Apple Trial Offers Glimpse of Kitchen-Table Product Design

Photograph by Ryan Anson/Bloomberg

An Apple designer said meetings take place in a secret lab at a kitchen table (not pictured).

Decisions on the design of Apple products that have pulled in billions of dollars in sales and helped turn it into the world’s most valuable company are made by a group of about 15 industrial designers who gather once a week around a kitchen table.

The group gets together for weekly chats around the table in the kitchen in its lab at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, to share and critique details of future devices, said Christopher Stringer, a member of the small team. The meetings were among the details about the company’s secretive design process that Stringer described today at a patent trial in federal court in San Jose, California, between the iPhone maker and Samsung Electronics.

“That’s where the ideas happen,” said Stringer, who started working at Apple in 1995 and is a named inventor on patents for the iPhone and iPad. While Samsung said during the trial that it had more than 1,000 people working on the design of products, Stringer said Apple’s industrial design team is a small group of about 15 people from countries including the U.S., U.K., Australia and Japan.

Stringer, who has shoulder-length hair and was dressed in a white suit for his testimony, was the first witness called by Apple in the case against Samsung.

“It’s offensive,” Stringer said of what he considers to be Samsung’s copying of Apple’s ideas.

Samsung, the world’s biggest maker of smartphones, disputes Apple’s claims that it has copied the iPhone and iPad. The South Korean company said that patents for phones with glass touchscreens already existed. Samsung also is suing Apple for violating patents related to data transmission and other technology.

In his testimony, Stringer described designing products such as the iPhone, taking it from sketches in a notebook to product mockups to using high-end industrial equipment to build full replicas.

Once the design group comes up with an idea, it works with other Apple departments to determine whether a product will ultimately reach customers’ hands, Stringer said. ”We report directly in to the highest levels of leadership at Apple,” he said.

He said Apple had started to design the iPad tablet computer before it began work on the iPhone, a detail the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had previously revealed at a conference. That initial tablet design was where the company began to build some of the multitouch interface that is now incorporated in its leading handheld devices.

To select the final design of the iPad, the company tested a variety of models. Apple’s attorney showed one early prototype of the tablet, which was much thicker than the model ultimately introduced in 2010. ”We had tried so many things,” Stringer said.

The final design was chosen because it best highlighted the screen, he said. The group confronted construction challenges to build it. One of the biggest was finding equipment that made sure that there would be no gap between the glass and the outer casing of the iPad, Stringer said.

Stringer also described how the industrial-design team has celebrated the introduction of devices. On the day the iPhone was released in 2007, members of the team went to the company’s retail store in San Francisco to see customers’ initial reaction to the new phone.

“There was an enormous crowd outside,” Stringer said. “We were very, very proud. We worked really hard.”

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