«Steve defined Apple by its design»
Opening the doors to their studio at Apple Park in Cupertino for the first time, they offered us a deep dive into the working processes behind their latest creations
Yet despite the millions and billions, there is still a strong sense of the personal touch about Apple’s products, a design ethos that can be traced back to the company’s earliest days. For designers such as Hankey and Dye, the challenge is to parlay the colossal responsibilities of such a footprint into a mutually beneficial future that serves customers and shareholders without depleting resources and hastening climate change.
(@ Apple Park) From the natural ventilation systems to the multilayered glazing, from the bespoke door handles to the 9,000 carefully specified trees, every single facet of this multibillion-dollar structure has been subjected to the kind of scrutiny most designers can only dream of.
Ive told Wallpaper* in 2017.: ‘The Apple Design Team can share the same studio’ … ‘We can have industrial designers sat next to a font designer, sat next to a sound designer, who is sat next to a motion graphics expert, who is sat next to a colour designer, who is sat next to somebody who is developing objects in soft materials.’
Hankey and Dye are adamant that the team wouldn’t be what it was without the deep-rooted cultural bias towards design in Apple. We always remember him (Steve Jobs) saying that design is not just a veneer. It’s not just how things look, it’s about how things work. After three years [at Apple Park], we couldn’t believe more in the vision of having one central Design Team across all Apple products.’
Arguably, the company has done more to democratise the understanding and perception of design, both in its physical manifestation and as a way of guiding and shaping behaviours.
Dye and Hankey frequently use the word ‘humility’, especially when Apple is entering new market spaces. … Take the Human Factors Team, which blends experts in ergonomics, cognition and behavioural psychology. … New products have led to new specialisms and Apple Park was designed to accommodate this growth and cross-pollination. The ability to sketch, model and prototype in-house creates a fluid workflow that is integral to product evolution. Prototyping is hugely important, covering everything from scale and interaction down to materials, colours, textures, and surfaces.
Industrial design is by its nature multidisciplinary, although individual expertise is obviously hugely valuable. There are team members who are as adept at coding as they are at three-dimensional design, but in general, the most useful quality – beyond skill and aptitude – is a sense of curiosity.
Yet even something as superficially simple but environmentally beneficial as removing the plastic shrink-wrap from an iPhone box induces a paroxysm of self-examination within the team. How can the unboxing experience be maintained? Can it be made more accessible? The problem was mulled over, pulled apart and ultimately solved with an elegant paper tab mechanism. The change will save around 600 metric tonnes of plastic over the life of the product.
Other disciplines have more tangible compulsions. Take typography, something deemed inconsequential and quaint to most early computer pioneers. Not Steve Jobs. Recognising the personal computer’s rapidly advancing ability to display graphics and text to the same visual standards as print, Jobs insisted that the Macintosh debuted with familiar fonts, notably Helvetica and Times New Roman. It also included Apple-specific fonts such as Chicago, Toronto and Geneva. Eventually, Apple developed the TrueType font standard that still prevails today.
‘Apple has had a very special relationship with typography for a long time,’ Dye acknowledges. Lance Wilson, one of the Design Team’s typographic specialists, was one of the people behind San Francisco, the neo-grotesque typeface that shipped with the first Apple Watch in 2014 and was eventually rolled out with iOS 9 and OS X. The first bespoke Apple font in a quarter of a century, San Francisco has to do a lot, especially on the small-screen real estate of the Apple Watch. Owing a stylistic debt to Helvetica, San Francisco goes further, working across 150 languages and evolving into variants, including SF Rounded, SF Mono and a 3D version used for Apple Pay.
‘One of the benefits of designing both the typeface and the platforms it’s displayed on is that we can define how the two work together,’ says Wilson. The result is a scalable font capable of accommodating different weights and spacing depending on the point size. San Francisco also set in motion the wholesale redesign of Apple’s symbol set. The SF Symbols app offers developers over 100,000 symbol combinations, with dynamic resizing, multiple weights, and orientations, all intended to ‘create continuity between hardware and software’, in Wilson’s words.
New York, the system serif font, was introduced in 2019, and displays similar capabilities. … Wilson and his team also worked on the upgraded fonts for Apple’s ongoing partnership with Hermès, digitally remastered from the French maison’s original horological lettering.
…Susan Kare’s cursive ‘hello’ graphic, one of the iconic images of the first Macintosh, was the inspiration behind the cursive font created for the spring 2021 launch of the new iMac. The spline-based font has integral connectivity, with each letterform perfectly aligning with the next, just like real handwriting.
As Dye points out, the iPhone is the most popular camera in the world. ‘That’s a pretty heavy thing to process,’ he admits. Used by everyone from working professionals to complete amateurs, the latest iteration of the iPhone camera and software exemplifies the cross-disciplinary approach.
The focus on photography obviously had an impact on hardware design, both in terms of how the lenses are grouped and delineated, but also the way in which the camera software evokes the incremental dials of traditional analogue equipment. All this required an immense amount of research, studying, and photographing vintage cameras, from their materials down to the typefaces and layouts on the cases. A new font, SF Camera, was created, complete with a ‘boxy’, analogue feel. The Photos app not only serves as a one-stop post-production facility but has become more sophisticated in its ability to curate and serve up specific memories, ‘a magical way to rediscover and relive’, according to human interface designer Nicole Racquel Ryan. ‘Memories can identify people and places, and package them up into this beautiful cinematic movie to play back.’ It’s immersive nostalgia, one more way in which our devices can insinuate themselves into every nook and cranny of our lives.
Technology is becoming more intimate. The infinite variety of emojis is one thing, but giving the customer choice and personality within the context of a mass-produced industrial object is quite another. This was the challenge of the Watch. … The Apple Watch also has its unique input device, the Digital Crown. ‘We wanted to merge software and hardware,’ says designer Molly Anderson. ‘The crown came from referencing the history of watches and realising we needed to have physical mechanisms and tactile inputs to make Apple Watch feel really different from the idea of an iPhone on the wrist.’
Arguably Apple put the ‘personal’ into personal computer, transforming the PC market with objects that gave back a sense of interaction with their user. Decades before we started talking to our devices, the Macintosh booted up with a happy, smiling face. This, it said, was going to be OK. For consumers, this might feel like ancient history, but for the Design Team, it was where the seeds of innovation, collaboration, and disruption were sown. ‘So much of what we value for the team and for the company, really started in the early days of design at Apple,’ says Hankey. ‘We cannot overstate how lucky we are to be at a company with such a rich and deep foundation. From the very early “think different” mantra to Steve and Jony’s collective focus on craft, care and making tools, to their reverence for the creative process, this is what still drives us.’
At the heart of it all is Apple Park. Hankey and Dye enthuse about the qualities of the space. ‘It’s been designed for serendipitous meetings as well as collaboration,’ Hankey says. ‘It’s just so quiet and calming. We never really understood what that would mean for us until we’d been here for a while.’ In Apple Park, the Apple Design Team has found the ultimate tool, a place where technology’s ever-evolving role in society is researched, dissected, developed, and designed before being transformed into physical reality.