Daily Email from November 16th, 2016

The following email was sent to Above Avalon members on November 16th, 2016. 

Every story is written from the perspective of Apple. Each daily email contains 2-3 stories and is of comparable length and detail to the following email.

November 16th, 2016

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Today's stories: Apple Releases New Design BookNostalgia vs. Inspiration, This Is Jony's Apple

Happy Wednesday. Today's update is going to be dedicated to Apple's new design book. There are a lot of layers to this product.

Let's jump right in...

Apple Releases New Design Book

Apple wasn't completely done with this year's product unveilings. Yesterday, the company unveiled a new design book that tells the story of design at Apple. Here's Apple in a press release:

"Apple today announced the release of a new hardbound book chronicling 20 years of Apple's design, expressed through 450 photographs of past and current Apple products. 'Designed by Apple in California,' which covers products from 1998's iMac to 2015's Apple Pencil, also documents the materials and techniques used by Apple's design team over two decades of innovation.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Steve Jobs."

The book comes in two sizes: small ($199) and large ($299), and is currently available through Apple's online store in nine countries, in addition to 13 Apple Retail stores in the U.S.

While the book is focused on Apple design, it is actually a reflection of the culture put in place by Jony Ive, Apple's Chief Design Officer. Here's Jony explaining why such a book exists:

"This archive is intended to be a gentle gathering of many of the products the team has designed over the years. We hope it brings some understanding to how and why they exist, while serving as a resource for students of all design disciplines."

This book set off a firestorm yesterday from all corners of the Apple punditry/analyst community. Some think it is a sign of major trouble at Apple. Others think it is an interesting idea that should have been done by a third-party. And you have a small group that sees this as yet another sign of Apple Industrial Design's (Apple ID) growing power and influence within Apple (more on this shortly).

Jony ended up doing more press for this design book than he did for the iPhone 7 and new Apple Watch back in September. I counted two interviews (one was with Wallpaper and the other was with a Japanese design blog called Casa BRUTUS).

If there was still a question as to how important this design book is to Jony, he also narrated a two-minute video containing behind-the-scenes footage of the Apple ID group (and there looked to be quite a few product designers as well) working in the designs labs. It was pretty remarkable. (The video is available via YouTube here.) The only other time we had gotten such an inside look at the design labs was during the Charlie Rose interview last year.

Historically, Jony has played a major role in producing product videos in which he narrates. It is likely he played a major role in putting together this latest video as well.

Apple spent eight years working on this design book. Many of the Apple products featured in the book actually had to be purchased. The design team treated the book just like any other Apple product. Apple developed custom forms of paper and custom inks in order to "accurately and objectively" portray the products. All of the photographs were taken by Andrew Zuckerman, specifically for the book. Some shots involved Apple using the same composition as product launch photos, such as recreating the scene of five colorful iMacs. Since Apple spent years on this project, some of the earlier photographs had to be retaken because photographic technology had improved over the years. The team even came up with special packaging to make the unwrapping "enjoyable."

Nostalgia vs. Inspiration

Soon after Apple published the press release announcing the design book, I saw more than a few people quickly look at this product as a sign of Apple going down memory lane, chasing nostalgia. I disagree.

As defined by Merriam-Webster: Nostalgia: pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.

The book is not about Apple being nostalgic, taking time away from the future in order to soak up glory from the past. Instead, the book is designed to peel a few layers behind the mystery known as Apple design.

Notice how the book is both for the Apple ID group (a tool for inspiration) and the public (a way to better understand what drives Apple). The educational component explains why Apple is actually selling the book instead of just creating the book for Apple employees. Apple plans on giving the book to all of the major design schools around the world.

Jony listed a number of reasons for why this design book exists:

  1. To see the objects out of their functional context.
  2. To see the objects in a context of the subsequent products.
  3. To educate people on how their manufactured environment came to be.

There is significance found with the timeline of products that are featured. Instead of chronicling Jony's time at Apple (he began in 1992), the book begins with the 1998 iMac. This is a very subtle, but important clue as to why this design book exists.

The iMac was the first product to benefit from Apple's design-led culture. Here's a brief backstory to the iMac from my piece "Jony Ive Is Making People Uneasy."

"Jony holds an incredible amount of power because Apple is a design-led company. Apple's functional organizational structure and culture are set up in order to give the Industrial Design (ID) group absolute power. ID holds more power at Apple than any other group.

This structure was put in place more than 15 years ago with the iMac being the first product to take advantage of this new culture. Up to the late 1990s, engineers held the most power at Apple. Designers were merely tasked with skinning Apple products created by engineers. With the iMac, ID was afforded the freedom to move ideas from conception to reality without compromise. While Steve Jobs was the primary architect of this new power structure, the relationship he had with Jony undoubtedly played a role."

