How Steve Jobs taught everyone (even Apple’s engineers) to care about design

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It is often said that what separates Apple from companies like Samsung and Sony is that at Apple, design is law. Other companies put engineering first.

But that’s not true, according to former Apple senior designer and user experience evangelist Mark Kawano. Speaking to Fast Company’s design site, Co.Design, Kawano says that Apple is still an engineering first company.

The difference? Every engineer at Apple knows how to think like a designer.

According to Kawano, while there is a perception to outsiders that the quality of Apple’s products comes from the fact that all decisions flow downwards from Jony Ive and his design process, the opposite is actually true.

“It’s actually the engineering culture, and the way the organization is structured to appreciate and support design,” Kawano said. “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.”

Instead of having to fight for resources and try to explain to thickheaded executives the rudiments of design, Kawano says, everyone at Apple is fundamentally sympathetic to what Ive and his design team is trying to do. Engineering still rules — it has to, because designs have to be practical enough to mass-produce at unbelievable scales — but everyone is a designer at heart.

Kawano also says that Apple doesn’t employ a huge number of specialized designers. Rather, each design team is made up of roughly 100 people for core products, which is significantly less than the likes of Google or Microsoft. Kawano said that these teams may be expanding under Cook, but up until now, all of Apple’s major products have come from relatively small teams. Perhaps too many cooks spoil the soup?

Kawano also had interesting words about the late Steve Jobs. He said that the co-founder’s reputation as fiery and implacable was only true if you were someone who didn’t care about doing things well.

“He had trouble understanding people who didn’t want that same thing and wondered why they’d be working for him if that was the case,” Kawano said. “I think Steve had a very low tolerance for people who didn’t care about stuff.” If you did care, though, Kawano says that Jobs was “super-accessible.”

As a design writer, I think Steve Jobs and Apple will ultimately not be remembered as a tech company. I think they will be remembered as the company that democratized industrial design and made it accessible to everyone. Certainly, more people are thinking about design principles than ever before, and that’s all because Steve Jobs’s passion for design was infectious: he could teach anyone to care about design. Even his engineers and executives.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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