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Entries in Apple (2)

Friday
Oct072011

A little Ive appreciation

Call it Apple week but because of the death of one Steve Jobs, I feel called to put up an interview I did for Metropolis in 2005 with Jony Ive. Now, I know Steve was a perfectionist and in a sense Jony's design partner. I also know all that scuttlebutt about Steve being a tyrant and perfectionist, but this seemed a moment when it would be good to hear the soft-spoken Ive on his design process and team -- and to remember that he was creating amazing products before Apple...

 

I don’t ever talk about this,” says Jonathan Ive, attempting to describe the deep working relationship his team has developed over the years. “I don’t think anyone would understand.” As head of design at Apple, he is arguably the most influential product designer in America, if not the world. But he is shy and soft-spoken, with closely cropped hair and stubble the same length. Ive wears cargo pants, plain T-shirts, and sneakers as if hoping not to attract attention, and now he stumbles over his words before finally saying, “I don’t think anyone will understand how precious the experience of working with my group is.” 

Ive’s group is no more than a handful of people. They’ve been with him for nearly a decade, since he became vice president of industrial design in 1997 following the return of Steve Jobs. Since the team was assembled, no one has quit (no doubt a record in the design world). The designers are amazingly close, but because of Apple’s legendary secrecy it’s impossible to find out how many people work in the group and where they’re from—let alone their names. 

But Ive and his team have radically changed our landscape. It’s rare when a design group creates one visionary product, but they’ve given birth to two or three in less than a decade. At Apple design is never an afterthought or a style stuck on a box; design, engineering, and software development occur in tandem. Ive is as obsessed with his products’ internal architecture as he is with their outward appearance. The Power Mac G5’s aluminum case is made from one continuous piece with a door panel that slides off to reveal the inside, composed not of tangled cords but of elegant components intended to make it easy for users to upgrade.

Apple doesn’t achieve such simplicity by having legions of designers spread around the world in sprawling global studios like the Philips, Sonys, and Samsungs. All of the company’s packaging announces, “Designed by Apple in California,” itself a stamp of pride and a statement of intent. “It’s interesting how you transition from discussion and debate, and how you embody a thought,” Ive says, describing the group’s internal process, “because some of those initial ideas can be really rather fragile. That process of transitioning an idea from an incomplete thought into a physical object is challenging. And since we’ve been working together for a long time, it’s important to understand how subtle that translation can be and how small changes can have a significant impact on the direction of an idea.”

It is this nearly intangible process that other companies would have a hard time re-creating in their attempts to get the Apple effect. Many corporations give lip service to building stellar design teams, but what allows Apple’s products to be so daring is the sense that Ive and his colleagues feel safe failing together—or at least trying out potentially weird ideas with the implied possibility of failure. Back in 2000 MP3 players looked exactly the way you’d expect: like small portable CD players. But a certain intimacy allowed Ive’s group to come up with something radically different and, of course, their weird new idea changed the paradigm. 

Once those ideas are sprung, the delicate process and obsessive perfectionism of translating them into a working product begins. Talking about the new iMac G5 and its camera in the display’s front bezel, Ive laments that in “early versions it was this completely dominating feature.” Most companies would have settled for simply inserting the camera in the face of worries about deadlines and bottom lines. 

Those details are important. Take the sleep display on the first iBook in 1999. Appearing only when the computer is asleep, it had a gently breathing light that exhaled and inhaled slowly like a person, which helped humanize computers. The original iMac’s translucent plastic housing and handle also made it seem approachable because you could easily pick it up, carry it wherever you wanted, and see into the guts of the machine, taking the mystery and fear out of what lay inside. These developments changed the place and perception of computers, and then in 2001 Apple radically changed music. 

With its Podcasts and playlists, the iPod is slowly, inexorably killing off music radio as we know it, while turning shuffle into a new verb for how people listen to tunes. Apple is now so influential that people look to its new products to try and predict what the company will do next. There are Web sites dedicated to reading the runes of what Ive might have in the works. But you need only hold the slim new video iPod, with its high-resolution color screen, to make an educated guess about where the company is going: it’s easy to imagine that Ive and Jobs have set their sites on mainstream broadcast media. Combine the iPod with the new iMac’s elegant remote (and software that makes it easy to download TV to your computer as well as to the iPod), and it’s easy to picture a future in which TV sets are outmoded and we’re watching homemade newscasts, DIY music videos, personalized documentaries, and hometown soap operas.

But there’s also a sense that Ive and his team are just hitting their stride. “Industrial design is in its infancy, and even more so if you look at the kinds of products that we’re developing now,” he says. “We work on products that are establishing new categories. It’s a really significant time, and a number of things have come into alignment.” Just what they are he can’t say, but the future promises new paradigms growing from fragile processes.

Thursday
Oct062011

Apple's Logo

On the death of Steve Jobs, I wanted to put up my interview with Rob Janoff who designed the original Apple logo (and is my friends Dan and Callie's dad). Like Carolyn Davidson who designed the Nike logo, he was a young designer at the time and not exactly paid well, but Steve later gave him stock in the company and the two remained friends and talked... This originally ran in Frieze in 2008.

