The Vice President of Human Interface Design at Apple discusses his lustrous creative path working with Ogilvy’s Brand Integration Group, Kate Spade, Apple and the brand new, highly anticipated Apple Vision Pro.
Alan Dye: We knew that if we were going to make a watch, it better tell time really, really, really well. And what that really meant was we should really understand timekeeping. And the beauty of a digital watch is that you can have multiple faces.
Speaker 2: From the Ted Audio Collective. This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman. For 18 years, Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they’re thinking about and working on. On this episode, Alan Dye talks about designing new products like Apple Vision Pro.
Alan Dye: Only Apple can make a product like this. When you put it on, what you see is your world.
Debbie Millman: Alan Dye doesn’t give many interviews. The last time I spoke with him on Design Matters was 16 years ago when he first started working as executive creative director at Apple, the company that has done perhaps more than any other to make design sexy, essential and highly coveted. Alan Dye is now the Vice President of Human Interface Design at Apple, and he’s worked on a range of projects from package design to the iPhone operating system, as well as the introduction of the Apple Watch. He’s also been intimately involved in Apple’s brand new spatial computer launch, Apple Vision Pro. I recently got a chance to experience this brand new invention and it was transcendent. We’re going to talk all about that as well as his creative path on today’s show. Alan Dye, welcome back to Design Matters.
Alan Dye: Oh my gosh, Debbie, thank you so much. It’s so amazing to be here.
Debbie Millman: It’s so great to have you.
Alan Dye: It really is.
Debbie Millman: So I want to start way back in the beginning, and I understand that when you were a little boy, you loved to draw letters. And as you learned to write your first name, it really bothered you that you could never get the capital L in Alan to fit well with the second capital A in Alan. And I was really trying to envision this and I was wondering why was that so difficult?
Alan Dye: I think I had this innate understanding of letter spacing at the time.
Debbie Millman: Kerning.
Alan Dye: Kerning. And I was also a fairly obsessive little boy apparently. And I was kind of in love with drawing letter forms. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in love with design, I guess. I’ll be darned. The AL combination to the other A was just the toughest thing to make work. So sadly, it did bother me.
Debbie Millman: But at least you got through to the other side and accomplished doing it. When I was growing up, I had a real problem for whatever reason, writing the letter H. And my actual name is Deborah with an H at the end. And I had so many tantrums about being unable to do it that the solution was to actually call me Debbie instead of Deborah.
Alan Dye: Amazing.
Debbie Millman: At least you got through it.
Alan Dye: No, I think it was just a precursor of more obsessions to come, to be really honest with you. And I’ll tell you a funny story. My son, who’s now 14, he has this love of letter forms as well, and he has this word vertex that he draws over and over. And I said, why do you do that? And he goes, well, every letter form has these straight lines that I can make connect to one another. And it both freaked me out and warned my heart at the same time to see him doing that. Because it’s lovely when you see them have the same passions as you do, but maybe not so lovely when you can see they have the same obsessions. Yeah.
Debbie Millman: You were born in Buffalo, New York. Your father was a philosophy professor who put himself through school working as a photographer. He also taught world religions. Your mother was a junior high special ed teacher, and you stated that your parents were especially well equipped to raise creative people. And I’m wondering if you can talk about how they were so well equipped. What was it about them that raised two creative, really interesting men.
Alan Dye: I think first and foremost, I was just so lucky to have two parents that cared deeply about us as their children and our passions, what we were into. They recognized from an early age we were into making things. They themselves were into making things. My father had a wood shop in the basement. We had a small woodworking business kind of on the side. My mother drew calligraphy, so every year for her kids’ graduations, she would use calligraphy to draw their names on the diplomas. And so we were always around making. They also had a passion for art. And we were lucky enough to grow up in Buffalo, which has this great history of art. There’s a wonderful museum, there called the Albright Knox, and we’re pretty close to Toronto as well. And significant shows, we’d come up to Toronto, and we would always make an effort to go to them.
