Design guru John Maeda on Apple’s love potion and product design

John Maeda seems like the type of person most people would want to sit down with and hold a casual afternoon conversation over tea or coffee. Afterward, chances are good they’d look at items that contribute to our lives and possibly, life itself, from a different perspective.

Maeda earned both his bachelors and masters degrees from MIT, and he earned his Ph.D. in design from Tsukuba University Institute of Art and Design in Japan. He is a world-renowned designer; visual artist, computer scientist and president of the Rhode Island School of Design ( At the time of this interview, Maeda was associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In 1999, Esquire magazine named Maeda one of the 21 most important people in the 21st century.

His book, “The Laws of Simplicity” outlines ten laws surrounding the paradoxically complex topic of simplicity.

In this popular and exclusive interview with, Dr. Maeda isolates what he believes to be the source behind Apple’s iPhone success; discusses product design for manufacturing (DfM) and end-user usability, and more.

Transcripts from that discussion follow. Technology product manufacturing companies invest a lot of time and money to design and manufacture products that rate high with consumer acceptance with regards to fit, form, and function. However, it sometimes it seems there has to be give and take…company products cannot rate high in all three categories. Meanwhile, based on consumer feedback, Apple’s iPhone seems to have done just that. What three (3) key design or related challenges do you feel consumer electronics product companies must overcome in order to achieve a similar level of success in the marketplace?

Maeda: I think the common mistake regarding Apple products is they are somehow deemed to be superior in terms of “fit, form, and function”. This conclusion is given without consideration that Apple’s brand has become so powerful in recent years solely because of the iPod’s success.

And the iPod’s success stemmed not from its clever design, but more on Apple’s strategy of using iTunes as a simple front-end to manage electronic music sales for a populace that wanted to switch to buying music digitally.

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I would say we’ve been brainwashed to believe in the Apple touch through the power of “loving” Apple products — much like the famed success Harley-Davidson has had in the motorcycle community with their products. Judging whether something is “better” is not only a rational decision — it’s really an emotional decision.

Furthermore, look at where we live in 2007 — the Internet and computing technology lies at the foundation of all our current progress today. Apple completely understands the value of an intangible asset like software; whereas many companies still live in the physical world where product size; weight, and overall heft carries more political clout.


John Maeda, president, Rhode Island School of Design.


Because Apple “gets” the software revolution, they just build the right kind of electronic gadgets around it; whereas other companies make products then try to stuff the Internet inside them as an afterthought. Thus the three key design challenges are simple:

1.) Software, software, software. Consider your hardware delivery platform as irrelevant, and first get the software experience right.

2.) Understand and communicate simplicity. Adopt “simplicity” as part of your branding strategy, and deliver it in your product line.

3.) Use less, think more. While delivering an object with fewer functions to increase usabililty, make each function work better by putting more cash / effort into it. What are your thoughts on in-house electronic product design as compared to outsourcing product design? What top five (5) criteria must technology OEMs, wanting to outsource their product design, keep an eye on when evaluating and selecting a technology product design firm?

Maeda: There’s no problem with outsourcing electronics product design if your option on the outside is better than what you have going for yourself internally. However, a culture of innovation does require having an in-house sensibility in order to deliver products that are sufficiently distinctive. With good enough in-house eyes, your outsourced returns are bound to increase in value.

1.) Does the product design company have a Website? If it does, it’s likely they’re not busy making things. A Website that is spare is usually a sign that they’re busy and not spending too much time on “sales.” Seems a bit contrary to commonsense but it’s what I’ve seen.

2.) Does the agency understand words? Today, images have become meaningless in an age when you can Google “rubber duck” and a gazillion images appear. Design needs to be founded in meaning, and there’s no better tool than words.

3.) Does the firm understand software? Having shown experience building websites isn’t enough. Do they have a person that can take apart a Linux server by lunchtime and have it running twice as fast by afternoon tea? (See, also: 59 Questions to ask your design firm)

4.) Do the principals talk in terms of societal value instead of just cost? The best designers are always curious to create the next generation of thinking instead of just an incremental step forward. They are willing to be paid less to dream more.

