The best companies making the best products still want to mimic the iPod, and they’re learning that’s more about substance than style
It’s the question every designer has heard too many times to count: “Can you make me the iPod of (insert product name here)?”
And it’s not just makers of consumer electronics who ask. “I’ve been asked to make the iPod of boiler parts,” says Paul Bennett, creative director of Ideo.
“Apple is definitely setting the standard for product design today,” says John Edson, president of Lunar Design. “We’re being asked to create wonderful products, you know, like the iPod. It’s still rare, though, that an organization has the force of will to make a product like this happen.”
Apple (AAPL) has long been noted for its design prowess, scooping awards and generating buzz with each new product unveiling. Still, not long ago executives at other companies would glance at Apple’s sliver share of the PC market and get back to the business of producing widgets better, faster, and more cheaply. The Apple lesson seemed to be: A few people will pay a premium for good design, but it’s not a smart business strategy.
Now that Apple’s share in PCs is increasing—helped along by the unprecedented success of its music player—business leaders across industries are taking note. After all, you can’t argue with 90 million units.
Choosing Your Lessons
Apple’s new position as a successful business-case study has had a ripple effect in the world of design, from product and service design to development and branding strategy. Unfortunately, not all companies are taking away the right lessons.
Some have simply tried to channel Apple’s minimalist aesthetic, churning out shiny, white products without grasping anything deeper than the iPod’s plastic skin. When PC makers E-Machines, Daewoo, and Future Power each began selling computers uncannily similar to the original iMac, Apple sued. More recently, myriad products seem to have been “inspired,” by the iPod.
Take the Sonos Digital Music System, with its muted color, minimalist lines, slightly rounded corners, and scroll wheel. “It’s a literal copy of the iPod visual language,” says Lunar’s Edson.
Last year, Apple sued the Korean company iOPS for copying the design of the iPod. And countless other manufacturers—many in Asia—have introduced similar players. Not only do these imitators sometimes end up in court but it’s not a strategy likely to generate revenues. Apple’s success doesn’t stem from the style alone.
The King’s Court
Other companies, seeing the size and financial strength of Apple’s markets, have sought to ride on Apple’s coattails by creating products that populate the iPod’s now $1 billion ecosystem. “Call them the synergists,” says Dave Laituri, director of product development at Brookstone. “These companies create original products that represent their brands but also acknowledge Apple’s design influence and status.”
Brookstone falls into this category, as do Belkin, JBL, and Bose. For these companies, strong iPod sales can bring a nice boost to short-term revenues.
Of the many companies that have tried to emulate Apple’s success, few have succeeded. That said, some companies seem to have grasped the deeper lessons to be learned—that design can’t happen in a silo, that designers should have a voice at the corporate level—and are trying to implement them.
“Certainly its success has drawn attention to the power of design,” says Edson. “I suspect that the success of the iPod helped liberate the management team at Motorola (MOT) in their new emphasis on appearance and design manifest in the RAZR.”
Designed for Excitement
“Motorola realized that the consumer is more design savvy now,” says Ideo’s Bennett. “Even at the mass level, people want better design. Products like the Razr or LG’s Chocolate reflect other manufacturers’ understanding of that.”
Like Motorola, BMW was traditionally an engineering-driven company that eventually learned the power design has to create intense consumer excitement and drive sales. Like the iPod, the BMW MINI has an almost cult following.
“Senior management at places like BMW and even Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has seen the potential in what Apple has done with design in their companies and have ‘freed up’ their design teams to take bolder design positions,” observes Brookstone’s Laituri.
Along with this openness to bolder product designs comes, at least sometimes, a recognition that designers have something to add at the strategy level. “We’re being asked more and more to apply creativity to holistic business problems,” says Edson. “What should we make next? How can this technology make a difference to people? How should we bundle it in a service ecosystem for the best results? How can we apply design cohesively to create consumer loyalty?”
Usability vs. Power
Some companies have been influenced by Apple’s obsessive focus on the customer and on making its products easy to use. Nintendo (NTDOY) seems to have taken this lesson to heart in the development of the Wii console and the DS mobile game player.
In a review of the Wii console, New York Times tech columnist David Pogue wrote: “The Wii is not for ‘gamers.’… Anybody, even 78-year-old lawyers who’ve never touched a video game, can immediately get into these games.”
Like the iPod, the Wii and the DS have less tech firepower than some of their competitors. But most consumers don’t care about technology per se, they care about what they can do with it, and that usability is as important as processing-power.
With the Xbox 360, Microsoft (MSFT)—which has famously been “inspired” by Apple innovations over the decades—seems to have grasped the lesson that the success of the iPod has less to do with the design of the product itself than with the array of products and services—the iMac, iTunes software, the iTunes store—that allowed consumers to buy and manage a digital music collection easily. Witness the creation of the Xbox Live site for the gaming community, and the Xbox Live Arcade, where players can buy downloadable games, to fill out the Xbox ecosystem.
Call for Help
One of the secrets of Apple’s success is its obsession with the small stuff—cords and ear buds, for example. Every component is held to the same exacting design standards.
Similarly, LaCie has made its name by bringing sophisticated design to USB ports and hard drives, a product category typified by uninspired black bricks. To its credit, LaCie recognized the value of design far earlier than most, hiring its first outside designer in 1992.
“We were doing a lot of work in the Apple aftermarket,” says founder Philippe Spruch. “I put all of our brick-like products in a box with a note that read: ‘This is the kind of shit we are doing. Can you help us?’ We sent it by messenger to Philippe Starck’s office, and he called within an hour.” Since then the company has introduced drives designed by Neil Poulton, FA Porsche, Karim Rashid, and Ora Ito, and scooped up numerous design awards.
But Spruch is quick to point out just how hard it is for any old company to achieve Apple’s design success. “It’s not that Apple design is better or worse than the design of the Sony Vaio. But you feel that it’s part of the DNA. They are crazy about every detail, and you feel that. Today, many more companies invest in design, but they do it because they are forced to, not because they like it, and I think you can feel that in their products.”
Lunar’s Edson, too, notes how great the challenge is. “What Apple demonstrates to me is that if we’re not working with very senior levels of management, our impact will be limited,” he says. “In 1998, a year ahead of the introduction of the first translucent iMac, we created translucent design concepts for SGI’s (SGI) computers. Despite SGI’s taste for forward-looking design, translucence was too pushy for them. It was a management choice to not go to that extreme.”
Famed co-founder Steve Jobs, he says, is arguably a “chief design officer. He’s in the design studio on a daily basis and provides the organization with the force of will to make products that great.”
Scanlon is Innovation & Design editor for BusinessWeek.com.