Friday, August 1

Mythbusting Apple and what we might learn

There were a few interesting insights from one-time Apple designer, Mark Kawano in a recent article in Fast Company dispelling some of the mythology which surrounds Cupertino's design success. Apple just seems to have been able to tap into the humanity of technology better than most and certainly more often than most. User friendly is an unfriendly phrase, but cuts to a chase.

How Apple does it is still wrapped up (= clouded) in Steve Jobs' extraordinary aura which is never more manifest than in his messianic keynote addresses. I have to confess I was a sucker for them all and can still recall the audience reaction when he unveiled the iPhone in 2007 - "Today we're introducing three revolutionary products... An iPod. A phone. an internet communicator... are you getting it yet?". Well, we're all getting it now.

Of course we all also get it now from Walter Issacson's biog and others that Jobs was more than a bit of a bastard in the workplace. Kawano defends his old boss to some extent saying Jobs "had a low tolerance for people who didn't care about stuff." Indeed.

But a more revelatory observation is his view that it was Apple's culture that makes the real difference, not that it has the best designers. Rather he claims that the context within the organisation was to value and support design. "Everyone there is thinking about it." Not sex, but the interface, the engineering, the feel. He backs this up by suggesting this is why so many Applytes who are poached never seem to be able to conjure up the creative, design magic again. They've fallen out of the halo of positivity.

So a nurturing creative context, a supportive petrie dish of openness is central to its virtually pre-eminent design chops. Hmmm, whatever the Jobsian fear-factor, what a contrast with so many businesses here. Design is too often seen as cost, a sheen, superficial; tangental, not fundamental. Innovations can be dangerous and change, not to be trusted.

Even within the creative services industries, where the idea should champion all, there can linger a sterile pragmatism that's inhospitable to fresh thinking. It's like the conditions described by HI in Raising Arizona when he confesses that his wife, Edwina's "insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase." There's many a rocky place in our boardrooms. (Note to self: Must not pursue metaphor.) Instead we need more businesses where there's a genuine receptivity to design and where creative proposals can find purchase. Steven Johnson talks of hunches needing to connect with other hunches. Perhaps the culture is as important as the people. It's the sort of environment that served Apple well: we should all learn from it.