Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs

Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs

by Ken Kocienda
Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs

Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs

by Ken Kocienda


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An insider's account of Apple's creative process during the golden years of Steve Jobs.

Hundreds of millions of people use Apple products every day; several thousand work on Apple's campus in Cupertino, California; but only a handful sit at the drawing board. Creative Selection recounts the life of one of the few who worked behind the scenes, a highly-respected software engineer who worked in the final years of the Steve Jobs era—the Golden Age of Apple.

Ken Kocienda offers an inside look at Apple’s creative process. For fifteen years, he was on the ground floor of the company as a specialist, directly responsible for experimenting with novel user interface concepts and writing powerful, easy-to-use software for products including the iPhone, the iPad, and the Safari web browser. His stories explain the symbiotic relationship between software and product development for those who have never dreamed of programming a computer, and reveal what it was like to work on the cutting edge of technology at one of the world's most admired companies.

Kocienda shares moments of struggle and success, crisis and collaboration, illuminating each with lessons learned over his Apple career. He introduces the essential elements of innovation—inspiration, collaboration, craft, diligence, decisiveness, taste, and empathy—and uses these as a lens through which to understand productive work culture.

An insider's tale of creativity and innovation at Apple, Creative Selection shows readers how a small group of people developed an evolutionary design model, and how they used this methodology to make groundbreaking and intuitive software which countless millions use every day.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250194466
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ken Kocienda was a software engineer and designer at Apple for over fifteen years. After graduating from Yale, he fixed motorcycles, worked in the editorial library of a newspaper, taught English in Japan, and made fine art photographs. Eventually, he discovered the internet, taught himself computer programming, and made his way through a succession of dot-com-era startups, before landing at Apple in 2001, where he worked on the software teams that created the Safari web browser, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Ken lives in San Francisco, California with his wife.

Read an Excerpt


The Demo

"Bzzt." I looked down at my iPhone. I had been nervously turning it over in my hands for the last half hour. Now, finally, I got the text I had been expecting.

It said, "Any minute now."

I replied, "OK."

I had been sitting forward, elbows perched on my knees, fidgeting uncomfortably in an otherwise comfortable leather chair, one of a set arranged as a casual meeting area near the elevators of the second floor of Apple Headquarters, Infinite Loop Building 2, in Cupertino, California. Message received, I got up from my chair, returned my iPhone to my pocket, and walked a few steps down a quiet hallway until I stood outside of the conference room called Diplomacy. When the door opened, I would be invited in to give a demo to Steve Jobs.

It was the late summer of 2009, and I was making software prototypes for a new product, an as-yet-unnamed tablet computer. A little more than two years before, Apple had introduced the iPhone, which was then beginning to realize its vast potential in the marketplace, just as it had captured the fancy of the computing cognoscenti on the day it was released. Now it fell to people like me, a programmer on the iOS software team, to help create a fitting follow-up.

I'd worked on the iPhone as well, starting in 2005. Through twists and turns, which I'll describe in detail starting in chapter 6, "The Keyboard Derby," it became my job to write the software for the iPhone keyboard, with my main focus on the autocorrect feature, the code responsible for turning your acxuratw tyoinh into accurate typing.

Throughout the development of the iPhone, we referred to the keyboard, often quite nervously, as a "science project." When we started developing our touchscreen operating system, we didn't know if typing on a small touch-sensitive sheet of glass was technologically feasible or a fool's errand. As commonplace as virtual keyboards have become, in those days, the norm for smartphones was the BlackBerry, with its built-in hardware keyboard, its plastic chiclet keys, and its tactile thumb-typing. In contrast, the iPhone keyboard would offer tiny virtual keys that gave no feedback you could feel with your fingers.

An effective autocorrection feature would be essential, and I worked with the constant worry that my typing fix-up code might turn the iPhone into a punch line. Nobody at Apple wanted a repeat of the Newton, the handheld personal digital assistant the company marketed in the 1990s. Unreliable handwriting recognition gave the Newton a public relations black eye that never faded; the product never sold well, in large part due to its lackluster text entry; and the Newton never became the mass-market indispensable item it was intended to be.

My task was further complicated by Apple's pervasive secrecy. On Purple, the project code name for the in-development iPhone, every detail was protected with need-to-know confidentiality. Few people had been given the chance to see or try the Purple software before Steve announced it in a high-profile keynote presentation in January 2007, so it was out of the question to treat my keyboard work as a real science project and conduct extensive trials on a broad population. I got feedback on the autocorrect feature from just a few dozen people before the whole world got a crack at it. No wonder we were nervous.

Standing in the hallway outside of Diplomacy, I had no time to think about the stress of the iPhone keyboard development cycle. I was focused more on the stress of the moment — an imminent demo to Steve. This new tablet, which Apple would introduce many months later as the iPad, would use the same operating system as the iPhone but would have a larger screen. This brought a new set of keyboard challenges, and I was ready to present my solution for one of them. Demos like this were the foundation of the Apple software development process, as you'll see in the case of this iPad demo and as I'll describe in many other demos throughout this book.

I never demoed my keyboard to Steve while our Purple smartphone was in development — someone higher up in the organization had always done it for me. The success of the iPhone keyboard had, apparently, enhanced my standing. My managers didn't come right out and say so, but their invitation to meet with Steve, coming as it did only after I had proven myself by delivering iPhone autocorrection, showed me what it took to get direct access to the company's famous CEO.

This would be my second Steve demo — the first had happened a few weeks earlier, when I'd shown him font options for the high-resolution Retina display planned for the iPhone 4. That demo had gone well, and since I was being invited back, I began to feel that I had made it into the inner circle of people in Apple product development who would routinely demo software to Steve. I don't know exactly how many people were in this group, but there weren't many. Perhaps a few dozen. Of course, there were even more exclusive circles. I was still in the hallway waiting to be called in, while there were people already sitting with Steve inside Diplomacy.

Steve was at the center of all the circles. When he was in sufficiently good health — he had returned only a couple months earlier from his second health-related leave of absence in five years — he made all the important product decisions. He used these demo reviews as his chief means of deciding how Apple software should look and feel and function.

From my standpoint, as an individual programmer, demoing to Steve was like visiting the Oracle of Delphi. The demo was my question. Steve's response was the answer. While the pronouncements from the Greek Oracle often came in the form of confusing riddles, that wasn't true with Steve. He was always easy to understand. He would either approve a demo, or he would request to see something different next time. Nevertheless, some mystery remained. No matter how good your work was, or how smoothly it had sailed through the preliminary reviews leading up to him, you could never know how he would react. Sometimes he'd say he loved or hated something but then reverse himself in midsentence. Perhaps his change of heart might come a day or two later. Other times his opinions, once stated, held in place for years.

Then there were his moods. On any given day, he might give you a tongue-lashing during a demo if he didn't like the work you brought him. Nobody was exempt either — not top-level executives he worked with every day and not programmers like me whom he didn't know beyond a passing recognition. This was the price of admission to his demo room — either accept it, or don't demo to him. It could be difficult to hang on while riding this emotional workplace roller coaster, and some begged off. One exceptionally talented and experienced colleague told me flat out that he refused to demo his own work in Diplomacy ever again because of the way Steve treated people in these face-to-face meetings. My friend continued to respect Steve's taste, even though he deplored his temperament.

Although Steve's opinions and moods could be hard to anticipate, he was utterly predictable when it came to his passion for products. He wanted Apple products to be great, and he insisted on being involved in the process as it went along, to guide the development of the work through his reviews. That's why I was waiting to show him my demo. He wanted to see my latest progress and then push the work toward his ideal with his feedback and suggestions.

