Apple is synonymous with great design. Steve Jobs is venerated. However: Apple is not great at design because Steve Jobs had exquisite taste. Apple is not great because of Steve Jobs or Jonathan Ive.
Ive is the chief designer, but there is only so much a single person can manage. He inspires and helps drive the rest of Apple to do great things. His work helps demonstrate Apple’s cultural values.
The Myth of Great Designers
Great Design comes from culture, not designers. A great designer will take risks, try crazy things, sketch out new ideas. Without a culture that accepts and plays along with the new ideas, all the design innovation runs into trouble. New ideas wither and die because no-one else accepts them.
Apples culture started with Steve Jobs:
Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.
Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected.
The focus on quality and innovation started with Steve Jobs, but by the time Apple created the iPhone, the whole company had absorbed this into its culture. The focus on quality and innovation influences everyone, not just the design department.
A story from Fast Company on the differences between Microsoft and Apple illustrates this:
One former top designer who has worked at both Apple and Microsoft recalls visiting the Apple shipping unit and discovering workers carefully loading boxes so the logos all faced the same direction. "I asked why and one guy explained that he loved the look on people’s faces when he threw open the truck doors and revealed all the boxes perfectly aligned," the director says. "They weren’t instructed to do that. I know that’s just a simple example, but I mean, it’s the guys in shipping and receiving!"
This is what makes culture so hard to clone.
Strong Cultures Can Be Constructed
Some companies start out focused on culture. For example: Netflix has a culture that is very carefully designed to suit their goals.
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The Netflix culture focuses on its people: give the people freedom, and expect great things from them. People who do not deliver great things are encouraged to find new jobs. It's not the most warm and fuzzy culture, but it keeps everyone pulling in the same direction.
Netflix has built its culture from the ground up. Copying the slideshow describing it is easy. Implementing it in an existing company is not so easy.
Visma is a large accounting software company here in Norway which has accumulated many products and companies over the years.
A few of the many many Visma products
Recently have they started investing in design and usability. Their User Experience (UX) team has a mandate from the top – the Visma leadership knows that design is important.; but leadership is not enough.
There are products in the Visma portfolio that have been steady earners since the early 90s, with few UI updates in the mean time. A team that has worked for years without a strong user-experience design culture is going to take a bit of convincing. The Visma UX team is using video and real-world user observation stories to convince the teams of the value in good User Experience. They have to teach each and every team what User Experience Design is, and remind them of how to think about new features as they develop new versions.
Changing a culture after the fact is hard.
Visma User Interface
I won't claim that we at SuperOffice are at Apple’s level of design, but there is a distinct advantage to having a founder who cares about design; who rejects and argues about the design of our latest version. Une Amundsen hasn't designed the user-interface, but he has created a culture that appreciates and demands a well crafted user experience. Everyone in the company pushes for a better, simpler design because of the company culture. This makes us work harder, because we don’t just have to satisfy our product owner, but everyone else in the SuperOffice organization.
This company focuses on the clean and simple solution not because it says so in a a vision statement somewhere, but because we all know that is what we are here to make.
What is your company culture telling you to do?