Lessons to Take Away From Apple

The lesson to be learned from Apple’s approach to design and its integration into the corporate culture is that design can make an enormous difference to a business. Apple is among a small number of public companies that have enthusiastically embraced design and invested in it as the single most important differentiating characteristic in their products and services. Design means that Apple products are unique and stand out in a crowd, from the minimalist styling and metal and glass enclosures to the seamless and fluid functioning of the software.

What do we really mean when we say design? The word is often used to describe many things. I think of design as both a process and an outcome. As a process, design is a verb, or how an object was created. As an outcome, design is a noun, the object itself, such as a computer or a lamp or a sofa. I’d like to add another meaning: Design as an experimental mind-set, a way of thinking about things that culminates in a fresh approach or in something new or innovative. Because Apple uses this full-court design approach to create its amazing products, I want to talk about the process and the outcomes to help you understand how to leverage design in your own work. First, let’s break down the outcomes of Apple’s design and development process into three elements—beauty, ingenuity, and charisma—and use them as lenses to consider and evaluate your own company’s products and services.

There may be no better industry to illustrate how design makes a difference than the dynamic cell phone sector and the rise and fall of three of its battling handset titans: Motorola, Nokia, and Apple. Designers empathize with me when I relate this story about the different approaches to design that these companies used, and it’s a great tale to get you thinking about the central role of design in bringing successful products to market.

Motorola created a Frankenstein phone because it regarded design as a marketing add-on. Its culture dictated that engineering decisions take top priority, sometimes at the expense of wowing customers. The customers wanted phones that were easy to use, that reflected their personality, and that had features meaningful to them. Even changing the outsides or the skins only vaguely addressed the desire for individual style.

Apple, by contrast, creates designs that have a deep and uncompromising aesthetic, unlike Motorola’s ability to create a last-minute mash-up of a product.

This is not to say that I’m naive about the kind of pressures Motorola was facing and that confront every modern business. I know that the four C’s—cost, competition, customers, and capability—weigh on an organization and its leadership on a daily basis, and that it’s crucial to run an operational business that is attentive to all these factors. In that sense, the decision by the Motorola engineering manager was incredibly smart when considering the cost dimension. But what about the customer dimension? Motorola’s engineering culture supported measurable, analytical decision making that favored bottom-line efficiencies above all else. Unfortunately, that orientation alone cannot produce products that captivate customers.


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