makes great products.

So how do they do it? Even if Steve Jobs wanted to share this information with the rest of the world, it wouldn't make much difference. To quote Seth Godin, Bullet points are not the point. It's more about how determined you are to do something with them. Here is a list of my thoughts. Read it. Then add your thoughts. Then act as you see fit:
1) Having a dream team helps, getting the dream team is the challenge. You need to understand and define design (and great design) first. In a world of design mediocrity, you may not even know that you have a problem.

2) "Having a very clear focus that all the development teams share; a focus around trying to make really great products". This one came from one of Jonathan's interviews and even he, admitted that "it sounds ridiculously simplistic, almost naive, but it's very unique for the product to be what consumes you completely." It helps, perhaps, that he's designing products that he and his team love to use, in their jobs, in their lives. "We don't have to take this great intuitive leap to understand the mythical concerns of our users, because we are the users."

3) A fanatical care beyond the obvious stuff. As Jonathan Ive said in another interview after he won the Design Museum Award "the obsessive attention to details that are often overlooked, like cables and power adaptors. Take the iMac, our attempts to make it less exclusive and more accessible occurred at a number of different levels. A detail example is the handle. Seeing an object with a handle, you instantly understand aspects of its physical nature - I can touch it, move it, it’s not too precious."

4) Structure and creativity: On the one hand an open space environment and a massive sound system that pumps up music and boosts creativity. On the other hand, an investment on state-of-the-art prototyping equipment and a design process revolving around intense iteration -- making and remaking models to visualize new concepts.

5) Cross functional Innovation: Despite the secrecy, according to Business Week, the Apple design team "works closely and intensely with engineers, marketers, and even outside manufacturing contractors in Asia who actually build the products. Rather than being simple stylists, they're leading innovators in the use of new materials and production processes."

6) Go Big or go home: There was a great article on Business Week about Jonathan Ive and Apple. It summarizes this point brilliantly: "Most big corporations have neither the focus, the skills, nor the appetite for risk to build mass-produced products that feel as if they were made by high-priced boutiques in New York or London. While computer companies have focused on pinching pennies these past few decades, Apple has been perfecting its design game. The fact that rivals are now talking about design is not proof they're catching up -- but of how far they have to go."

So this is the list of 6 things you need to do to innovate like Apple. Maybe it's just a list of bullet points. Acting on this points is the challenge:
Most companies are preoccupied with differentiation, yet without genuinely taking the time, investing the resources and caring enough to try and make something better. How can these companies compete with somone who has razor sharp focus, unique skills and great appettite to take risks? It is not an easy thing.