8 Things to Know About the Company Culture at Apple

It’s no secret that Apple is one of the most successful companies in the world today. But it wasn’t always this way for them.

Like everyone else, they had to make mistakes and learn from them. What they learned from their failures in the 90’s, is that for them to succeed they had to think different.

When Steve Jobs came back to the company, he changed Apple forever. What made Apple go from almost bankrupt, to a 200 billion dollar company was when Steve Jobs instilled a design culture into Apple.

1. Design is everything. Everything!

Traditional companies don’t have a design culture. Sure, they have designers, but design isn’t the #1 priority from the very top of the organization to the very bottom. For Apple, design is everything. Steve Jobs knows and believes this. When you have a leader that knows and believes in the impact of design, it makes it easy for everyone else to follow suit. When an entire company focuses on design, the result is a foundation for breathtaking products.

2. Design reports to the CEO

Apple is probably the only company where design reports directly to the CEO. If design is the most important element of a product, why wouldn’t the CEO want to take part? However, this doesn’t mean that every CEO qualifies to take part. The reason it worked for Apple is because Jobs is a systems thinker and designer. He simplifies complexity. If you have a CEO who doesn’t know how to cut things to its simplest level, but instead does the opposite, then you may not want the CEO to take part in design. Better yet, you might want to change CEOs.

3. A very small team designs their products

Quality trumps quantity when it comes to teams. Apple has a small select group of skilled and talented designers (12 to 20) who design their major products. Compare that with companies who have large teams with groups of people on a project. Not at Apple. You may get more ideas with more people working on a project, but Apple’s focus is on quality not quantity. They want the best ideas from the brightest people at their company, and they manage to do it well with a very small elite team.

4. Designers make the design decisions

Does it make sense to have non-designers make design decisions? Apple knows that non-designers making design decisions is a recipe for disaster. That’s why they hire the best and trust that they’ll make smart decisions. To make sure of this, they have an executive level position that focuses on design. Jonathon Ive is the senior vice president of industrial design and is the principal designer of many Apple products. You can bet that all design decisions go through him.

5. They do pixel-perfect mockups

When Apple launches new products, there’s no surprise to anyone about what the product will look like. This is because they do pixel-perfect mockups that include the real content they will use, not placeholder content. This means that everyone will be critiquing the real thing and won’t see any interpretive changes by designers or engineers after the review. What you see in the mockup stage is what you will get.

6. They have paired design meetings

In order to create great products, engineers and designers have to work together as a team. That’s why every week the engineers and designers at Apple get together for two complementary meetings. The first is a brainstorm meeting where everyone leaves their inhibitions at the door and goes crazy thinking of different ways to tackle different problems. After that comes the production meeting where they nail their ideas down into a plan for execution.

7. They do no market research

There’s no place for market research at Apple. The people at Apple have good taste. They know what’s good, and they’ll stick to their convictions. The responsibility is on them, not the will of the people. It’s a burden to meet the expectations of millions of people. Instead, they know who they are, what they represent and set their own expectations. This is about designing based upon their own philosophy and values, not somebody else’s.

8. If it’s not perfect, it doesn’t go out

Near perfect is not good enough for Apple. They shoot for perfection. Their policy is that if  it’s not perfect, it doesn’t go out to the public. However, this doesn’t mean they are perfect. They sometimes make mistakes too. It just means they work hard for perfection, while other companies believe in getting it out there and fixing it later. Apple believes in getting it right the first time. From there, they’ll work to improve their products with newer versions, but they’ll never ship a mediocre product and fix its holes later.

For a company to match or surpass the level of success Apple’s had, they absolutely have to have a design culture permeates through the organization. This starts at the very top, with leadership that places design as their highest priority. They not only have to believe in design, but they have to think and understand it. Steve Jobs is living proof that when you have a leader who has a great passion and enthusiasm for design, you end up creating products that consumers can’t live without.




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This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Pierre Reply

    3. A very small team designs their products

    Yes, that works when you have a very small set of products, not a wide range of products. Apple is about iPhone and surrogates business.

    7. They do no mar­ket research

    Well, this is the downside of Apple. As soon as they have competitors in the same field (ie. Android) then people really start looking around. One thing is making cool and personalized products, one think is pushng down the throat cool products. Apple is from the second category.

    8. If it’s not per­fect it doesn’t go out

    That is simply not true. There are plenty of usability defects in Apple products. I know, usability doesn’t mean design, but good design is also good usability. Bt, remember antenna gate, crappy iOS4 on 3G and 3GS, etc. Not very perfect, duh.

    • anthony Reply

      I never said they were perfect. They make mistakes like anybody else. With antenna-gate they admitted they made a mistake and apologized. But what they didn’t do is ship a half-ready product out to users, something Microsoft is used to doing.

      Going through the pain and trouble to make things perfect before it goes out doesn’t mean they are perfect every time. It just means they work hard and try to make their products perfect, which can make a huge difference.

