How Design Can Make a Company

I moved to Britain from South Africa because I have always felt that this country is one of the creative centres of the world, and that so much of the world’s creative output comes from here.

This weekend, the London Design Festival will bring some of the brightest talents in the creative industries to the capital to celebrate this – placing them front and centre, accessible to all in public spaces across town.

Next week, attention will turn to the London Design Forum, a series of talks by global visionaries all discussing the impact design, in so many forms, can take on our lives.

As the Festival ably demonstrates, the UK is an exporter of creativity, and a prime place to see this is across the ocean in California, where the world’s attention will be focused next Tuesday as Apple unveils its new range of iPhones – hotly anticipated not least because it marks 10 years since the first iPhone changed the way we live forever. Of course, the chief designer of the iPhone is our very own Essex boy done good, Jony Ive.

While Apple is usually pretty close to, if not on, the cutting edge of what is possible from a technology point of view, its real talent and its great appeal amongst consumers has been an ability to marry innovative tech with great design.

Those words that have been engraved onto the backs our devices for as long as I can remember, ‘Designed by Apple in California’, represent the brand’s total commitment to improving users’ lives through good design. So important is the phrase, Apple released a beautiful coffee table book under the same name this year, chronicling 20 years of design from iMac to Apple Pencil.

Of course, in Apple’s mind good design has always extended far beyond the product. It’s the effortless packaging, the retail stores that celebrate simplicity through wood and glass all coming together in one seamless whole to create great products and experiences.

And so, while we wait to hear what CEO Tim Cook has to say when he unveils the latest products on Tuesday, what I’m really excited to see is the place he’ll be unveiling it in: the Steve Jobs Theater.

This is the first time we’ll see it – and the first completed element we’ll see of Apple Park, their new headquarters – and early reports indicate that it will be a fine tribute to Jobs. Such was his dedication to the impact good design can have on people’s lives, one of his final acts was to personally advocate for the new office campus at a Cupertino City planning meeting.

One notable aspect of the new campus are its designers – chiefly, Jony Ive and Foster + Partners, both British and both proving to the UK to be a creative heavyweight across the globe.

Space says something about its occupants and Steve Jobs wanted the campus to reflect Apple, to be a representation of its present and future rolled into one. And in this, I think he’s done a fantastic job.

Attention to detail has always been a key ingredient in Apple’s design recipe, and this proves to be the case here. The door handles have their own archive’s worth of previous version as designers went through form after form to find one that perfectly fit the demands of Jony Ive and Foster + Partners.

The Steve Jobs Theater itself has elevators which turn as they ascend and descend so as to allow the passenger to leave through the same door but in a different direction (and despite my aversion to lifts I would absolutely insist on trying it).

The four storey glass doorways that form the entrance to the 4,000-seat café required the firm to seek out a specialist glass maker in Germany who themselves had to build a new facility to cope with the demands of producing the enormous panes of glass.

This is what makes Apple special! That it brings together the world  under one (enormous and circular) roof, including German glass makers, British architects and Japanese furniture designers, not to mention the son of an immigrant from whose mind it was all borne.

Some have hailed the campus as a work of beauty and you certainly get the sense that every inch has been measured and planned, that every centimetre of space has a degree of intentionality behind it. Everything, you feel, serves a specific, decided upon purpose. This is, not coincidentally, exactly how the best iPhones can feel!

But Apple Park doesn’t just reflect the company’s famed reputation for an eagle eye for detail. Its design is infused with what Steve Jobs and his design chief Jony Ive envisioned for the future of Apple’s culture.

It’s got a modular layout, split up into what Apple calls ‘pods’ – open working spaces, fitted with shared desks (of course specially designed and built for the occasion) and working spaces. The layout is intended as a democratising feature. It’s supposed to create unplanned interaction and natural collaboration within its walls – that’s why it’s a ring.

There’s a reason the four thousand-seat café is so big – it’s the only one. Teams don’t have the option to eat apart from each other. Unsurprisingly this democratic ethos is carried into the smaller details as well. The café’s tables are almost all communal (and, you guessed it, custom designed and built for the campus) to create accidental mingling and cross-pollination of ideas.

It’s unsurprising that Jony Ive has had a such big part to play in all of this. Recently promoted to overseeing software as well as hardware design, his career path is absolutely fascinating to see and one that reflects the power of transformational individuals in changing the course of business history.

Of course not every company can do this – it helps to be the biggest company in the world with cash reserves that dwarf those of a significant number of states – but I think we should at least applaud them for having the boldness to try. Not everybody will like it – but I’m not sure Steve Jobs wanted everybody to.

And trust me, when the new phone is released, I’ll be at the very front of the line. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup