Design Wars: How Tech Giants Have Elevated Design [Plus Infographic]

It used to be the case that Apple ruled the design world. No one could even touch them. It was part of their DNA from the time Steve Jobs took his calligraphy class in college, when he learned the importance of the details.

“Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

That affected the way Apple approached product design, while other giants such as Microsoft and Google focused on the engineering. The latter companies were built by engineers and thought from an engineering-first standpoint. Which isn’t to say it was the wrong way, only that it took many more years for the engineering obsessed companies to come around to design.

Fast forward to the last few years, and now design is a competitive advantage. The top tech companies are spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars getting the design of their products, image, and company just right.

How does this affect your business?

The key takeaway is that design is an advantage, and we can learn from the leaders of the tech and business world about the importance of design’s impact on business. What they learn from their millions of users we can apply to our businesses of hundreds of customers.

Let’s take a look at the lessons we can learn and we’ll finish up with a recap of takeaways.


Apple Design Principles

apple design principles

Apple has been in the lead from the beginning. They were built from the ground up thinking about design, and there are endless quotes from Jobs talking about how this has impacted the company. As the head designer at Apple, Jonathan Ive has a strong opinion on the meaning of design as a part of Apple. He states:

“Form and the material and process – they are beautifully intertwined – completely connected.”

These are not three independent substances, but all connected. You can’t have form without the influence of the material you’re working with. You can’t create the form without having a well-thought process. The best material in the world doesn’t matter if it’s not being used for good form.

Another important takeaway is Jobs’ quote above about craftsmanship. How many times have you bought a product proclaiming its amazing features only to find out it’s a piece of junk. Are you proud of what you’re producing in your own business? Are you taking ownership of the craftsmanship?


How this applies to your business

Built with craftsmanship and thoughtful design from the beginning, Apple currently leads the tech world as far as company valuations. They chose early on to focus on quality and craftsmanship. Starting with the second Jobs era, they refocused on creating a few extremely quality items and slashed their product line. They put users first.

Think about how you can focus on the best products and services in your business, and how you can focus on putting customers first. Learn from your customers, and provide the best experience possible.


Google Design Principles


Google was built on engineering roots and thus focused on function over form for many years. They proudly showcased their engineering prowess while leaving good design as an afterthought. Only in this decade did they start to evolve their thinking and come up with their own design framework: Material Design.

They came from behind and quickly progressed their skills. Top designers have even proclaimed that they have a better overall design framework than Apple. What’s more is that they have codified their design into easily understood principles with a clearly defined name.


I love the fact that Google clearly states their Material design principles for the world to see. In a sense they are opening up the design for others to use. They are not keeping it to themselves. They are teaching others how to incorporate Material design into their work. This is a big departure from their past, and a unique differentiation among the tech giants.

Material as a design language is engaging. Taking a deep dive through their principles guidelines means being immersed in the forefront of design thinking. It’s so commonsense that you can’t help but agree. We highlighted it as one of the top design trends of 2015, and we think it will be at the forefront for the next several years.


What prompted Google to embrace Material was the explosion of devices, screen sizes, and locations that people interacted with all of Google’s properties. They needed one consistent, branded experience. I believe they have achieved that so far.


How this applies to your business

Google didn’t get it right in the beginning. Arguably they didn’t have to until they got to such a large collection of web properties and apps that their messaging was different depending whether you were on Google search or maps or Gmail, etc. They hit a point where they needed to weave it all together.

If your business is sending mixed marketing and design messages to your customers take a step back. Think about the core branding and messaging principles you want to convey. Are your goals and priorities aligned across your organization? Are you consistent throughout your emails, logos, branding, and storefront? Google wasn’t, yet they corrected it. You can as well.


Microsoft Design Principles


Although the Zune didn’t really end up so well, it marked the beginning of Microsoft’s transition to a new design framework. Once called Metro, it’s now simply known as Modern UI. The Zune may have been a flop, but the design principles continued. Starting with Windows 8, Microsoft took a bold leap with their new interface design, introducing the tiles as a central component of Windows 8. They ended up receiving lots of blow back, as users became very accustomed to a certain way of using Windows.

The core takeaway from Microsoft is that they fully embraced flat design and they took risks across their whole organization. They were bold enough to try something new, even though it didn’t completely work out. They were so committed to the idea of a new mobile-first approach that they threw out the designs from the old era to fully embrace the new.


How this applies to your business

What you can learn from Microsoft’s mistake with Windows 8 is that if you have a strong and dedicated audience, introducing something completely different and brand new may not always work out. Microsoft gets credit for not falling for the Innovator’s Dilemma, but there was probably a more elegant way to go about it.

Listen to your customers and gradually introduce them to modernity. Don’t shock them by drastically changing a product on them that they love, but be open to embracing a better way of doing business that can create quantum leaps in progress.


What About the Bottom Line?

Unless you’re a designer yourself, or you truly appreciate good design for beauty’s sake, you’re interested in the bottom line first and foremost. You want a creative and beautiful environment, but your limited time and funds need to be directed towards whatever improves margins and profitability.

According to FastCoDesign, “Innovation today is inextricably linked with design—and design has become a decisive advantage in countless industries, not to mention a crucial tool to ward off commoditization.” What used to be thought of as simply another marketing expense can in fact differentiate you from the rest of the pack.

Design moves beyond how something looks, it connects with how customers interact with the product, and defines ever touch point with your company.

To illustrate the role design has taken to improve the financials of these three beasts we’ve talked about, take a look at the market value of Apple, Google, and Microsoft this decade:

how design affects profits

Now we can’t say this was all thanks to embracing design. But what we can say for sure is that during this new era of more thoughtful design principles, none of these three tech giants have declined in value.


View the Complete Design Wars Infographic