And so from a very early age, we were around art and artists and they really encouraged both of us to follow our passions. My brother’s a photographer, and then of course I studied design. And this is a time when there wasn’t a need to know what you were going to do when you were in high school or grammar school. It was just, what are you into? And I was so very lucky to have them as parents, as people who encouraged us to follow our passions regardless of where that led. And in both cases, it led to some really lovely things.
Debbie Millman: You mentioned that your father was a carpenter and had a woodworking shop. I understand his father also had one.
Alan Dye: That’s right.
Debbie Millman: Talk about some of your early memories working with him in his wood shop. I think you had a preponderance for making dioramas.
Alan Dye: I did. I think this started with, if I recall it correctly, there was a competition at some local library or something.
Debbie Millman: I think it was an aquarium.
Alan Dye: An aquarium. See, Debbie, how is it? I should be interviewing you about whatever it is that happened in my life because I think you know better than I do.
Debbie Millman: Yeah. It was an aquarium in Niagara Falls, I think.
Alan Dye: Yes.
Debbie Millman: Sources share.
Alan Dye: I do recall making a diorama about a dolphin, and we made the different layers of waves. True story, and it’s funny how these things stick in your head. The back of the diorama was a sheet of paper that I had drawn as the background, the sky and the clouds and maybe the mountains. And on the way I punched my hand through the diorama, the piece of paper. And of course it was heartbreaking. So I had to get some tape and that rip became lightning. So I don’t know what lemonade out of lemons kind of story that is, but I have a very fond memory of that episode.
Debbie Millman: I love that you were able to so quickly on your feet, come up with a reason for being for that tear. Now, this competition, your brother won first place, you came in second place.
Alan Dye: I can tell you caught up with my brother before this.
Debbie Millman: No, I swear I didn’t. I love Mark. I follow him on Instagram, but no, I did not reach out. He won first place. You won second. And I was wondering, was his that much better than yours
Alan Dye: It was. My brother is wildly creative. He’s really inspiring to me. He remains my best friend. We talk nearly every day. He’s a maker as well. I think we both had that gene. I have super fond memories of the two of us finding ourselves in that wood shop down in the basement just making things. And I think there’s this innate satisfaction that certain people have with starting with nothing and ending with something.
Debbie Millman: Looking back on it now, do you think that early woodworking influenced the approach you’ve taken to making the types of three dimensional objects you make now?
Alan Dye: I think for sure. I think one of the things, of course, I mean famously and my dad, there’s this famous quote, measure twice and cut once, we all know that quote. And I remember my dad talking about this, and it was very process driven. There was a series of steps you would take and there was a efficiency to the way you worked and to the way that you treated the product, because this is in finite supply. And so I think if anything, was that the most influential part of all of this for me was process. So thinking through what I had to do to get from the idea to the finished product. And so we think a lot about that. I mean, I’ve been very hopefully thoughtful about how we think about process as a really important part of the design, any design project.
Debbie Millman: Anytime you have to make a commitment to cutting something.
Alan Dye: That’s right.
Debbie Millman: Whether it’s a piece of wood. My mother was a seamstress and she really hammered that into me as well, because once you cut the fabric, that’s what you have to live with. You have to live with that decision. In high school, you had an avid interest in basketball, which makes sense given how tall you are. Did you ever think about becoming a professional athlete?
Alan Dye: Oh, I mean, of course. I was obsessed with basketball. I mean, I still sort of am for sure, and I think anybody who is dreams of those things, but I learned pretty quickly that probably wasn’t in the cards, which is okay. I still love basketball.
Debbie Millman: You’re still working on your jump shot.
Alan Dye: Still working on it. Still terrible. But yeah, it’s one of the ways that I turn my brain off, if that makes sense.
Debbie Millman: Absolutely. At that point in your education, you didn’t know anything about the discipline or craft of graphic design. At that point in my education, I didn’t either.
Alan Dye: No.
Debbie Millman: It wasn’t something that I think middle and high school students were really exposed to back in the eighties and nineties, certainly not in the seventies. But
you decided to go to Syracuse University to study painting and illustration. Did you also have hopes to potentially be a fine artist?