It was a sure thing that our tablet keyboard, a major new user interface element for a new product line, would need his direct approval. Whenever Steve reviewed a demo, he would say, often with highly detailed specificity, what he wanted to happen next. "Add more space between these two elements," or "Replace the green in this graphic with blue," or "None of this is working. Show me more options next time." More generally, he was always trying to ensure the products were as intuitive and straightforward as possible, and he was willing to invest his own time, effort, and influence to see that they were. Through looking at demos, asking for specific changes, then reviewing the changed work again later on and giving a final approval before we could ship, Steve could make a product turn out like he wanted. Much like the Greek Oracle, Steve foretold the future.

I heard a door handle turn. I looked toward Diplomacy, the door now opened just a sliver, and a shard of light from the conference room brightened the darker hallway. As my eyes adjusted, I saw the backlit and smiling face of Henri Lamiraux, vice president of iOS software engineering. Henri cracked the door just wide enough to poke his head out. Even in the moment, I didn't understand this theatrical beckoning. It was common knowledge that Steve saw demos in Diplomacy and that people would quietly come and go from the room on demo day. Yet this was no time to ask questions, and I felt a rush as I headed for the door.

Henri occupied a position where he interacted on a daily basis both with top executives like Steve and with individual programmers like me. He led the team of software engineers responsible for the apps that came as standard on the iPhone — Messages, Mail, Calendar, the Safari web browser — as well as the software kits Apple published for developers out in the world to make apps of their own to post and sell on the iOS App Store. Steve looked to him to deliver on the decisions that came out of these demo sessions, and Henri filled his role with his own brand of self-assurance coupled with a lack of self-importance. He wore a full beard, which he kept cropped close, and over his more than twenty years at Apple it had become less solidly black, more salt and pepper. A Frenchman with a strong accent — occasionally I could understand what he was saying only from the context — he had quaint pronunciations for a number of English words. My favorite was for "build." When Henri said this common programming term, it came out as "bweeld."

Henri had been my manager again for just a few weeks. I say "again" because I had reported to him several years earlier, before the iPhone project, when both of us were in different roles. I'd witnessed Henri's ability to remain calm in stressful situations in an episode when I had sorely tested his patience, and I'll relate that story later.

In the years since, I'd seen him demonstrate his calmness again and again. In the lead-up to a Steve demo, he could be counted on to keep his composure and smile through the tension. Henri acted as a buffer between his team of programmers and the company's hard-to-please leaders. He edited expletives out of the executives' requests before passing them down to individual coders. He might say to me "I just heard Steve reported a bad bug." The actual message he'd received had been more like: "the f***ing caps lock button doesn't work in today's build! don't you people test this f***ing keyboard?!" As Henri sifted through and related the details at such times, I appreciated his ability to project the confidence that everything would work out. He seemed to know that applying pressure on me wouldn't help me figure out the fix for the bug any faster but that I would drop whatever I was doing and get right on it. In his way, Henri filled a role created by the personality of our intense CEO. He was a source of coolness that prevented us from constantly getting burned by Steve's searing heat.

"Come in," Henri said, smiling as he eased the door open a little more so I could walk through. I took a few steps to cross the hall. Deep breath. The demo was on, or so I thought. Turning to my right as I entered Diplomacy, I saw Steve. He was talking on the phone.

"Yeah, that sounds good," Steve said as he leaned far back in an office chair, staring at the ceiling through round-rimmed eyeglasses, iPhone pressed to his ear, the sleeves of his black mock turtleneck tugged halfway up his forearms, legs crossed in front of him, the cuff of his jeans riding up on his calves to reveal several inches of dark socks above his gray New Balance running shoes. The uniform. He didn't appear to have any lingering illness-related lack of energy, and for the moment, he was directing all his focus toward his phone call. I was surprised for a second or two, but quickly realized that I should stand there quietly and do nothing to draw attention to myself. I was in for more waiting.

It's uncomfortable to listen to someone powerful and mercurial as they finish a phone call, and since I didn't want to appear like I was eavesdropping, I put my hands behind my back and surveyed the conference room.

