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You wouldn't expect a guy who rarely appears in public wearing anything other than blue jeans and a black turtleneck to be a design mogul with a keen eye for style.

Unless of course, that guy happens to be Apple Inc. chief executive officer Steve Jobs.

Although Mr. Jobs's fashion sense may leave much to be desired, there is no denying his company's ability to create iconic consumer electronics products that are as stylish as they are functional.

"The form is very beautiful, but it's beautiful in a way that is also aspirational," said Jules Goss, chair of the industrial design department at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto.

"The form speaks to a wonderful, clean, futuristic and simplistic technology that everyone can hook into straight away," she says. "It represents the final word in that minimal, contemporary modern ideal that high design is meant to represent."

Despite Apple's penchant for churning out culture-changing products that have joined the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, its design department, for the most part, eschews the spotlight, preferring instead to let its creations speak for themselves.

This is one reason most people have heard of Mr. Jobs, the public face of the company, but don't know the name Jonathan Ive.

The British-born Mr. Ive is Apple's senior vice-president of industrial design and is credited with leading the teams that designed many of the company's signature products, including the iMac computer and the iPod.

Among the die-hard Apple faithful, Mr. Ive is revered as nothing short of a genius. Some go so far as to say his joining the company is one of the defining moments of Apple's remarkable turnaround in the late 1990s. Others are already calling for him to be anointed as Mr. Jobs's heir apparent for the CEO position.

Mr. Ive has been lauded for both his creativity as well as his ingenuity when it comes to the design process. When Apple was designing the first iMac, Mr. Ive and his team went to a candy factory to study the process for making jelly beans to glean inspiration on how to make the computer's plastic casing look enticing rather than cheap.

Aside from a few published reports, however, the design process of the Cupertino, Calif.-based company is largely shrouded in mystery. Apple routinely rejects requests to discuss its style strategy (this article being no exception).

But earlier this month, a few details emerged at the South by Southwest music and cultural festival in Austin, Texas.

Michael Lopp, senior engineering manager at Apple, gave a presentation in which he briefly lifted the skirt on the design process and attempted to explain why Apple's creative minds "get" design, while other consumer electronics manufacturers don't.

Every week during the design process, the teams hold a pair of meetings, he said. One is a brainstorming session where free-floating and crazy ideas are encouraged; in the second, designers and engineers are forced to ground all those thoughts in reality and figure out how they can be practically incorporated into the product.

Mr. Lopp said this two-pronged approach helps keep the idea phase of the process rooted in the real world early on, while ensuring that the innovative juices keep flowing in the final stages.

Apple generated revenues of $24-billion (U.S.) last year, a more-than-healthy sum that allows it to reinvest heavily in design; from 2005 to 2007, the company's research and development budget grew 46 per cent from $535-million to $782-million.

But analysts say Apple's product success stems from more than R&D - it's the ability of its engineers and designers to understand what consumers want from their devices that has helped to keep the company on top of the rapidly evolving technology market.

"Apple realized six or seven years ago that it was the way in which you presented the technology that was going to differentiate you in that market," says Darren Meister, an associate professor with the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business.

"For a long time it was what you put in the boxes - then Apple realized it was the box itself that consumers are out there looking to buy."

One way Apple has stayed a step ahead is by remaining "just cool enough," Mr. Meister says. "They don't go too far ahead of what consumers expect from the technology," he notes.

"The secret is that they stay a little ahead of where the curve is, and have allowed themselves to lead the curve. No different in some ways than Ikea, or any other firm that competes on design."

It has been said that Apple is not afraid to eat its young: The company is constantly launching new versions of products that drive markets forward before its competitors have a chance to catch up.

Take, for example, the portable music player market. Just as competitors began to release devices that emulated the iPod's functionality, Apple unveiled the touch screen-equipped iPod Touch, raising the bar again and establishing a new top dog among portable music players.

As pretty and popular as Apple's physical devices may be, the company's penchant for winning design doesn't end with the hardware. Intuitive content-management software that makes its products easier to use, such as its iTunes music software, helps to drive sales.

"It's really about simplicity, both in design and function, and ultimately that's what delivers," says Josh Martin, a technology analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston. "They use existing features in new ways. The touch screen is certainly not anything new, but they used it in a way that worked with the iPhone.

"Ultimately it's about providing an overall pleasing experience for the user," Mr. Martin says.

Apple also benefits from having a dedicated - some would say it borders on the fanatical - consumer base that tracks every move coming out of Cupertino and provides reams of instant feedback on new products.

"They have a very loyal, early-adopter base and is very good at knowing if Apple has made the right move," Mr. Meister says. "If they don't have a certain number of early adopters picking up a product, they know they need to tweak it."

CORRECTION

Jules Goss is chairman of the industrial design department at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. He was incorrectly referred to in an article on Monday about the design of Apple products.

 

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