  2. Navier Reply

    8. If it’s not per­fect it doesn’t go out

    Totally agree with Pierre. NOT TRUE.

    What happened to the alarm clock problem on iPhone when time switches back to standard time proves that Apple is just another ordinary company with problems in their products.

    • Martijn Reply

      You don’t get the point.
      Striving for perfection doesn’t mean you achieve perfection. Arguably, perfection is a state that can’t be reached. its the quest for perfection that matters.

      Being a designer myself I can attest that there aren’t many companies that strive for perfection in their products. This might even be a understandable strategy; sometimes it’s just better to be cheaper, faster, smaller etc. than the most perfect.

  3. Ron George Reply

    As a former Apple Designer I can verify most of this is true. I would add that the Tuesday meetings (with dev, whoever) were called “Pony” meetings. Because everyone wants a pony.

    The glaring difference you didn’t mention is the lack of UX Testing. At Microsoft we tested the hell out of everything prior… with an extremely large set of volunteers from a database. At Apple we didn’t discuss it with anyone prior to launch. All the testing was done after.

    Apple is a design centered culture.. not a UX centered culture.

    • Josh L Reply

      Thanks for the insight, Ron!

      I’m very surprised to hear that Apple doesn’t do UX testing before launch, given my experience as a user with Apple products vs. vendors like Microsoft. (Disclaimer: I’m no Apple fanboy, I <3 my Xbox and my Droid, and Windows 7 rocks.)

      So even for completely new (non-revision) products, no UX testing is done at all before launch? It's hard for me to believe that the original iPhone could have had such a polished UX without a great deal of testing.

      If there really is no UX testing at Apple, the average UX of their products is incredibly impressive.

      • anthony Reply

        As much as this article makes me sound like one, I’m not an Apple fanboy either. I just think they’re #1 in their industry for a reason, and we should all take a look at why because they obviously do things differently.

        I think the reason their UX is so great without having done any testing is because of their core values of simplicity and realistic visual design that they work to uphold. It’s part of their culture and when everyone, including the CEO, lives and breathes it, it’s that much easier to create stunning products.

    • anthony Reply

      Thanks Ron, for your inside perspective. I think not doing UX testing goes back to the designers believing in their own tastes and values. This might no always be the best approach, but in a way, it shows you that Apple as a company has a firm grasp of who they are and what they believe in and this uniqueness shows in their products.

  4. Matt Reply

    The problem with statements like that, is that anyone can say that, but if they dont have intensive testing they cant back up the “if its not perfect, it doesnt go out”.

    Prior to the OS X, Macs had horrible networking issues. It was one of the biggest flaws. (In the 1992-1996 era, so I am dating myself).

    They are a business. I guarantee that they know about flaws, but chose not to publicize them.

  5. Dome Reply

    I am convinced that if you want to develop a great product it is important to understand the context of use and to work out the user requirements.
    Brainstorming is not the right tool for this. Unfortunately in many companies product managers and sales people do brainstorming with the customer in order to create a vision and derive the requirements. You get a mixture of wishful thinking and subjective limitation.
    I guess Apple is very good in understanding the context of use and getting the real use requirements – classical Usability Engineering. On this basis designers are able to create the best solutions. This holds true not only for software.
    So I wonder if the small team of designers at Apple do the usability engineering as well or if there are others responsible for it?

    • NicoleBurton Reply

      I wondered this too – if their designers de facto did the usability testing on each other’s products or features? Kind of “Unit testing with a pal”. I believe they’re doing some kind of substitute for usability testing because it’s hard to believe that commitment to sheer design excellence would produce such consumer-friendly products. Perhaps they call it “peer collaboration sessions?” Steve Krug says that almost anyone can find the usability problems in a product – as long as they aren’t too familiar with the product. Would love to know more.

  6. Josh Harris Reply

    Basically, they focus around excellence. If only every firm worked like that!

  7. Si Reply

    Great post, agree with the comments. Interesting comment re design centered, not UX centered @RonGeorge. Didn’t know they were mutually exclusive? Although surely the bridge they required was interaction designs?


  8. don't believe anyone's hype Reply

    I use Macs and PCs, and currently develop apps for the iPhone. While Apple may be better than the competition, but what has happened is many people have this idea that Apple is perfect to nearly perfect. Fact is, there are some things that the competition does do better. For instance, multiple tasks being displayed as nested tabs at the bottom of the screen (ala’ Windows) makes things much more easily and quickly accessible. Apple will even seemingly lose active applications and a month later an old Safari session will pop up and you’re left thinking “when did I watch that youtube video, and why did it get lost and now reappear?”

    There are often strange errors in their Xcode SDK used for developing apps and other things about it that make developing more difficult. Sometimes an odd error occurs for no reason and you must delete many files that should not need this and simply restart your development device. This is equivalent to waving a dead chicken over it (no logic behind why these things should be done). Apple has too many fanboys and girls that get defensive when you point out something wrong with an Apple product. Why? These devices have become part of their identity, I believe, and criticizing them even constructive feels like you are criticizing them.

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