The 7 Key Ingredients to Apple's Design Success

An insider's account of Apple's creative process during the golden years of Steve Jobs, from author Ken Kocienda. 

Ken Kocienda
5-minute read

This book is about my fifteen years at Apple, my efforts to make great software while I was there, and the stories and observations I want to relate about those times. If you want to know what it was like to give a demo to Steve Jobs, or why the iPhone touchscreen keyboard turned out the way it did, or what made Apple’s product culture special, read on.

I’ll tell you what it was like to be an Apple software engineer, the pressures and pleasures of working at such a demanding company, and the rush of excitement we coders feel when we make a computer do something new using nothing more than solitude, brain power, and typing.

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I’ll tell you about the Apple programmer community I became a part of, and how a small group of geeky introverts created a web browser and a touchscreen smartphone operating system starting with only dreams, goals, and ideas.

I’ll tell you about how programmers fit into the larger Apple software development system, the joys of collaborating with designers who could bring refinement and elegance to the look and feel of our apps, and the stress of presenting work to colleagues, managers, and executives who always pressed for improvements that seemed just out of reach.

There are many aspects to making products in the Apple way—industrial design, hardware engineering, marketing, legal, and managing a vast international supply chain, to name just a few—but to understand what makes Apple what it is, its essence, you need to understand software, and I’ll introduce you to the world programmers inhabit, how software gets made from scratch, and how we tried to imbue this software with spirit. While other companies design beautiful hardware, excel at marketing, hire good lawyers, and manufacture gadgets at scale, no other company makes software as intuitive, carefully crafted, or just plain fun. If there’s a unique magic in Apple’s products, it’s in the software, and I’ll tell you how we created some of the most important software in the company’s history.

When I joined Apple in 2001, desktop and laptop computers were still the company’s main products, and while the colorful iMac had been a notable success in reestablishing Apple as a design leader in high technology—Steve Jobs had been back for four years following his eleven-year exile—the company still sat below 5 percent share in a market dominated by Microsoft Windows. Apple certainly had its core enthusiasts at that time, and they were passionate about its products, but to everyone else, the Mac was a computer they might have used in college but forgot about when they became adults and got jobs.

Four months after I started at Apple, things started to change. The release of the iPod was as much a surprise to me as it was to everyone else, and this portable music player kick-started Apple’s shift from computers to personal technology. The iPod also provided the money and the confidence that would lead to the development of the wildly successful devices that followed. This culminated with the iPhone, the product that transformed Apple from a technology bit player into one of the world’s most profitable enterprises.

I was a witness and a contributor to these times and these changes. I started programming for the iPhone when the number of software engineers and designers on the secretive project could fit in a small conference room. If you ask me about the first iPad, I might refer to it as K48, the internal code name we developers used before Steve Jobs and the marketing department picked a real product name. Today, on the day I’m writing this introduction, hundreds of millions of people will use these Apple products, and if you count the browsers on Windows and Google Android that use code based on the Safari browser I helped develop, then the number of daily users runs to well over a billion, perhaps it’s closer to two.