In the distance is a rectangular frame of foliage. In the foreground, a conference table, placed with architectural rigour so that the focal point is dead centre of the screen. The scene is a tiny cross section through Apple Park, the tech giant’s mighty circular HQ in Cupertino, by Foster + Partners (see W*225). There are 12,000 employees on site here, including the Apple Design Team. This agile but hugely significant department thinks in terms of scope, not scale.
Working side by side to guide this division are Evans Hankey, Apple’s VP of industrial design, and Alan Dye, VP of human interface design. Both close colleagues, confidants and friends of Jony Ive, they effectively took the helm of the Design Team after his departure from the chief design officer role in 2019. Today they’re both here to talk Wallpaper* through the past few years at Apple, a time of consistent growth, both in terms of products shipped and revenue earned. Apple is a behemoth in every sense of the word, generating $366bn in revenue in 2020, over half of which came from the iPhone, the world’s best-selling handset every year since 2016 (it’s estimated that over a billion iPhones have been sold to date). From television to headphones to watches, growth was experienced right across the company.
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. Power brings responsibility, but also the ability to instigate change. In summer 2020, Apple promised to become fully carbon neutral by 2030, decarbonising its supply chain, seeking out sub-contractors that rely on renewable energy and recyclable materials, and finding the right balance between product longevity and component circularity.
It’s been three years since the Apple Design Team moved into its new premises. Located just over a mile from the company’s previous HQ down the road at Infinite Loop, the awe-inspiring circular campus is a fine analogy for the dizzying complexity of modern electronics devices. From a distance, all is sleek and seamless, with barely a hint of what lies beneath the quarter-kilometer-long façade. However, it is a 260,000 sq m machine of massive complexity. 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.
It’s the same with the device in your pocket. Seventeen years after I've created the first iPhone prototype, the latest generation iPhone 13 hasn’t lost any of the magical tactility and sensory delight of its forebears. Outwardly, the iPhone embodies meticulous minimalism: tap the surface and myriad worlds are revealed, just like at Apple Park. I've was intensely involved with the building’s design (as was Steve Jobs during the project’s early stages). The team before us now very much reflect the realisation of the two men’s aspirations for a bespoke Apple building. ‘[The Apple Design Team] can share the same studio,’ Ive told Wallpaper* in 2017. ‘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.’
All this has come to pass and more. Yet Hankey stresses that it didn’t happen overnight. ‘We knew very much that this was a massive opportunity, but we also knew that it also had to be more than just adjacencies,’ she says of their new-found centralisation. ‘We got to where we were as a team because of our cultures and our processes. It was a challenge, not an automatic win. It really took a lot of time to try new things out and be a little bit outside our comfort zones.’ 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 care about making great products, but we’ve worked equally hard at making a great team and culture. A lot of that came from the beginning. Steve defined Apple by its design,’ says Dye. ‘We always remember him 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.’
From the outset, Apple’s aesthetic ethos set it apart. 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. Apple designs are globally ubiquitous, yet at no point has the quality of execution ever dropped. Instead, the rest of the world has had to raise its game to catch up. Sure, there have been the occasional rare missteps, and while these might have triggered some internal soulsearching, Apple is not a company for public mea culpas. Learn, improve and move on.
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