Apple Lesson of the Day: Design Matters. A Lot.

"When you see an object, you make so many assumptions about that object in seconds: what it does, how well it's going to do it, how heavy it is, how much you think it should cost. The object testifies to the people that conceived it, thought about it, developed it, manufactured it. Ranging from issues of form to material, to its architecture, to how it connects to you, how you touch it, how you hold it. Every object, intentional or not, speaks to who put it there."

-- Jony Ive, Objectified (2009)

If there's another lesson that Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) has taught us with product strategy, it's that industrial design matters. A lot.

Steve Jobs was always known for his perfectionist ways, to the extent where even the innards of Apple's computers that would rarely be seen by mortal eyes needed to be designed flawlessly -- a lesson he learned from his mechanic father. Add in his passion for Buddhist principles and affinity for Zen, and you arrive at an unparalleled drive for minimalist simplicity.

Jobs' notoriously high design standards were also why his mansion in Woodside, Calif., was famously devoid of any furniture.

It takes two to tango
While much of Apple's design prowess is frequently chalked up to Jobs, his longtime essential partner in crime was London-born Jony Ive, Apple's senior VP of industrial design, who was knighted in his home country over the new year for his work. Sir Ive had always drawn much inspiration from design legend Dieter Rams, the German designer who crafted products for Braun half a century ago.

Sources: designboom.com, Apple.com. Braun T3 radio (1958) and original Apple iPod (2001).

Sources: designboom.com, Apple.com. Braun T3 radio (1958) and original Apple iPod (2001).

There's no shortage of examples of this inspiration. Interestingly, Rams has said that "Apple has managed to achieve what I never achieved: using the power of their products to persuade people to queue to buy them." He also considers his inspiration on Ive and Apple products a great compliment to his work.

Sources: designmuseum.org, Apple.com. Braun LE1 loudspeaker (1960) and Apple iMac (2011).

Sources: designmuseum.org, Apple.com. Braun LE1 loudspeaker (1960) and Apple iMac (2011).

From Rams' own experience, he noted (before Jobs' death) a requisite condition for success: "I have always observed that good design can normally only emerge if there is a strong relationship between an entrepreneur and the head of design. At Apple this situation exists -- between Steve Jobs and Jony Ive."

Sweet freedom
In Steve Jobs' biography, he had told author Walter Isaacson that Ive was his "spiritual partner" at Apple and that he personally set up the organizational hierarchy so that Ive has complete operational freedom and no one can tell him what to do.

Now that Jobs has died, Ive's role crafting Apple products will be accentuated. He also happens to have a knack for realizing the unthinkable, much like Jobs' famed "reality-distortion field" -- it was his initiative to spend millions on highly specialized machines to include a tiny green light that appeared to shine through metal on Macs to indicate when the camera was on.

Lessons learned?
Competitors are now scrambling to crank up their game with industrial design. Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) is trying to be "fun" with its design direction. The BlackBerry maker has even recently released a futuristic model designed by Porsche, the P'9981. That limited-edition device's makeover was purely aesthetic, didn't improve software or internal specs, and costs nearly $2,000.

Mobile-device makers are also following suit, and there's a pretty clear distinction in the design language after Apple enters an arena. Apple and frenemy Samsung have been waging a high-profile war in recent years over blatant ripoffs.

Source: CultofMac.com, before and after iPhone.

Source: CultofMac.com, before and after iPhone.

Source: CultofMac.com, before and after iPad.

Source: CultofMac.com, before and after iPad.

Even beyond the realm of smartphones and tablets, Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC  ) Ultrabook reference designs are overt in trying to mimic the success of the MacBook Air. This year should see an army of Ultrabooks whose designs emphasize thin and light.

Sources: HP.com, Apple.com.

Sources: HP.com, Apple.com.

Hewlett-Packard's (NYSE: HPQ  ) Envy laptop lineup geared toward professional users is similarly a clear knockoff of the MacBook Pro, although the iconic PC-maker is hardly alone with its Apple design envy.

Or lessons copied?
Apple's focused product strategy inadvertently contributes to a sense of conformity among its offerings (a stark irony when considering its famous 1984 ad), and having competitors mimic its designs does little for differentiation or competition.

Rival gadget and PC makers should now be painfully aware of the importance of industrial design. The main downside is that many of these OEMs are now simply imitating Apple's design philosophy instead of focusing on developing their own distinctive blueprints. Doing so could potentially help them set themselves apart instead of eternally living in Apple's shadow.

Too bad they haven't realized that lessons learned don't mean lessons copied.

Apple's unrivaled industrial design prowess is why it's leading the mobile revolution, which promises to be The Next Trillion-Dollar Revolution. There are ways to play the mobile migration beyond Apple, and one of them includes a company that is set to power the revolution from the inside out. We've uncovered a company that has been scoring design wins hand over fist in next-generation mobile devices. Check out the free report now.

Fool contributor Evan Niu owns shares of Apple, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Intel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple and Intel and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (14)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2012, at 11:07 PM, jdwelch62 wrote:

    Evan: Britons would refer to Mr. Ive as "Sir Jony", not "Sir Ive". Otherwise, you make a fair point. However, it has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery...

    Fool on!... :-)

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2012, at 11:15 PM, TMFNewCow wrote:

    Always a pleasure, jdwelch.

    Foolish best,

    -- Evan

  • Report this Comment On February 15, 2012, at 11:58 PM, winklerf wrote:

    Motorola is a rival that has always had a flair for design. It will be interesting to see what happens as they become Googlefied.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2012, at 12:53 AM, Zendwell wrote:

    To the writer of this article, the words, the formatting of the text, the choice of subtext colors, and the use of images speaks to good design as well. Nice work.. I never knew about Dieter Rams. Thank you.

  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2012, at 9:51 AM, woodNfish wrote:

    InfoThatHelp, interface design is also part of ID (Industrial Design).

    This was an interesting article except for the nonsense about the design being influenced by buddism and other eastern psycho-babble. It isn't. There is nothing eastern about Braun, Ram, or even the simplicity of Shaker design all of which are of Western origin as is Apple and ID.

    Attention to design has always set Apple apart. Most companies are too cheap to invest in ID which is why they are all just copiers as is very well demonstrated by the cell phone and tablet photos above.

    In the electronics industry, Apple is the only company, other than high-end audio components, that understands the huge value of good design. The only other industry that really understands the value of ID is automotive. Which proves how true the last line of this article is. That is also the genius of Jobs. He understood marketing and design. Other than that, there is really nothing special about Apple products, but obviously it is enough.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2012, at 12:01 PM, VolkOseba wrote:

    The hardware gets copied... now someone copy the software so I don't have to keep buying apple products!

    ... come to think of it, I only have two, and only use one...

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