Why the departure of Apple designer Daniel Coster matters

By

Daniel Coster, fourth from left, is leaving Apple's vaunted industrial design team.
Daniel Coster, fourth from left, is leaving Apple's vaunted industrial design team.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

The departure of veteran Apple industrial designer Daniel Coster is significant because, like the Mafia, no one ever leaves Jony Ive’s design studio.

Coster, a core member of Apple’s design team for more than 20 years, is perhaps only the third member of Ive’s tight-knit industrial design group to leave in almost two decades. And one of the others died.

The industrial design team is Apple’s idea factory, the place where big ideas take shape and morph into tangible products we know and love. Most of the 19 members of the team were recruited in the mid- to late-1990s when Ive came on board.

Since then, they have worked, lived and partied together. Most live in San Francisco, and often carpool to Apple’s campus in the South Bay.

The design group has remained remarkably stable over the last 20 years. Calvin Seid died in 2014, and Doug Satzger left a few years ago to head up Intel’s industrial design group.

While almost nobody has left, there’s been little new blood either.

Apple has hired a few designers in recent years, including shoe designer Ben Shaffer from Nike and wetsuit designer Billy Smith from Patagonia. And of course Ive’s BFF Marc Newson, a design star who joined Apple in 2014.

These are the rare exceptions: Apple’s industrial design team is so small and collegial that Ive is loathe to add new members lest the crucial creative dynamic gets upset. Contrast that with Samsung, which employs more than 1,600 industrial designers worldwide. (Admittedly, they work on a wider variety of products: As well as smartphones and tablets, Samsung also sells an extensive range of consumer electronics, from refrigerators to TVs.)

Daniel Coster’s rise to become Jony Ive’s ‘top deputy’

Danny Coster ski googles
Daniel Coster on an annual ski trip taken with other members of Apple’s tight-knit industrial design team.
Photo: Instagram

Now Coster is the latest to leave Apple’s industrial design family. He’s moving to GoPro as vice president of design at the end of April. His move was announced Wednesday in a company-wide email, first reported by The Information (behind the paywall).

With his departure, Apple is losing a world-class designer whose fingerprints can be seen on some of the company’s most iconic products.

Coster, a native New Zealander, joined Apple in the summer of 1994 — just a few months after Ive himself was hired.

He was described by colleagues as “tall, goofy, super-talented.” During his career, he rose to the top of the studio. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs describes Coster as the “top deputy” to Ive in the last few years. In total, Coster has received more than 600 patents on a wide range of products and technologies.

Coster earned an industrial design degree from the Wellington Polytechnic school in New Zealand in 1986. Following graduation, Coster ran his own consultancy in Wellington for a year before spending four years working in Australia for the KWA Design Group.

At KWA, Coster gained product experience designing furniture and sports equipment. He would later say his work at KWA influenced his decision about joining Apple. “Having worked on a range of consumer and lifestyle options, I want to inject some of that spirit into Apple’s next generation computers,” he said.

During a visit to the United States in 1993, Coster showed his portfolio to studios in New York and California. He started at Apple in June 1994, on a three-month contract position working on colors and finishes for the Newton portable.

In the subsequent two decades, Coster has designed everything, from wireless keyboards to product packaging.

Lead designer of first iMac

iMac-Bondi-Blue-1998
Daniel Coster was lead designer of the iconic “Bondi Blue” iMac, as well as many other products during his 20-year career at Apple.
Photo: Apple

In 1996, Ive made Coster the lead designer of the colorful, curvy iMac, the smash hit computer that helped lead Apple’s comeback. The iMac’s distinctive “Bondi Blue” color was named after Australia’s Bondi Beach, where Coster liked to surf.

After the iMac, Coster worked on the iBook, the Titanium PowerBook and various models of the iPhone and iPad, including the early prototypes of both products. Some of the latest patents bearing Coster’s name are for things like Apple Watch bands.

