The secret behind Apple’s design excellence is a simple one, says former senior designer and user experience specialist Mark Kawano in an interview with Fast Company: it’s not just something left to the designers.

It’s actually the engineering culture, and the way the organization is structured to appreciate and support design. Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better . . . much more than any individual designer or design team.

Kawano says that everyone on the team caring about design was how Apple was able to create its core products in the early days of the iPhone with a team of around 100 designers.

For the most part, Apple didn’t employ specialist designers. Every designer could hold their own in both creating icons and new interfaces, for instance. And thanks to the fact that Apple hires design-centric engineers, the relatively skeleton design team could rely on engineers to begin the build process on a new app interface, rather than having to initiate their own mock-up first.

He also revealed that many of the small, thoughtful touches for which Apple is famous were things that individual designers and engineers came up purely as interesting experiments and then tucked away for years. He gave the example of the password box in OS X shaking if you didn’t enter it correctly.

Say we need a good way to give feedback for a password, and we don’t want to throw up this ugly dialog–then it’s about grabbing these interaction or animation concepts that have just been kind of built for fun experiments and seeing if there’s anything there, and then applying the right ones.

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19 Responses to “The secret behind Apple’s design excellence is a simple one, says former senior designer & UX specialist”

  1. Eddie Craven says:

    I have to admit that I love that password box shake. So much better than a popup.


  2. Which designers were responsible for the over abundance of white space and unreadable fonts in iOS 7.


  3. Tim Jr. says:

    Which makes sense because Apple is about mixing Art/Humanities with Engineering / Science. . That is really where design shines.. I don’t think this is any kind of revelation.. We’ve known this was part of the company DNA for years.


  4. khaledzeidiyeh says:

    Can’t wait for OS X 10.10


  5. zoidbert says:

    One spot that seems firmly rooted in pre-OS X days is the file name entry field in any open/save dialog. I think it’s stuck at 14 characters and has been as long as I can remember; you’d think at this point the field’s width would be dynamic to the amount of text entered or, better, to the size of the box as you expand/reduce it.


  6. Caught Up in the Apple’s Reality Distortion Field…
    Sure, an UX where users have a hard time guessing where to click and is difficult to read.
    iPhones/iPods that were hard to grab and easy to scratch.
    USB cables with hard to pull slippery surfaces, just because is cute
    Dirt and spots prone white everything.
    iTunes software that nobody have a clue how it woks, and is always changing, bloating in complexity.

    Anyone declaring war to skeuomorphism will have to get rid first of human experience in the real world.
    What Apple have done lately is a Minimalistic Aberration. Form before function.
    And yes, I know the difference between Russian Suprematism (circa 1913) and bad design. As in Jony Ive didn’t invent minimalism.

    Apple real strengths lay in the way they integrated Software and Hardware as seen in the iPhone under the direction of a visionary with a commitment to quality. I’d say from the period 2004-20012. Not in its Design.
    In my opinion, Apple reached its peak around iOS5, then, everything went downhill.
    Most of the key people that worked during those years are long gone, and a company is not a Logo, is the people that work there.

    Apple is slowly turning back to what it was before Steve Jobs’ second coming.
    I hope not though, because I personally like Tim Cook and own two iOS devices.


    • rogifan says:

      You’ve certainly mastered the art of rambling. ;)


    • I respectfully disagree. Skeuomorphism was a design principle that Apple utilized to help bridge the gap for those users that had never used technology before. In the beginning, many users would have been very confused with the current versions of our operating systems (iOS, OSX, Windows 8, etc.) as well as many of our current web/web app interfaces. Skeuomorphism helped many novice users take their knowledge of real-world items and map it to its digital counterpart.

      However, we now live in a day and age where everyone’s grandmother has a smartphone and a Facebook. The average user has a solid understanding of how a standard interface should operate, as well as how to use context clues to identify unknown elements.

      If we applied your argument to the development of technology in general, we would still be stuck in the stone age!

      Imagine if people protested against the steering wheel in cars and refused to use it, because it was different than the steering mechanism they were used to (the reigns of a horse).

      How about if we refused Penicillin because it was derived from fungi? Think of how many people could have died because of our unwillingness to accept change!

      What if we refused to use touch screen devices all together because there were no physical buttons on the screen? Wait! That DID happen! Many people were reluctant to give up their physical buttons. However, they eventually realized that the changes were okay and they changed with the technology. You will do the same. =)


      • I stopped reading when you said everyone’s grandmother… My grandparents couldn’t turn on a computer, much less understand a smart phone… And forget any touch screen device. My father is almost as bad, and now we have emerging markets in the third world. Guess what? you still need Skeuomorphism for these people.

        Further and more personally, I like Skeuomorphism. I like high detail in textures.


    • Wells said. I completely agree. I’ve been using Apple products since the original multicolored iMacs and I’ve had every iPhone and iPad. Apple was never a company known for good software, NEVER before Steve Jobs came back and really until OS X. The software was always thought to be ‘cool but buggy’ and especially in the realm of the OS itself ie. System 7, 8, and 9 were all super temperamental. Since the time of 10.2 though they really hit their stride and from iPhone OS 1.1 until iOS 5 they really hit their stride. Now with every iteration of both iOS and OS X, the software has been buggier and buggier and less usable slowly bit by bit. It’s a shame and I hope something changes.


  7. dridots says:

    I totally agree however it took 7 years before Jony Ives changed it up and Apple took to long to get a bigger screen even though their customers were SCREAMING not hinting. They may have the best design team/engineers but they may be in a bubble afraid to step on toes similar to the Whitehouse staff. (Maybe it’s to white)