Tech historians have documented how Apple nicked innovations like the graphic user interface, the mouse, bitmap displays, windows, icons and LANs from Xerox PARC. A true visionary, Steve Jobs was able to see and exploit the potential of these innovations even when the inventors themselves couldn’t. But beyond Jobs’ extraordinary drive, brilliant marketing and the technology itself, Apple’s greatest weapon has been its sexy, consumer friendly designs.
Most people assume this was also Jobs’ doing, with help from their gifted chief industrial designer, Jonny Ive. But I would argue that Apple wouldn’t be where it is today without the duo’s ability to channel Dieter Rams’ exquisite eye. Called “the greatest designer alive” by Fast Company, Rams was the genius behind Braun’s consumer products for decades. And also, it would appear, many of Apple’s.
The global press, tech bloggers, and many in the design community have claimed that Apple cribbed some of its most popular designs from the ground-breaking products Rams drew up for Braun. Ive has long professed his admiration for Rams’ output, saying, “Rams remains utterly alone in producing a body of work so consistently beautiful, so right and so accessible.”
But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Ive and Apple are more than mere admirers of Rams’ products. They’re totally infatuated with them. Allow me to approach the bench.
Exhibit A The ghost of Braun’s T3 portable radio (1958, left) reappears as the original iPod (2001, right). Same size, same white plastic case, same use of a rotary dial for key functions, etc.
Exhibit B The iPhone’s calculator app (2007, left) borrows heavily from Brauns’s ET44 pocket calculator (1977, right) even down to the identically coloured round buttons for the same tasks.
Exhibit C Compare the aluminum housing, perforated details and swing out panel of the PowerMac G5 (2006, left) with Braun’s elegant T1000 portable transistor radio of 1964 (right).
Below: Close-up of the Braun T1000’s perforated aluminum panel (left) and the PowerMac’s (right).
Exhibit D Left, Braun’s infrared emitter (1970s, left). Right, Apple’s iSight (2003).
Exhibit E On the left, Apple’s iMac from 2007. On the right, Braun’s stunning LE-1 loudspeaker which debuted in 1959.
I rest my case. But at least Apple had the good taste to steal from the very best. Is Rams bothered by any of this? Hardly. In fact, he praises Apple as the only large U.S. firm that is putting design first, by having the resolve to remove every last unnecessary element in its designs. And he credits Apple for changing our lives in dramatic ways Braun couldn’t even hope to have done.
Indeed, everything Apple has ever created–the original Macintosh, the candy coloured iMac, the iPod, their friendly retail store experience, the now ubiquitous iPhone, iTunes, the iPad, etc.–has been a proof point of their role as “the computer for the rest of us,” as their kick ass ad agency Chiat/Day put it back in the day. The public agrees. Good design sells. Today, Apple is the most valuable company in the world.
So the next time you feel a twinge of technolust as you admire one of Apple’s stylish products, by all means, tip your hat to Jobs & Co. But don’t forget the great Dieter Rams. Thanks to his wonderful eye, brilliant mind and incredible restraint, tens of millions of consumers are using everyday objects that are pieces of art instead of pieces of junk.
For more on Rams, check out Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible or Braun–Fifty Years of Design and Innovation.