 

Earlier this year, two academics from Duke University published a paper on the power of logos. During the course of their research they had subliminally flashed the Apple and IBM logos at students, and asked them to perform a ‘visual acuity test’ in which they had to list all of the possible uses for a brick beyond building a wall.  While the students never knew they’d even seen a logo, the answers given after seeing the Apple were judged to be far more creative than those given after Paul Rand’s striped IBM logotype was flashed. Now that Apple really does make you ‘think different’, it seemed a good time to ask the logo’s designer how he came up with it, and if he really thought it had that power.

Rob Janoff designed the logo in 1976 when he was all of 28. Originally meant to adorn the Apple II, Janoff’s logo is actually the company’s second; the first looked a bit like a bad Dürer etching with a figure – Newton, one might guess – sitting under a tree and presumably discovering gravity. That original logo might encourage one to think though perhaps not so differently – all it says to me is don’t sit under apple trees in autumn.

Jennifer Kabat: So Rob, how did you get the job of designing the logo?

Rob Janoff: It was a low or no-pay account and the agency wanted one of the cheaper guys. And I guess that was me.

JK: What was your brief?

RJ: It was pretty casual. Here was this new thing – a home/personal computer and people were going to be able to have this thing in the kitchen and be able to retrieve recipes and use it to do their bills. That was stretching reality though. I had one, and my son Daniel played Pong on it. The end. You certainly couldn’t do a layout on it. But our task was to introduce this to the public and make them not afraid of having a computer. We needed to make it friendly so you’d want to welcome it into your home.

JK: And then there was the name – that must have helped.

RJ: The easy part of it was that it was called Apple. You had a complicated machine named for a fruit, so it’s clear what you’re going to do as far as the logo goes. It’s got to look like an apple. Only my boss at the time didn’t want me designing an icon. He was content to have it be a logotype. And I said, gee, with a name like that you have to do an icon.

JK: And how did you make it look so apple-y?

RJ: It was like ninth grade art class where I had to render a bell pepper over and over.  I bought a bunch of apples and put them in a bowl and took out my drawing board. I tried to get a generic apple shape going on and figured out what made an apple an apple. There’s the shape to it, and the stem and the leaf, which apples don’t have but people imagine they do. I stylized them, and to make sure people knew it was an apple and not something like a tomato or a cherry, I gave it a bite.

JK: Which was not even a byte – like a computer byte.

RJ:  That was an accident though, after my copywriter said, ‘You know a byte is a computer thing.’ There have been many rumours about it since.

JK: So what’s the best one you hard about your design? 

RJ: One of my very favorites was that it was an homage to the early computer scientist named Alan Turing who was gay and who was suspected of committing suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple, so that was my motivation for the bite and the stripes since they represented the gay flag. The truth is the Apple logo was designed a year before the gay flag came out.

JK: So, the rainbow wasn’t a sly reference to your sexuality, then?

RJ: No, it was really a response to the fact that the Apple II was the only computer that could show images in colour. At the time it was only, like, eight colours, and there were colour bars on the monitor so the stripes came from that. It was also a way of making it friendly, especially for kids and schools. There was this idea that if you get a brand into a school, the kids are yours for life. The stripes are also like rainbows – which of course seem happy and fun. I mean, I was always influenced design-wise by a lot of the stuff going on ten years earlier with the hippies.

JK:  So what happened when you showed Steve Jobs the logo?

RJ: I showed him the stripes, and I showed him a one-colour version, but I didn’t give Steve a lot of choices. I said, ‘Here’s the shape,’ though I had a hard time getting it out of the agency. They were recommending this little company [Apple] that you don’t want a seven-colour logo – you’ll go broke. But Steve wanted it to be really top-notch and didn’t care about the expense.

JK:  Do you guys still talk? Are you still friends?

RJ: Actually we’re not, and I hadn’t talked to him in like 30 years though he recently called me.

JK:  So what did he say?

RJ: We talked about being old for a minute because the last time we saw each other we were both in our twenties,  and it was before he was a gazillionaire. After all that happened, he needed to change his life and friends and went through an obvious evolution of his own personality.  He was always out there in not caring what people thought. The more powerful he got, I think, the more that came out. It intimidated a lot of people. I know he intimidated me.

JK:  So what do you think about how the logo’s changed?

RJ: The first change was in the early ‘80s. Steve had Landor Associates do a redo. They paid a ton of dough and changed it slightly. In retrospect I think they did a great service by making those changes.  I wish I had thought of them. It’s like, look how nice and trim that shape is next to mine. I think mine was more natural and theirs more geometric.

JK: What about the move to white?

RJ: The stripes had served their purpose, and when Steve came back he wanted to make the logo more serious and neutral.  Now the logo integrates much better into their designs.

JK:  Did you hear how the Apple logo was supposed to make people more creative – not even the computer itself but the very logo when people were flashed a subliminal image of it?

RJ: That’s just amazing. I mean I’ve never heard of that phenomenon happening with anything else really. I know Apple attracts a certain kind of person, but it would be great to see if people could do more than move bricks around in a more creative way.