The first Macintosh. The titanium PowerBook. The iMac. The iPod. It's easy to think of Apple's (AAPL) major design triumphs. They've shifted our conceptions of how a computer should look and feel, and changed the way we interact with technology -- and listen to music and connect with friends. Some innovations are small -- like the trash icon or the placement of a trackpad. Apple makes wildly imaginative products with a consistency few companies rival.
Of course, look beyond stunning breakthroughs, and you'll see some equally dramatic flops: The Lisa, Apple's first crack at an easy, user-friendly personal computer, tanked with its $10,000 price tag. Or the Newton, the first handheld, which debuted in 1993 and fell out of production in 1999.
While it's tempting to tally up these hits and misses, to create a sort of innovation RBI, that would miss the point. Apple's greatest innovation can't be measured by product sales or design awards. It's the company's culture of innovation and its existence as an incubator of the best designers and engineers that will have the biggest long-term impact. Because when Apple's talent moves on, they take some of that culture with them. (see BW Online, 9/6/05,"The Spawn of the Apple")
CONSTANT REINVENTION. Just what is that Apple way of thinking? You can see it both the hits and misses. Take the Lisa and the Newton. First, both were recklessly ambitious projects. The Lisa incorporated features like the mouse and a graphical user interface based on the desktop metaphor, which had previously existed only in research labs. The Newton, with its small size and handwriting-recognition software, is still considered by many to be a pioneer and predecessor of today's personal digital assistant.
But Apple had a much grander vision: "[The Newton] will be the defining technology of the digital age," then Chief Executive John Sculley told Software Industry Report. It wouldn't be enough to create a handy new organizer. Like with the Lisa, and nearly every other of its major products, Apple wanted to reinvent the computer.
"Idealism is a major part of Apple," says Andy Hertzfeld, an original Macintosh team member. "The company operates for artistic values rather than for commercial purposes."
ARTISTIC EGOS RULE. Apple's products always start first as design vision -- and then tackle its feasibility. As a result, sometimes the challenges can seem impossible. After the design is worked out, says Jory Bell, a designer who worked on several iterations of the PowerBook notebook computer series, "then you sign it off with Steve [Jobs]. Only after that is there negotiation over whether the laws of physics will actually allow [that vision] to happen."
Apple isn't afraid of risk. Focus groups and competing products have little influence on the next big project or design idea, say veteran designers. Instead, artistic egos rule. "Decisions just happened" says Robert Brunner, a designer at Pentagram who worked at Apple from 1989 until 1996. "Damn the risk." In the early days, people like Jobs, John Couch, or Jean-Louis Gassee, who led Apple Research & Development from 1981 until 1990, made final decisions based on their personal likes and dislikes.
While individual tastes guided much of the team's work, that didn't mean micromanagement. "I learned a lot about empowering people [at Apple] -- pushing responsibility down as far as you can...and letting people loose" says Larry Tesler, a user interface guru who worked at Apple from 1980 until 1997. "You'd show Jobs something, and he might look at one part and say that just sucks -- but he never said 'make that button bigger.'"
FROM RIVALS TO MoMA. The culture created a constant pressure to always improve, but it never provided a solution. "Gassee would speak in vague metaphors constantly," says Brunner. "And you were supposed to understand...and just make [the product] better."
The designers and programmers who thrived in that culture now bring the same passion to fresh products and new approaches outside of Apple. The influence of its designers is surfacing in some of the most unexpected places, not just in the product lines of competitors but also in the Museum of Modern Art.
In the accompanying slide show, we take a look at several former Apple designers and engineers and their work, from a new model of handheld computer, to the redesign of an Internet giant's home page, to the graphics and images of the next Microsoft (MSFT) Windows operating system.
By Burt Helm in New York