Apple has reached "saturation"
says former designer


Hartmut Esslinger

News: technology giant Apple has lost its vision and has reached creative saturation according to Hartmut Esslinger, the industrial designer hired by Steve Jobs to help transform the brand in the 1980s.

Speaking to Quartz magazine this week, the founder of product design studio Frog said that Apple is operating like Sony was in 1980s when he worked there, where the "visionary founder has been replaced by leaders who aren’t thinking beyond refinement and increasing profit."

“As soon as you can copy something [like the iPhone,] it’s not smart enough anymore,” he told the magazine. “I think Apple has reached in a certain way a saturation."

Apple sketch
Sketch made during a meeting with Steve Jobs. Image: Frog.

Esslinger designed over 100 products for Sony prior to joining Apple in 1982, where he worked with Apple's late co-founder Steve Jobs - who passed away in 2011 - on the early design language for Macintosh computers.

He recounted how Jobs was open to experimenting with news ideas and took risks that lead to innovation, a quality Esslinger feels is lacking at Apple today. “Steve Jobs was a man who didn’t care for any rational argument why something should not be tried,” said Esslinger. “He said a lot of ‘no,’ but he also said a lot of ‘yes’ to things and he stubbornly insisted on trying new things.”

He claimed Jobs conceived a "book-like computer" as early as 1982."That vision eventually led to the Apple Newton, a tablet that failed, and the iPhone and iPad, which made history. That kind of vision is now lacking at Apple."

Steve Jobs by Norman Seeff
Photograph of Steve Jobs by Norman Seeff

The designer suggested that Apple is being left behind by radical thinking from young designers in places like China, where Esslinger currently leads the Detao Master Class for Strategic Design at Shanghai Institute of Visual Art (SIVA).

He said that the next generation of innovators are moving beyond flat-screen technology, developing ideas for three-dimensional interfaces. "I think flat screens have reached a level of saturation," said Esslinger. "Screens don't have to be all right angles - the cheapest way is not always the best way. What's happening in China right now is a paradigm shift where they realise they have to innovate and can't just make cheap products."

Apple sketch
Hartmut Esslinger sketches made during meetings with Steve Jobs. Image: Frog.

Esslinger's forthcoming memoir Keep it Simple: The Early Design Years of Apple that recounts his time working with Jobs will be released at the Frankfurt book fair on 9 October 2013.

This time last year San Francisco designer Yves Behar told Dezeen that  Apple was "a little behind" in interface design and criticised the firm's skeuomorphic approach to the look of its software, which mimicked real-word materials like leather and wood.

Since then Apple has put British industrial designer Jonathan Ive in charge of both its software and hardware design. In June the company unveiled iOS 7, the first major interface design overhaul overseen by Ive, which will be available to users later this month.

German industrial designer Richard Sapper told Dezeen how Steve Jobs once tried to lure him to work for Apple in an interview looking back on his career in June, but that he turned down the offer because he "didn't want to move to California".

See more stories about Apple »

  • djnn24

    Completely agree. Since Steve Jobs passed away Apple have gone so downhill. I was so disappointed with the new iPhone – the gold phone is the worst thing that has happened to Apple.

    • I guess it’s the inevitable path of all companies that grow too large to allow themselves to take huge risks. Just look at Pixar, another kickstarted by Jobs. Perhaps the solution lies in the redesign of patents and copyright laws.

    • Gary

      If the gold iPhone is the “worst thing that has happened to Apple”, they’re in pretty good shape.

  • Bored

    The story below this starts with dezeen promotion… This should be titled book promotion.

  • boooo!

    Just like with movies or music, products that are recognizable, predictible and not very intellectually challenging sell the most. It’s awful, but as long as it makes money it will not change.

  • Charlie Bing

    Well, I think that might be a tad premature… some of the technologies that are included in the new phone are harbingers of things to come, like the motion chip: watch for that in a iWatch (or whatever), and some of the camera technology is really out there.

    And Gary? You just nailed it with the gold phone. The worst thing that has happened to Apple? Criminy… where to begin? :)

  • Ahmad

    Unless they successful reinvent something, he added.

  • Jan Vegt

    So who cares?

    Personally I think this is more telling about the current state of Mr. Esslinger. I found it disappointing that the book Design Forward is about the past, a glorious past but nevertheless the past. Let’s invent the future and stop whining.

    As books go I was more impressed by Niels Diffrient ‘Confession of a Generalist’, which is also about past glory and subsequently drops some impressive names but is more inspiring.

    Why have some of these amazing designs by Colani and Norman Bel Geddes not been bettered today Let’s go there and act and stop whining. Mr. Esslinger can do a lot better than this, he knows it and we know it, so why waste energy with these sort of comments.

    And personally I also think that Touch ID thing is not too shabby.


  • It’s a picture frame that is a PC, not exactly the be-all and end-all folks.

  • Peter

    Frog isn’t so hot anymore either.

  • Daniele Gozzi

    Apple does not need a strong sales visionary.

  • ThisSiteSux

    Apple may be going downhill, but one thing that has no way to go downhill is this broken, crappy website. What a horrible design, and it keeps reloading and bringing me back to the top of the page while I’m in middle of reading or typing this comment! I think the name of this magazine is also stupid.

  • Hi,

    Thanks for getting in touch with us about this. Our development team are trying to get to the bottom of it, but we can’t seem to recreate the problem. If you don’t mind, it would be really helpful for us if you could let us know:

    – version of Safari you’re using

    – operating system and version number

    – your location where you’re trying to view the site

    – the pages it is happening on

    – does it happen whenever you try to use the site, or only at specific times?

    We would really appreciate your help with any of the above.

    Many thanks,