Diplomacy was about thirty feet long and fifteen wide, drab and windowless. A couch in the middle of the room faced the door, roughly dividing the space into two squares. A pair of eight-foot-long tables were pushed against the walls in the half of the room closer to the door. This created an area for demo devices to be laid out, and this was where all the action took place. The couch and tables were arranged end-to-end to form a U, and Steve's office chair was positioned in the crook of the letter, while I stood closer to the open end by the door. I looked down and to my right, onto the table closest to me, and I saw my prototype iPad. It had my demo loaded on it.

Looking around again, I had the same reaction I always did when I set foot inside Diplomacy. The room was shabby, certainly not the decor you would expect in a company as obsessively design-focused as Apple. The table furthest from me only had an iMac on it. On the wall behind the computer, someone had tacked, a bit crookedly, an unframed poster for Mac OS X, version 10.2, nicknamed Jaguar. If the poster's tattered appearance didn't give away its age — it was several years old by then — then its serif "X," rendered with fur and spots, surely did. By that point, this "X" logo had been changed in steps through release after release to metallic gray and then to sans serif. This poster looked seriously dated. As for the tables, they were remarkable for being unremarkable. They weren't the premium examples you might expect, lovingly crafted from the same light-colored wood favored for the display of products in Apple retail stores. No, these were plain, workaday gray tables with Formica tops. Standard-issue office furniture. Floor-to-ceiling whiteboards covered the wall to my left, and they were caked with a heavy accretion of pen marks, indifferently and incompletely erased. And then there was the couch. It was not clean. When you sat down on it, you sank into the cushions as you would on a mangy sofa in a college frat house. In the half of the room behind the couch, there were a couple of forlorn bean bag chairs piled in the corner, an homage to an earlier age in Silicon Valley. On the whole, Diplomacy was a study in indifference. It was an important room, often used for CEO demos, but it was never the center of attention itself.

By now, my glances around the room had killed a minute or two, but Steve showed no signs his call was about to end. I began to feel a self-conscious awkwardness that I was the only one in the room standing, but there was no more room on the couch after Henri sat back down, and Steve was sitting on the only chair. There was nothing for me to do but remain where I was until Steve finished his conversation. At one point, I looked over at Henri, who looked back with raised eyebrows and gave a little shrug, as if to say "I have no idea how long he'll be." I couldn't imagine why Henri invited me in when he did, but again, this was no time to ask questions.

The people sitting with Henri on the couch were the true software development inner circle. They were the few Steve wanted around him to advise, consult, and bounce ideas around as he reviewed demos. They had done this for the iPhone, and now they were there for the iPad too. Each person had earned their place, and kept it, by consistently providing feedback that helped make the products better.

Sitting to Henri's left on the couch was his boss, Scott Forstall, then the senior vice president of iOS software engineering. Scott reported directly to Steve, and he was the one giving me this chance to demo in Diplomacy. Scott expected me to keep it concise and on point when it was my turn to go. He didn't tell me to do that — proper conduct was implicitly communicated through the success and failure of the earlier-stage demo sessions Scott ran himself, where he was the top executive in the room. The stakes in Diplomacy were obviously higher, now that his boss was in the room, and since Scott was my sponsor, my demo would reflect on him. Given what I took to be my new probationary status in the Diplomacy inner circle, I imagined that one bad demo might cause Scott to rescind my membership. Even though he never spelled it out, for all I knew, I might be a single boneheaded comment away from never being invited back.


Excerpted from "Creative Selection"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Ken Kocienda.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction 1

1. The Demo 7
2. The Crystal Ball 39
3. The Black Slab 67
4. One Simple Rule 91
5. The Hardest Problem 113
6. The Keyboard Derby 131
7. QWERTY 159
8. Convergence 191
9. The Intersection 221
10. At This Point 253

Epilogue 263
Acknowledgments 265
Notes 267
Index 279

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