“This is our signature,” Apple’s gauzy television ads proclaim, referring to the familiar words that the company stamps on the undersides of its products: DESIGNED BY APPLE IN CALIFORNIA. The ads fall in the grand Apple tradition—beginning with the “1984” Super Bowl spot—of seeming to say a great deal while revealing little. Apple is one of the most intensely competitive, pathologically secretive organizations in history. If there is one thing that CEO Tim Cook doesn’t want people to know, it’s what is behind his company’s “signature.” As a result, most efforts to explain design at Apple end up reducing a complex thirty-seven-year history to bromides about simplicity, quality, and perfection—as if those were ambitions unique to Apple alone.
So the editors of Fast Company asked me and my co-writers—Austin Carr, Skylar Bergl, and Mark Wilson—to try to remedy that. It wasn’t easy: Precious few designers have left Sir Jonathan Ive’s industrial design group since he took over in 1996: Two quit, three died. (We talked to the two who quit, among dozens of other longtime Apple veterans.) What we found is that the greatest business story of the past two decades—how Apple used design to rise from near bankruptcy to become the most valuable company in the world, while bringing sophisticated computers to hundreds of millions of people—is deeply misunderstood.
Outsiders have tended to assume that because cofounder and longtime CEO Steve Jobs was a champion of products in which hardware ...