Steve Jobs' Apple: Design as Consumer Engineering

Steve Jobs' Apple: Design as Consumer Engineering

Anna Hoffman
Oct 6, 2011

Steve Jobs' death yesterday has elicited a flood of emotion and analysis from all corners of the internet. As an Apple devotee myself, I often wonder why we have such strong loyalty to this brand, and I think the answer is in its approach to design, which has echoes in industrial design history. I can't speak to Jobs' extraordinary success as an inventor and innovator, but let's take a quick look at Apple's designs and why they seem to resonate so deeply.

Henry Dreyfuss' "streamlined" Hoover 150 Vacuum Clearn, 1933-36


During the Great Depression in America, industrial designers adopted a new style, known as Streamlining, to help make products feel modern and appealing to cash-strapped consumers. Known as Consumer Engineering, the practices of Streamlining included: simplifying forms; reducing visual and interactive complexity; combining components within one seamless shell; rounding and smoothing edges to give the feeling of speed and modernity; subtle raised 'speed lines' to imitate automobile styling — another signifier of speed and modernity; and fitting products to consumers for maximum comfort of use. These industrial designers also introduced and developed the idea of planned obsolescence, when frequent style changes and other upgrades make consumers feel the need to abandon their old models for something new. This was a practice that originated in the car industry and quickly spread to all kinds of consumer goods. Does all this sound familiar?

You can see obvious affinities between the Consumer Engineering of the 1930s and Steve Jobs' approach to computer design. While the Depression-era designers were trying to get people to buy stuff they didn't really need and couldn't really afford (which you can either see as immoral or a necessary engine of the economy), Jobs was trying to get people to adopt a new technology — personal computing — that was potentially alienating in its complexity and its newness.

Graphical User Interface on a Mac System 1.0, January 1984


The first thing Jobs did was to change the interface of personal computers from a text-based system to a Graphical User Interface (GUI) that resembled a real-life 'desktop' with icons representing familiar objects like disks, files and a trashcan (image). (Apple didn't invent this desktop metaphor — controversially, it was developed at Xerox and then adapted (some say stolen) by Apple and Microsoft.) You can see how this reality-based desktop interface would help new users adjust to a virtual world. It made using the computer an intuitive experience, so the computer could become an extension of the user's body.

Apple ][+, introduced June 1979


Another early move was to hire an industrial design team, Frog Design, headed by Hartmut Esslinger. They immediately developed a design language that became consistent across Apple products in the '80s and early '90s. The priority was to make the computer appear as small and light (read: manageable) as possible. The design elements they adopted definitely resonated with the Streamlined designs of the '30s: a simple shell of a surface; shallow lines that not only provided ventilation but gave the illusion of reduced mass.

The 1984 Mac 128K


The first Macintosh computers also already had a compelling physical presence: MoMA curator Paola Antonelli has said of the 128K that it "had enough personality to be greeted as an interlocutor." Crucially, Frog Design also emphasized the inlaid rainbow-striped Apple logo, an important symbol of the Apple computer as fundamentally a toy — something to be used creatively.

It was this final point that was especially central to the famous Apple redesign in the late '90s: the candy-colored, translucent iMac. Entering a market filled with beige, grey and off-off-white, this was a revelation. The design not only presented the Mac as playful and personal — "get one in your favorite color!" — but the transparency of its body also revealed its internal mechanisms, eliminating the sense that the machine you were using was some sort of terrifying mystery that could never be mastered. A former design professor of mine talks about how the iMac felt manageable even to her mom, who bought it as her first computer; its simple design suggested a simplicity of use that Apple worked hard to deliver.

As Jonathan Ive (the Apple designer who also designed the iPod) explained, "Our objective was to design a computer for the consumer market that would be simple, easy to use, highly integrated, quiet and small. We wanted it to be an unashamedly plastic product." By making it "plastic," Apple turned the personal computer into a personal accessory. It also introduced the idea that external design changes might be as appealing and important as internal system changes for consumers, that idea of planned obsolescence first developed during the Depression.

Subsequent style changes and new products have followed the principles established by both Frog Design in the '80s and the in-house Apple team in the late '90s: smooth, simple external shells; the appearance of lightness; and simple and intuitive user interface (like the single control dial on the iPod or the home button on the iPad and iPhone). The sense of the object's personality was also enhanced by Ive's addition of the pulsing light on Macs, a kind of digital heartbeat that leads consumers to connect to the product on a visceral level. Then there is the fact that Apple has created products that can be immediately integrated into our everyday lives. Our iPods, iPhones and MacBooks are not just accessories, but appendages, prosthetic extensions of our bodies, which has always been the goal of every industrial designer (not to mention other kinds of designers!).

Of course, the successful engineering and design of Apple products does not fully explain the devotion people feel to the brand and to Jobs himself. How do we explain this? On the one hand there is the cult of personality around Jobs that came from his charisma and a certain amount of bravado. An employee even coined a term, Reality Distortion Field (RDF), to describe the effects of Jobs' personality on the people who worked for him, not to mention the rest of us. One of Apple's most effective marketing tools was Jobs' presentations, where he skillfully roused insider audiences to a kind of mass frenzy of fetishism around new products.

The 1997 "Think Different" ad campaign, which linked the brand to innovators and artists


But for those of us outside the RDF (if any of us really is...) there was also something implicit that the brand offered us. My guess is that it relates way back to that rainbow-striped apple, and then to the lollipoppy 1998 iMac, which offered the computer as a playful creative tool as opposed to a simple beige box. Today, despite the brand's popularity, it is not used in most businesses. Go into a financial institution, large or small, and not only will everyone be using a BlackBerry instead of an iPhone, but you will also only see PCs, not Macs. I don't need to discuss the (totally legit) reasons for this, but the effect is that the Mac brand allows its consumers to identify with 'creatives' instead of 'suits.'

The most beloved products not only fit consumers but also flatter them. In the '30s, Streamlined designs flattered their consumers with their modernity, sense of forward momentum, new-ness and high style. Under Steve Jobs, Apple products have flattered me by making me feel part of a creative, innovative cohort of consumers. They have also flattered me by giving me easy mastery over them — no one can dispute the intuitive ease of these products.

In the Washington Post, Hank Stuever wrote that Jobs gave his customers the tools to successfully let go of the past and enter the brave new digital world:
Under his leadership, Apple's subliminal selling point was: Let it go. Let go of the uneasiness about computers. Let go of ugly, antique technology. Let go of the fantasy future of personal rocketships. Let go of the expensive, shiny new phone that you bought last year for the slightly less expensive, shiny new phone that's coming out this year. But let go of something deeper, something resistant in you that romanticizes the past.

In the end, the most important reason for Jobs' adulation is the fact that he created designs that felt good to use. The design writer Frank Chimero wrote a eulogy on his blog that sums it up:
[Jobs'] way of seeing gave us a desirable path forward, and offered a way to live better with all of this technology. It was a way built on empathy and laced with magic … The most important concept to learn from Jobs is embedded in how we feel after using one of his products. That very same thing is happening now in his wake. Look closely and you will see it: wonderful experiences have an afterglow to them.



Sources: Paola Antonelli quote from Metropolis; Frank Chimero quote from here; Jonathan Ive quote from the Design Museum; Hank Stuever quote from here. Great roundup of "Ways the iMac Changed Computing" from PCWorld.

Images: The Snitch; abitare; JeremyReimer.com; apple-history.com; Metropolis; PCWorld; Time; Engadget.

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