Through a decade-long relationship with Steve Jobs, Hartmut Esslinger came to understand and influence early design at Apple more than most others at the company. His firm Frog Design was responsible for designing several computers including the Apple IIc — which introduced the "Snow White" design language Apple would adhere to throughout the 1980s — and a number of Macintosh devices. Esslinger himself was quickly placed at the top, requiring all Apple designers to bounce ideas off him and gain his approval before moving forward.
"I make no secret of my disgust for these books..."
Having played such a large role in Apple's early days, Esslinger feels he's got a good handle on the way Steve Jobs viewed design. And he's convinced most "experts" and authors (even Walter Isaacson, who wrote Jobs' official biography) are way off in their assessments. “I make no secret of my disgust for all those books written by outsiders who, if they mention design at all, describe it as Steve’s hobby or some kind of whimsical ‘add-on’ to his main product focus," he writes in his new book Keep It Simple. Quartz obtained an early copy of the book, and has posted a number of interesting excerpts.
Like many others, Esslinger confirms that Jobs himself was no design guru, but says Apple's co-founder fully appreciated the importance of creating best-in-class products. He recognized design was crucial, and admitted Apple wasn't meeting its potential. Jobs wasn't sure how to fix that. For his part, Esslinger insisted that design had to come from the top down:
I explained that to make design a core element of Apple’s corporate strategy, it would have to be seen as a leadership issue; world-class design can’t work its way up from the bottom, watered down by the motivations and egos of every layer of management it passes through.
This flawed bottom-up approach ultimately meant that "everything really new, courageous and potentially game-changing" would be "destroyed by its passage through ‘the gates of rejection,’" according to Esslinger. Some of his feelings on design (that it "must express the product’s very soul," for instance) are still being carried on by Apple's current design visionary Jony Ive today. More snippets of Keep it Simple can be found at Quartz for fans of product design and Apple's early work.