Yahoo! Design Week: Product Design at Apple and Beyond

by July 25, 2007

Former Director of Industrial Design at Apple Inc. and Pentagram partner, Bob Brunner, spoke at Yahoo! Design Week about his experiences with and perspective on product design principles and deliverables. Though most of Brunner’s talk was a walk through of product design examples, he also offered the following insights:

  • Clients are what is going to help you be successful. You need to work with people you who believe what you believe in.
  • There’s a lot of subjectivity in product design. People can produce a million reasons on a spreadsheet for why not to do something. Having someone (or a culture) that supports you is very important.
  • A lot of the best clients are the ones that are in trouble. They need to change and therefore try something different or take risks.
  • The Apple Powerbook design was not tested with customers –it just felt right. Some usability testing was done to ensure it could be used accurately. Virtually every notebook computer is modeled off the original Powerbook design.
  • Brunner’s focus at Apple was developing a design language –a physical vocabulary of objects- across all products. Apple’s language was rooted in the desktop or office. They wanted to make it more personal: part of you vs. part of your desk.
  • The design team needed to own design language and educate the rest of the company about it.
  • Apple was a company that thrives on icons. It needs things to rally around.
  • You can’t fight the culture. When people are hit with subjective decisions (very frequently in product design) they rely on personal beliefs or the culture around them to decide what’s right.
  • Dell is an operational model not a computer company.
  • At Apple, product equals brand. The company did a study by placing Apple logos on washing machines. Without using the machines, consumers referred to them as fun and easy to use.
  • Experience matters: how people feel, what they can do -it all comes together to create a powerful brand.
  • You can’t divorce yourself from a legacy, you need to build upon it. For the Vista redesign, the team leveraged the good things underlying Windows.
  • Pentagram is not a research company but sets a lot of context for their designs.
  • Everything Apple does now is perfectly executed as a result, most of their time is likely spent managing development. Fighting to get things just right is what drives Jonathan Ive (Brunner hired Ive at Apple).
  • Partnership is what matters. The one thing Brunner missed as a consultant is not being in control all the way through. Designers have a responsibility to own what the world sees. They need to have ownership of the experience and drive to make it right.