Alan Dye: I did. I’ll be honest with you, again, like you were saying, I don’t think I had a concept for what a graphic designer was.
Debbie Millman: Yeah, I didn’t even know that that existed. [10:32]
Alan Dye: Yeah. I mean, I went to a lovely high school, but I had to skip half my lunch to go to art class because it was like an elective. And we did do things that were graphic in nature for sure. But that terminology was foreign to me. And so I had a art portfolio. I was lucky enough to get into Syracuse, side note, great basketball program, probably half the reason why I wanted to go there, if I’m being really honest. And I got so lucky, Debbie, I got so lucky because during my freshman year, we were taking these foundation courses, and throughout the year, different professors would come in and talk about the different majors you could have, and you weren’t meant to really declare a major until your sophomore year. And the communication design professors came in one afternoon, and I truly remember this vividly as if it was yesterday, I could probably point to the seat in the auditorium where they gave a lecture on what communication design was and what graphic design is. And for me, I guess lightning is a theme of today’s discussion, but it was like a bolt of lightning. And I knew then, oh my gosh, this is what I’ve always dreamt of. And wow, you can make a career of this. And that became this amazing journey for me through Syracuse. And I was very lucky to have these amazing professors who pushed us. And I consider myself very, very lucky for that.
Debbie Millman: You’ve talked about one of your professors and mentors, Ken Hein, who helped you get what you’ve referred to as the creative out of your system. And I’m wondering how he did that.
Alan Dye: Well, the story that I recall vividly was as part of maybe our junior year course load. We had to obviously write a brief for our own projects. And one day during our critique, I had brought in all these designs for a logo. I don’t even recall what it was for.
And I was pretty ambitious at the time. And I filled the wall with all of my sketches and walked the class through them. And I looked at Ken, and Ken just looked at me and said, Alan, I am so glad you got all this bullshit out of your system.
Debbie Millman: It’s so awful.
Alan Dye: Now you can go off and make some good work. And Ken was a mentor of mine for me, and he was wonderful. I hope that doesn’t come off the wrong way.
Debbie Millman: Oh gosh. No.
Alan Dye: But it was such a lovely thing because it reminded me of the process. And for me, my process has always been, yeah, you have to iterate. You have to work through things. And that remains.
Debbie Millman: You’re of the age where your design curriculum included a lot of old school graphic design practices that are really no longer needed as a practicing designer. I know you were particularly good at cutting rubylith, as was I, a real skill that sadly we just don’t use anymore.
Alan Dye: We’re dating ourselves.
Debbie Millman: How do you feel now about that early training? Do you feel that those attributes or those skills were beneficial to the work that you still do?
Alan Dye: I think so. I guess I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I think the place think the most about it is, I guess image making. And what I mean by that is it’s easier now to access amazing imagery, maybe even amazing typefaces. When I was at school, we were very focused on the idea and the concept. The execution many times was pretty terrible. And what I mean by that is if we wanted to create a photograph for, I don’t know, a piece of packaging or something, well, we would come up with the idea for what that photograph ought to be, and then we would probably go find a photography student, go purchase the materials, set up the set, and create the image.
And that took a lot, but it also taught us a lot about process. It taught us a lot about ideas. Now I think it’s just a little bit easier to make things look great, to source that image. And so I think for me, I think the discipline that I came away with was, again, measure twice, cut once. But this notion of really focusing on some of the core ideas,
Debbie Millman: After graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in communications design, you had a number of job offers, one of which was as an entry level designer at Landor, one of the biggest, most prestigious brand consultancies in the world. And how does one go about getting a job at Landor immediately out of school, right out of the gate?
Alan Dye: Well, I’ll tell you one thing. I found my old portfolio recently, and I recall part of it was dragging this thing around the city. Speaking of dating ourselves, yes.
Debbie Millman: Those big foam leather plastics sheets.
Alan Dye: Yes. This was 400 pounds of plastic sheets, right? And it’s funny, I was looking at that work and I questioned myself, who would ever have hired me at the time?
Debbie Millman: Really?
