The evolution of Apple from a design perspective and the influence of Steve Jobs, who built the first Mac in his garage with Steve Wozniak, of course
"The Macintosh turned out so well", Steve Jobs – who resigned as CEO of Apple last night – once told the New York Times, "because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians who also happened to be excellent computer scientists." And the people who bought the first Apple Mac computers were often architects, designers and journalists. One way or another, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, creators of the Apple Macintosh computers in the 1970s, came up with a line of products that – though clunky at first – had great appeal, and continue to excite those engaged in design and the media; those who were best placed to sow the Apple seed.
The very first Apple computer to go on sale in 1976, in a wooden casing, had a lashed-together look that hinted strongly at its roots in a Californian garage. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it might have come from an old Buck Rogers comic book. When Apple II emerged a year later, boasting colour graphics and a plastic case, these revolutionary computers – compact, easy to understand and use, and entertaining – began to sell in larger numbers.
But the real revolution in easy-to-use desktop computer design was the Macintosh 128K, launched in January 1984. It featured a mouse, a separate keyboard and a tiny screen with graphic commands that even an exhausted Fleet Street journalist could adapt to. And yet despite their ingenuity, and the revolutionary impact they had on millions of working lives, no one could call early Apple products things of beauty. We used them to produce early issues of Blueprint magazine, a monthly devoted to architecture, fashion and design, yet they seemed lacklustre compared to many of the gleaming 80s designs we published. But everyone was fascinated by Jobs and Wozniak, these awkward ambassadors for a new era in design and media.
One of Jobs’s greatest contributions to design was the promotion of Jonathan Ive, the brilliant young British designer, to senior vice president of industrial design at Apple Inc in 1998. Jobs had been away from Apple for some years – creating Pixar and thus Toy Story in the interim – yet when he came back, he teamed up with Ive to create a range of hugely appealing products. The first was the colourful iMac of 1998, a bold attempt to break away from the dull world of beige and grey plastic computer cases. With its oddball marriage of boiled sweet colours and transparent plastics, the iMac was certainly eye-catching, and it also sold – two million in the first 12 months.
But Jobs and Ive really got into their stride in 2001 with the iPod MP3 player, a small, minimalist design that evoked the work of the legendary German designer Dieter Rams, who had done so much since the 1950s to make Braun products, from record players to electric shavers, sell in prodigious quantities worldwide. The iPhone (2007) and iPad three years later have seen the Jobs-Ive design partnership come to fruition. These lightweight yet well-made, jewel-like objects, with their crystal-clear screens, finally imbued the design of computers and digital gizmos with a seductive quality. Once seen and touched, sales were made. Packaging and advertising were all of a piece with these sleek new products, as are the latest Apple showrooms – as much clubs as shops for Apple customers.
The minimalist quality – that has worked so well aesthetically and commercially in recent years – is what Jobs had been seeking all along. An unostentatious man, he has worked over four decades to fuse the complexities of computer operations with an ease of use and finally a gracefulness and beauty that must have seemed not so much out of the question or improbable in the mid-1970s, but irrelevant. What mattered then was to make new technology work for everyone, and like the first steam locomotives, aircraft, typewriters or telephones, Jobs’s first designs seem archaic today. His contribution to both technology and design has been enormous. Amazing, really, how quickly those artless wooden and glum plastic boxes have become – with a little help from friends and colleagues – objects of modern desire.
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