October 5 marks the third anniversary Steve Jobs' death. Fast Company magazine has produced a timely new e-book single that spotlights the critical role of design in the success of Apple. Design Crazy: Good Looks, Hot Tempers and True Genius at Apple is a fascinating oral history about the behind-the-scenes designers who contributed to the success of Apple, perhaps the most important company of this generation. The book was published by Byliner. Author Max Chafkin, a Fast Company contributing editor, spearheaded a team of reporters who interviewed several dozen former Apple employees and insiders from the notoriously tight-lipped company. Thin Reads, which has published dozens of other interviews with authors of e-book singles, reached out to Chafkin, Here's the edited version of the interview. (You can read the full interview here)
Thin Reads: Your magazine Fast Company is the gold standard when it comes to covering innovation in the world of business. Would you say Apple is the most innovative company in its time? As far as innovation, where does it stand as far as U.S. companies over the last 100 years?
In it's time, I'd say almost certainly: yes. Over the past 100 years, I think the question gets tougher, especially when you're comparing PCs, which Apple popularized, with innovations in medicine, transportation, and agriculture that have changed the world in ways that are arguably far more sweeping. I think innovations like container shipping and the modern factory may have had a bigger impact on the world than PCs.
Thin Reads: A fascinating undercurrent throughout Design Crazy was how dire Apple's fiscal health was in the 90s in contrast to the dominance of Microsoft. How the tables have turned two decades later. What lessons can Apple -- and indeed all companies -- learn from this turn of events?
I think the most important lesson is that good design can trump pretty everything else. I know that Steve Jobs and the Apple faithful would have strenuously disagreed, but once reason Microsoft came to dominate personal computers in the mid-90s was that Windows 95 was simply better than the Mac OS; and Windows PCs were better than Macs (and the Mac clones offered for a fleeting moment).
Apple turned the tables in the end because it created a series of products--most importantly OS X and the early iMacs--that were better designed than what Microsoft and the PC manufacturers offered. (The dominance that Apple achieved was the result of a two other products: the iPod and iPhone, which helped convince people to abandon Windows PCs.) Especially in the case of the iMac, these products weren't always innovative--the iMac, as you'll learn from the book, was basically one of Apple's junky beige box computers with a pretty case--but they were well-designed. They weren't conceived as a series of engineering specs, but rather as distinct products. That was something new, and I think it's what made the difference.
Thin Reads: The book mentions the lack of mobility for many Apple executives. Do you think this is a possible threat to the long-term health of Apple?
The Apple structure is effective as long as Apple executives feel like they work for the most important company in the world -- for a company, as one former Apple designer put it to me that is "Florence during the Renaissance." That's a powerful feeling that matters more than any promotion. Would you care about being promoted to middle-management if you thought you were working for the Leonardo of the modern era?
The trouble will come if Apple's product line stagnates, which could create an exodus of talent that is more severe than in traditionally managed companies. If Apple falls, it will fall hard.
Thin Reads: Explain how you were able to corral so many Apple employees to speak on the record about their experiences at the company. You and your collaborators must have extraordinary powers of persuasion.
Apple is notoriously secretive and, as I've been told, pretty ruthless with employees who leak. The funny thing is that, while our sources seemed legitimately afraid of Apple, they shared their stories readily -- and in most cases without hesitation. They gave us so much of their time, and with such generosity.
When the Fast Company editors first suggested the idea of an oral history of Apple design, I think I actually gasped out loud. It's one of those stories that simply wants to be told.