Apple Has Lost Its Touch, Says the Man Who Helped Steve Jobs Design the Mac

Frog design founder Hartmut Esslinger says the Apple of today isn't the Apple he experienced during his close collaboration with Steve Jobs. (AP)

Hartmut Esslinger knows a thing or two about industrial design and what it’s done for Apple. He worked directly with Steve Jobs to establish a “design language” that was used on the Macintosh line of computers for over a decade. Esslinger’s iconoclastic firm had already designed over 100 products for Sony when he signed an exclusive, $1-million-a-year contract with Apple in 1982.

But that Apple is mostly gone, says Esslinger in an interview with Quartz. The Apple of today resembles Sony of the 1980′s, says Esslinger, who witnessed the succession process at Sony first-hand: The visionary founder has been replaced by leaders who aren’t thinking beyond refinement and increasing profit.

“Steve Jobs was a man who didn’t care for any rational argument why something should not be tried,” says Esslinger. “He said a lot of ‘no,’ but he also said a lot of ‘yes’ to things and he stubbornly insisted on trying new things.”

One reason Esslinger is willing to recount his time with Jobs is that on October 9, at the Frankfurt book fair, he will release a design and management memoir recounting his time with Jobs, called Keep it Simple.

The origins of a design-led culture at Apple
By Esslinger’s own account, when he started working with Jobs in 1982, Apple was a fractious company in which designers reported to engineers and many in Apple’s corporate structure were openly hostile to the founder’s influence. (By 1985, Jobs had been forced out; he returned in 1996.) At the start of his work with Esslinger, Jobs knew that design could help define Apple’s brand in a way that no amount of marketing could accomplish, and from the introduction of the Macintosh SE, Esslinger’s “Snow White” design language defined the appearance of the Macintosh, visually integrating its outer plastic shell with the software it contained.

Apple’s “book-like” computer couldn’t be realized with the technology of 1982, but it would later succeed as Apple’s touch-based devices.Hartmut Esslinger

As early as 1982, Jobs had already conceived of a “book-like computer,” though the project was not discussed outside the company. That vision eventually led to the Apple Newton, a tablet that failed, and the iPhone and iPad, which made history. That kind of vision is now lacking at Apple, Esslinger says.

“As soon as you can copy something [like the iPhone,] it’s not smart enough anymore,” he says. “I think Apple has reached in a certain way a saturation—the curve [of innovation] was really steep seven to eight years ago […] but now my iPhone is so full I am deleting apps because I want to keep it simple.”

What the next Apple might come up with
So if a disruptive new company—the Apple of today—were to emerge, what kinds of products might it make? Esslinger, who retired from Frog design, the company he founded, in 2006, now teaches all over the world and especially in China, and he says that his students are primarily focused on three-dimensional interfaces as the “next big thing.” Their inspiration? Video games.

Presented by

Christopher Mims is the science and technology correspondent for Quartz. His work has appeared in Wired and Scientific American, as well as on the BBC.

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