Why Apple is the Master Craftsman

Whatever you may think about Apple there is no denying that they continue to set new standards for craft. Craft? Yes, that seemingly old-fashioned word that many confine to quilting, scrap-booking and other pursuits often disparagingly categorized as women’s activities. My alma mater, the California College of the Arts, dropped the word craft from its name years ago, feeling that it was dragging the image of the school down. But craft as a concept has made something of a comeback in recent years, and no-one in the mass-production realm is doing it better than Apple.

That’s no accident. It’s the result of enormous amounts of hard work and financial investment, much more than most companies are willing to stomach. Apple’s head of design, Jonathon Ive, said in a recent rare interview with design site Core 77 about the iPhone 4:

“A big part of the experience of a physical object has to do with the materials. [At Apple] we experiment with and explore materials, processing them, learning about the inherent properties of the material—and the process of transforming it from raw material to finished product; for example, understanding exactly how the processes of machining it or grinding it affect it. That understanding, that preoccupation with the materials and processes, is [very] essential to the way we work.”

High quality craft comes about from an interplay between a material and a person, whether they be a woodworker, metal-smith, designer, engineer, or production-line worker. Good craft comes from intimate familiarity and ongoing hands-on manipulation of the material and the forms it can make, not from abstractly visualizing the form as is often done through CAD renderings. They can be highly photorealistic, but often not usefully informative to the design process as they lack tangibility. Ive goes on to say:

“The best design explicitly acknowledges that you cannot disconnect the form from the material—the material informs the form. It is the polar opposite of working virtually in CAD to create an arbitrary form that you then render as a particular material, annotating a part and saying ‘that’s wood’ and so on. Because when an object’s materials, the materials’ processes and the form are all perfectly aligned, that object has a very real resonance on lots of levels. People recognize that object as authentic and real in a very particular way.”

Forty years ago, design philosopher and master wood craftsman David Pye argued that design is always limited by budget, not technique. The ideal form promised by superior technique, he said, will always lose out to affordability, and therefore design will always be compromised. What is remarkable about Apple is that they have navigated around this paradox to a large extent. Obviously they don’t make the cheapest computers around, but they have brought a incredibly high level of quality to everyday products at prices that many people can afford and an increasing number are happy to pay. It used to be that you had to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an object with this degree of precision, whether it was jewelry, a car, or a fine watch.

Apple has done it by taking techniques and materials that everyone else uses for small-batch prototyping, and scaled them up to be mass-production ready, such as how it carves out aluminum blocks to create the shells for everything from iPod Nanos to MacBook Pros to the new Mac Mini. They work closely and over the long term with a small set of suppliers to hone the techniques and get the costs out, rather than doing what everyone else does which is to shop around every year to different vendors, always hunting for the lowest price. Apple isn’t afraid to “single source” a technique, technology or material from a vendor if it gives the right affect and advantage, while other companies avoid like the plague being locked into single vendors.

And of course Apple has famously fanatical attention to every detail that starts at the very top with Steve Jobs, and percolates out to the rest of the company. Apple is certainly not unique if you look across all companies in all industries, but very few - if any - of their direct competitors have it.

So it’s not magical how Apple does what it does with the quality of its products. It’s just that most other companies don’t have the patience, budget allocations, or sheer will to pull it off.