Book Notes: “Creative Selection”

Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs
By Ken Kocienda
St. Martin’s Press, 2018

Twenty-one years ago, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs returned to lead the company after over a decade of board-imposed exile. How he rescued Apple—which was ninety days away from bankruptcy at the time—has become the stuff of legend. The role of design in that resuscitation is central to the story. As a result, design has a much higher prominence in today’s business world than it did a couple of decades ago. Apple is very secretive about its internal processes; even a small glimpse into how the company goes about designing its products and services would be very valuable.

Creative Selection’s subtitle promises to reveal the company’s product design process. And not just any product, but the most important one in the company’s history: the iPhone. (The author is introduced in the cover as Former Principal Engineer of iPhone Software at Apple.)

Mr. Kocienda acknowledges early on that there is no codified approach to design inside Apple:

we felt, on an instinctive level, that imposing a fixed methodology might snuff out the innovation we were seeking. Therefore, our approach flowed from the work. This happened from the top down, stemming from the unquestioned authority and uncompromising vision of Steve Jobs, and it happened from the ground up, through the daily efforts of designers and programmers you’ve never heard of, people like me and my colleagues…

Rather than a formal design process, there’s a way of going about the development of product features that is particular to Apple. It consists of seven elements:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Collaboration
  3. Craft
  4. Diligence
  5. Decisiveness
  6. Taste
  7. Empathy

The book describes these elements through stories of particular software development projects. The writing is clear, engaging, and relatable; Mr. Kocienda is upfront about his shortcomings as a designer, programmer, and manager in the high-pressure environment of Apple’s “project Purple” (the code name for the first iPhone.) His primary responsibility was the development of a make-or-break component of the system: its touchscreen-based keyboard. (The ghost of Newton’s market failure kept the team on their toes.) The book traces the development of the software keyboard from early demos all the way up to the phone’s launch and beyond. (The team subsequently adapted it for the larger-screened iPad.)

There’s much to learn from there. For one, there’s the importance of prototypes to the design process. (“We needed concrete and specific demos to guide our work, since even an unsophisticated idea is hard to discuss constructively without an artifact to illustrate it.”) Then there’s Mr. Kocienda’s definition of what amounts to a central principle at Apple, taste: “developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole.” This is an incredibly important element that is ignored by too many organizations, perhaps because it’s rather subjective.

While Creative Selection is fascinating (again, when it comes to Apple even small peeks inside are insightful,) it represents the perspective of somebody who worked on a part of a product without having much visibility into how it fit into the broader system as an “integrated whole.” I couldn’t help but wonder what a book like this would be like if it were written by Scott Forstall (who was responsible for project Purple overall) or even Steve Jobs himself. The latter, of course, is now impossible, and the former improbable. So this bottom-up view “from the trenches” is likely to be as much as we’re going to get. While it’s enlightening, it’s missing the top-down perspective.

What Mr. Kocienda labels creative selection (“[the] continuing progression of demo → feedback → next demo”) is a restatement of the traditional design feedback loop. The key “process” outlined in the book is really a culture—one that isn’t likely to be replicable in the absence of strong-willed visionary leaders at the top of the organization guiding the process of creative selection. A system as coherent as that first iPhone doesn’t just emerge from an endless sequence of feature refinements happening independently from each other. Somebody had to come up with the overall conceptual model for the thing, even if they didn’t state it as such. How do these visionaries define the overall direction for the product? How do you nurture these leaders in the organization and give them the leeway necessary to be successful? How do you foster a culture of design powerful enough to influence people in the trenches without needing to be formally articulated? I’d be very interested in reading these parts of the story.

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