Accordingly, this design book isn't about Jony Ive. It's not some type of "Jony's Greatest Hits" collection. Jony isn't trying to soak himself in nostalgia of better times (which doesn't even make sense since today's products are arguably the best designed products Apple has ever released).

Instead, this design book is about the philosophy and processes that have guided Apple ID for the past 18 years. There are actually Apple products that are not included in the design book, which sets this book apart from similar books from third-parties over the years.

Here's Jony in his own words going into detail as to why he felt it was important that such a book existed:

"The biggest challenge for us was the fact that our focus and preoccupation is always on the future. So that tends to exclude much time to look back at the work we have previously done. Sometimes if we are struggling with a particular issue then that gives us reason to go back and look at the way we have solved problems in the past. But because we've been so consumed by our current and future work we came to realise we didn't have a catalogue of the physical products. So about eight years ago we felt an obligation to address this and build an objective archive."

One word: inspiration.

Here's more from Jony:

"We were intrigued how we could objectively describe, define and catalogue the objects and try to give people a sense of how they are made. Not how they were designed, but how they came to be. How they were manufactured and how you can transform these often-anonymous materials into something that is valuable and useful."

You can sense a theme here. The book is not about individual Apple designers or even the Apple ID group, but about the culture and environment that guides the Apple ID group. The key difference between those two entities is that by focusing on the product, the book actually ends up being about the design process. This turns the design book from containing page after page of nostalgia into something different.

However, one question that remains is "Why now?"

Jony even discussed how the design team had to purchase some of the older Apple products in a nod to the lack of nostalgia that exists within the design labs. We know the motivation behind the book, but why publish it in November 2016? Apple even says the book chronicles 20 years of Apple design, even though only 17 years of products are covered (1998 to 2015).

While watching the video for the design book, some of Jony's comments jumped out at me:

"This book captures a point in time of incredible transitions and quite shocking change. You understand the nature of an object so much more when you understand how it came to be. The book tells dozens and dozens of stories. You see momentum. You see learning. Of course, as designers you live in the future. It's not that we're not interested in the work we have done before, it's just that we are so consumed by what we haven't done yet."

Reading between the lines, this Apple design book is meant to serve as inspiration for an Apple ID group that is embarking on a new journey involving new materials, processes, and products. In a way, Apple is closing one chapter in order to open a new one. Apple's design language has not remained static (just look at the Mac over the years for evidence). It feels like given Apple's product direction, a new design language is being created.

This Is Jony's Apple

It is crucial for us not to miss one obvious point with this design book. Jony wanted this book to exist.

We are seeing Jony's Apple in full force.

That statement isn't meant to downplay Tim Cook's contributions or to imply that Jony has in some way taken Apple hostage. Instead, we are seeing an Apple that is comfortable placing complete control of the user experience in the hands of the Apple ID group. This design-led culture was installed in the late 1990s and all indications point to Tim Cook doubling down on the idea.

This design book probably would not have existed 10 years ago. Of course, we will never be able to know for sure. While some look at that as a source of concern for Apple, I look at it as merely a sign of change.

One example of this change is that Apple is much more willing to explain its story using the people developing Apple products. Circling back to the Charlie Rose interview from last year, Tim Cook had a short, but interesting comment about the motivation for providing Rose such a revealing look inside Apple:

"With a consumer company, people want to see the team behind it."

There is no question that Apple has embarked on a multi-year campaign to make the public become more familiar with the people and processes behind Apple products. We went from the era where Steve Jobs controlled nearly all public outreach to pretty much every senior Apple executive now taking part in various forms of PR.

Just take a look at last month's Mac event - Phil Schiller did a number of interviews, Federighi did a few video interviews, Jony even sat down for an interview. All of that was done for just one product. We then have PR opportunities given to additional Apple employees, including team managers. This is part of a well-thought out strategy meant to explain Apple's mission.

There is a very legitimate counter argument to this new philosophy within Apple. One can say that the product should speak for itself. Consumers should buy Apple products because the product will improve their lives, not because of being familiar with the design story or people behind the product.

However, I would push back against that narrative.

By sitting down with Charlie Rose in the design lab, or selling a design book, Apple is weaving a narrative that transcends any one product.

Saying "This is Jony's Apple" doesn't mean that Jony is single-handedly guiding Apple forward. In reality, after his promotion to Chief Design Officer, Jony has actually moved away from day-to-day managerial activities at Apple. Instead, we are seeing an Apple that is placing a bet that design will be the variable that leads the company forward.

There will be plenty of challenges and detours along the way. This design book is meant to help Apple find the path when those challenges arise. The book will help Apple move forward.

Each daily email is approximately 2,000 words and contains 2-3 stories (10-12 stories/week). 

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