In 2012, Coster was inducted into his alma mater’s design Hall of Fame. An induction in the Hall is made to those school graduates “who have made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand’s economy, reputation and national identity through art and design.” Previous inductees include Sir Richard Taylor of Weta Workshop (the Lord of the Rings movies), sculptor Len Lye and fashion designer Kate Sylvester. Massey CoCA students and alumni greeted Coster’s induction with great affection. On Twitter, one CoCA alum cried, “Bless you Danny you changed my life!”

Coster was also prominently involved in the Apple-Samsung patent trial. He testified on the design and development of Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.

In 2011, Coster and the rest of the Apple team were named the best design studio of the last 50 years by the British Design & Art Direction (D&AD) association, the industry’s top honor, as well as many other awards.

What’s next for Coster? His own studio

Coster’s led an illustrious career at Apple, and his move to GoPro is a bit of a puzzle.

The company has struggled as competitors have flooded the action camera market with better, cheaper options, and as smartphones are increasingly the only camera consumers carry. GoPro’s stock has fallen from its high IPO price of $24 in June 2014 to about $12 a share recently.

However, GoPro has been talking up a range of new products, including easy-to-use video editing software, virtual reality cameras and maybe a flying camera drone.

These types of projects must make an industrial designer drool.

There might also be a bit of Apple intrigue behind the move. Coster was possibly passed over as head of Apple’s design studio in a shuffle last year. When Ive was moved up to chief design officer, designer Richard Howarth was promoted to VP of industrial design. It’s not clear, but as one of Ive’s top deputies, Coster was possibly in the running for the spot.

At GoPro, Coster will be taking on an executive role, reporting directly to GoPro CEO Nick Woodman. He’ll be in charge of his own studio, with a team of designers at his disposal.

While Coster’s departure might be bad news for Apple, which is losing an integral part of its powerhouse design team, it’s good news for GoPro.

The camera maker is hardly noted for elegant design. In fact, its cameras — with all their attachments and accessories — are the opposite of Apple’s minimal approach.

With 20 years’ experience paring products back to their essential elements, Coster’s expertise couldn’t come at a more critical time for GoPro. It’s no coincidence that shares of the company popped 16 percent on the news.

Deals of the Day

  • ljmac43

    I think Apple’s design prowess died with the loss of Scott Forstall – look at the travesties of the iOS7 and Yosemite UIs, and how stale Apple’s hardware design has been since then. Only the iPhone 6 has been a success, and it’s an obvious derivation of previous designs. And Marc Newsom must be the tackiest high profile designer today – indeed, the iOS7 and Yosemite interfaces look like they were designed by him.

    • CelestialTerrestrial

      I don’t believe Marc is responsible for software design, he’s a hardware designer. As much as IOS and OS X might need some design work, it’s still better than Android, that looks like some Kindergartner’s designed it. Especially with the icon artwork.

      • ljmac43

        Yes, I have never read anywhere that Marc had any input into the iOS7/Yosemite UI design, but it does look like his style to me – perhaps Ive was channeling him.

    • Adam Burrell

      Scott is a software architect. He is not a designer. He certainly has a background in the arts but his contribution to apple lies in the architecture, primarily iOS.

      • ljmac43

        I’m quite sure Scott designed the original iOS interface (up to iOS6).

  • CelestialTerrestrial

    I think it’s OK to have some new blood with the design team every once in a while. I haven’t been WOWed by some of Apple’s more recent designs, I think they could do much better. The new Mouse, Trackpad and keyboard weren’t their best efforts and I think the some of the other products have been getting a little too predictable. The thing about design is that if the person isn’t passionate about their job, then they are more useful elsewhere. I’m not seeing the passion as much as I used to.

    • Adam Burrell

      You also have to believe that it’s good for Apple to get some fresh blood infused into the team. A young designer who is hungry for the challenge. Coster has an immense portfolio of great work at Apple. Maybe he’s hungry for a challenge that isn’t possible at Apple? He’s not getting his own studio there nor is he going to join the exec team anytime soon.

  • Merckel

    Coster was a force and Apple’s loss. Inexplicable he would leave for GoPro, a company that’s clearly on the wane.

  • venator

    He’s a Kiwi. No wonder. They eat, roots, shoots and leaves. Always better grub around the next tree.