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Apple designer Christopher Stringer reveals iPhone design process, says 'we've been ripped off'

Apple designer Christopher Stringer reveals iPhone design process, says 'we've been ripped off'


Apple industrial designer took the stand today in the Apple vs. Samsung trial, describing the company's internal design process and how the iPhone itself was created.

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Gallery Photo: Apple iPhone Prototype Photos
Gallery Photo: Apple iPhone Prototype Photos

Apple called its first witness to the stand in the company's case against Samsung, and while Jony Ive hasn't appeared on the witness list, the design department was represented today by industrial designer Christopher Stringer. Questioned by Apple's counsel, Stringer painted a detailed picture of the design process inside Apple. A 17-year veteran of the company, Stringer stated that he'd been involved with every single product the company had released since 1995, due to how closely the design team works. "We work as a team," he told Apple counsel Harold McElhinny, describing that Apple's design team meets every week to discuss all ongoing projects. When asked what the group's job at the company is, he kept it simple: "Our job is to imagine products that don't exist and guide the process that brings them to life"

Stringer described a small group of diverse individuals that work together around the kitchen table — literally — where they trade sketches and ideas in a "brutally honest circle of debate." The next step is CAD modeling, followed by physical mock-ups. Characterizing the team as a "pretty maniacal group of people" that "obsess over every detail," Stringer explained that the team may even mock up what he called scrap models — breakouts of a single element, like a button or switch — to explore as many as 50 takes of a single element.

"Something that people can love"

When asked about the original iPhone, Stringer said that the team's goal was to build a "new, original, and beautiful object" that was "so wonderful the you couldn't imagine how you'd follow it"; the designers wanted to make "something that people can love." Stringer was shown several early prototype designs of the iPhone while on the stand — he said the original device went by the internal codename N68. The extruded model we saw last week was actually known by the designers as the "extruded lozenge," and was one of many designs that were considered. In fact, the team would go back to the hundreds of different models it had put together over the course of the process, with the model that shipped in 2007 apparently one of the earlier prototypes that the designers "pulled out" from its cache of designs.

Steve Jobs wasn't sure about the iPhone

As for feelings about the iPhone inside the company, Stringer stated that Steve Jobs himself had doubts about the device before its announcement and launch, and that Cupertino faced an array of production problems and challenges, from the steel band to the holes drilled into the glass front. Eventually, he said, "we just solved the engineering issues."

When asked about the allegations in play in the trial, Stringer didn't hold back, telling McElhinny that "We've been ripped off," naming Samsung as one of the most egregious offenders. "It's a huge leap in imagination to come up with something new," Stringer said. "That's what we did."

Samsung counsel Charles Verhoeven began his cross-examination by discussing the design patents for the iPhone, in particular the glass front of the device and its importance to the overall design. Continuing the theme that Apple is inspired by outside sources just as much as it claims Samsung was, Verhoeven then produced an email Stringer wrote in 2011. In the missive, Stringer requested a list of competing products in the tablet space that the industrial design team could later brainstorm about. According to Stinger, the session was being held to gauge the marketplace, not to inform any future Apple design decisions.

Apple's Phil Schiller briefly took the stand for just enough time to be sworn in and introduce himself to the courtroom before the day's work came to an end. His testimony will pick up at 9AM PT tomorrow morning, and we'll be there as the trial continues.