Even After Apple, Designers Dig Jobs

Apple's design alumni agree: For a design-driven business strategy, you need the support of a single-minded risk taker like, well&Steve Jobs

Talk to a bunch of former Apple (AAPL) designers who've gone on to work with other corporations such as Cisco Systems (CSCO) and Sapient (SAPE), and the first thing you'll notice is how similar their ideas of "successful design" are. It's perhaps a little ironic, given how Apple made such a song and dance back in the day about the whole concept of "thinking different." And unusual, given that most high-profile designers are known for their contrarian and opinionated attitudes. But when we checked in to see where a handful of top industrial, interface, and other designers wound up post-Apple—and to get their hindsight on what their design alma mater does right (or wrong)—we discovered they still share philosophies and thinking. And belief No. 1 remains that Steve Jobs is King, even among those who never worked with him directly.

"Apple would not do what it does if it were not for Steve Jobs," says Robert Brunner, who was Director of Industrial Design at Apple for seven years before becoming a partner at multidisciplinary design firm Pentagram in 1996 and who recently set up his own San Francisco-based consultancy, Ammunition. "His understanding and support of design is shown in product after product. Apple's committed to design all the way through the process and that comes right from the top of the company. It's a belief and commitment that's cultural, not process-oriented."

The Strength of a Unique Vision

Many companies want to emulate Apple's success (the company recently topped the BusinessWeek/Boston Consulting Group's list of The World's 50 Most Innovative Companies based on a survey of global senior management, for the third year in a row). But the visionary power and influence of one individual may seem discouragingly difficult to reproduce. As if to emphasize that, some are quick to point out that when Jobs left the company, between 1985 and 1996, many members of the design team remained and yet produced products that stopped short of creating true paradigm shifts.

"The design team behind Apple's great products and experiences is basically the same one that created all the merely average designs under John Sculley and Gil Amelio," says Hartmut Esslinger, who worked as a consultant with Apple in the early 1980s before concentrating on the output of his own firm, Frog Design. "After the board of Apple fired Steve Jobs in 1985, neither John Sculley nor Jean-Louis Gassee showed the same passion for design. Ultimately, they left it to cultureless middle management. As design is one of the most honest emotional and visual indicators of the state of a company or a brand, the following 'dire years' of design at Apple actually were the logical result of bad leadership."

Cordell Ratzlaff, Esslinger's former colleague at Frog Design—a firm known for recruiting ex-Apple designers—agrees. "Great design comes from dictators, not democracies," says Ratzlaff, who managed Apple's Human Interface Group in the 1990s and who now works as Director of User-Centered Design for Cisco. "Democracy works well for running a country and choosing a prom queen. The best product designs, however, come from someone with a singular strong vision and the fortitude to fend off everything and everyone that would compromise it." In other words, success can often come down to instinct and taste—bad news for those after a more tangible, quantitative, metrics-driven approach.

Creativity: The Small, Informal Approach

Apple alums also tend to agree on one other issue—passion and determination must coincide with a willingness to take risks. That requires the self-belief to champion innovative, perhaps unprecedented product design: Think of Apple's top-selling products, such as the iPod with the click wheel.

Again, these are not qualities that are easy to quantify or factor into a management budget—nor is it a question of innovation for innovation's sake. "[Steve Jobs'] common sense is greatly undervalued as one of his strengths," says one of Apple's earliest employees, Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, who's now a principal at Norman Nielsen Group, a Web usability consultancy based in Fremont, Calif. (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/27/07, "Q&A with Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini"). "He looks at something and knows whether it'll work or if it's [merely] a quirky, cute thing." Being able to tell the difference is crucial.

But ex-Apple designers offer practical suggestions, too. Whether they are now working within a large organization, like Ratzlaff at Cisco, or as entrepreneurial leaders of their own firms, like Brunner at Ammunition, Apple alumni notably espouse the power of small groups to have large effects. "Most people think you need a lot of resources to do something of significance. But small teams can change the world," continues Ratzlaff. "The most successful products I was a part of at Apple started with only a few people with no formal structure or hierarchy and little corporate oversight."

And while other corporations remain transfixed by the superficial appearance of a compelling, top-selling product such as an iPod, companies would do well to remember that good design is more than skin deep. Apple's ongoing success, its alumni agree, is about much more than its latest sleek object. "Apple is so much more than great industrial design," says Bay Area-based designer Thomas Meyerhoffer, who created Apple's eMate PDA and now works on projects for a variety of clients, both large corporations (Nike (NKE) and small (he's currently working on the soft "Chumby" computer, to be launched by the end of the year).

How to "Do an Apple"

Meyerhoffer recalls a recent meeting at which he once again fielded a perennial request—to "do an Apple". "I pointed out that if [the client] didn't know that an iPod was an iPod, it could have been a medical device. But Apple is about the whole experience, the whole interface. What's interesting about the iPhone is that it's a carrier of the Apple way of thinking and doing. The interface you see on the phone links to the interface on the computer and how you deal with the parts of your life that you really like. It's really smart." And allows you, avers Meyerhoffer, to overlook the flaws and foibles of its design, such as poor battery life.

The good news is, you don't have to work at Apple—or be an Apple alum—to think like Apple. The key is to apply an original spin to the Apple design and management playbooks—just as Apple has done internally.

"With insight and a bit of Jobs' marketing genius, you can truly reinvent companies into new animals," says Jennifer Kilian, creative director at Frog Design in San Francisco (yes, another Frog designer), who worked on the interface design for iTunes while she was a creative director for instructional products at Apple. "Watching Apple go from computing to entertainment and lifestyle was eye-opening." And perhaps can give heart to those looking on from other companies. "Doing an Apple" is possible. All it takes is an awareness and acceptance of the power of design—and a willingness to bet the $100 billion dollar farm on it.

See BusinessWeek's slide show for a closer look at some of Apple's all-star alumni.