5.) Do your in-house people *like* the outsourced party? Technology and great ideas mean nothing if there isn’t any mojo at the ground level. Hooking up with an elite agency that doesn’t treat your people well is a recipe for disaster. Successful product design for manufacturing (DfM) can be a moving target. It’s a lot different to design a single prototype product than it is to design a product for full production. Engineers often cannot fully comprehend what challenges inevitably lie ahead when faced with ramp-to-volume demands. What do you feel are the top five (5) criteria companies should address or, at least be thinking about early-on, when they are in prototype phase with plans to go into full scale production in the near future?

Maeda: Today we live in an age of mass-customization where a product can completely be customized for an individual at a reasonable cost. Witness the custom-shoe sneaker market by Reebok and the likes. Custom clothing and so forth are on the horizon with modern computer technology.

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That said, product manufacturing is still the least expensive way to deliver a product. In this case there are common concerns in the design of products when technology is concerned:

1.) Has the prototype been reduced to as few parts and few process steps required to produce it? There’s the famous story of how Nicholas Hayek (founder of Swatch) turned the Swiss wristwatch industry around by reducing the number of parts to produce a watch from 151 to just fifty. Simplicity does not occur as just an accident — it is a way of life.

2.) Are aesthetics the driving factor of the design over functionality? The old adage “beauty is only skin deep” rings true for great products that look good but don’t work well. They just don’t exist, because great products have to work well *first*. Then they get to look good.

3.) Instead of just standard focus-groups, has the prototype gone through a rigorous anthropologist view study? The simple exercise of videotaping another person using (or pretending to use) the prototype in the actual expected environment is a classic means for figuring out the errors before going to production.

4.) Is the product modifiable on-site? Leaving the door open to remote repairs in a product is an important reality. Software is *never* completely finished, and thus a robust backdoor must be designed into the product for it to be correctable after shipped.

5.) Will the product destroy our natural environment? The green movement is in full swing, and thus if a product is being made that is infinite profitable with severe consequences to the earth, consumer backlash will get you in the end. Producing products *responsibly* will continue to have rising relevance in this century because access to information is trivial today — nothing can be hidden in today’s product landscape. In your book, ‘The Laws of Simplicity’, you write about removing the degree of functionality with products in order to help simplify them. You also acknowledge there needs to be a balance between simplicity and complexity. This said, when designing products, how can companies determine in advance whether or not they are designing a product that is potentially too complex? What measures can they put in place to help strike and maintain a consistent balance?

Maeda: The easiest way to tell whether a product is being overdone is to measure the number of features the majority of your competitors have in the market.

They have likely overdone the engineering, and thus the best target should be 60 to 70% of the average number of features, but at the same time it’s important to add extra value to the smaller set of features and also *market* the difference.

The difference needs to be something emotionally stimulating (i.e. “the complexity to add to the simplicity”) otherwise it’s meaningless. Without limiting your thinking to only technology products, what five (5) products, or items, do you feel rate exceptionally high as true design achievements and, why? If someone held you by your ankles over the edge of a cliff and asked you to name the five (5) worst-designed products, or items, what would be on your list and, why?

Maeda: My favorite products that embody simplicity are usually those that have no microprocessor embedded in them:

1.) Spoon: makes it so my soup doesn’t fall in my lap.

2.) Hammer: I understand how to use it without a manual.

3.) Paper: even without a pen, you can make something real (origami).

4.) Calculator: because I’m terrible at math.

5.) People: I love people — they’ve got the best microprocessor in the world – the human brain.


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My most hated products are things in my studio I guess I force myself to interact with in some way or another:
1.) My iPod: because I never use it and always have to charge the battery for fear that it will go bad

2.) My computer: because I know I have to email everyone in the world but wish I didn’t have to

3.) My Aeron chair: because it’s great in the summer (nice and breezy) but terrible in winter as it doesn’t provide reflective warmth.

4.) My pens: because I can never tell which ones have run out of ink and feel bad to throw any of them away.

5.) My printer: because it never knows how to talk to my computer when I most need it to print something out.

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