Alan Dye: No, well, two things. One, there was a pedigree of folks from Syracuse who had worked at Landor. And secondly, I think they saw something, I mean, hopefully they saw something in that work and hopefully in me that suckered them into hiring me. Let’s put it that way.
Debbie Millman: One of the biggest projects you worked on at Landor was the redesign of the brand identity and the packaging for Molson beer. And I understand that it was really significant for a couple of reasons, mostly because you were able to describe what you actually did to your family.
Alan Dye: Yeah. [16:32]
Debbie Millman: It’s so interesting how people don’t always understand package design. I remember when I first started in it, I’d, I’d be sitting with my dad watching football, and a Pepsi commercial would come on and he’d like, you did that commercial, right? I’m like, no, dad. I worked on the design of the can. And he was so disappointed-
Alan Dye: That’s right.
Debbie Millman: …that it was so small.
Alan Dye: Yeah, I know.
Debbie Millman: And he was really hoping that it was like me that had gotten Britney Spears to do the dance.
Alan Dye: Yeah. No, it was a nice thing, especially because Buffalo is so close to Canada, and I think suddenly my friends and family sort of understood a little bit about what I did every day.
Debbie Millman: You said that one of the lessons you learned at Landor was this, if you show a client something you don’t believe in, they’re going to pick that piece. How did you learn that, and do you have any insight now looking back on it, why that is the truth always? If you show something to a client that you don’t like, they will love it. Why is that?
Alan Dye: Oh my gosh, Debbie, you probably know more about this than I do.
Debbie Millman: I’m always looking to get more sort of insight into it. What is it about the stars aligning a certain way?
Alan Dye: It does seem like that’s the case. I’d like to think, for me at least, that’s the rigor that we have to put behind the work because I don’t know, blame it on Murphy’s Law. I haven’t had clients in a long time, by the way, which is really quite nice.
Debbie Millman: Well, I would say that the whole world is kind of your client now.
Alan Dye: It’s true, it’s a big responsibility, but we hold ourselves to really high standards. I guess the way I think about it is if you don’t feel comfortable putting something up on the wall, then you probably ought not do that.
Debbie Millman: You left Landor for a job as a design director at Ogilvy Mather’s Brand Integration Group, or Big, which was founded and being run by Brian Collins. What made you decide to do that?
Alan Dye: Well, a bunch of things. One, Brian was this interesting kind of vibrant, creative leader who was pulling together a group of really interesting creative folks. I mean, it was a very special time within that group. Michael Lee and Kay was there, and David Israel and Barbara Klauber, some really amazing creatives that I knew that I could learn from, and of course, Brian as well. And the really cool thing was that it was the first sort of design group embedded within an agency. So it was also an opportunity to be part of this kind of experiment. And so I had an opportunity not only to learn from my colleagues there, but also to learn what it’s like to work at a larger agency like Ogilvy on those bigger clients and be integrated with things like ad campaigns.
Debbie Millman: Brian’s was one of the first groups that really was integrated into an agency, which we see a lot more now, more than ever.
Alan Dye: That’s right.
Debbie Millman: What was the biggest or most important thing you learned from Brian?
Alan Dye: Gosh, Brian. I learned so much from Brian. I think Brian’s reverence for the history of design and really paying close attention to where we’ve been, to know where we want to take the future of design is probably the thing I hold the closest.
Debbie Millman: One of the things that I find so fascinating about Brian is his eye. And how he seems to be able to spot the superstars before they’re superstars and sort of
helps them on the path to super stardom. Aside from his being a superstar, it’s such an incredible talent to have. Tibor Keleman had that also.
Alan Dye: Well, I don’t know if I’m at that level yet, but he certainly helped me along the way.
Debbie Millman: Wow. Yeah. So at this point, you were selected by Print Magazine as one of their new visual artists in the annual 20 under 30 issue. You also began working as an illustrator again for publications, including the New York Times and Wired. What inspired you to pick up the illustration moniker? Because I know that when you were at Syracuse, you felt really insecure that you didn’t think you were as good as the other illustrators and drafts people?
Alan Dye: Well, first of all, I was being offered these amazing opportunities to illustrate stories with REM at the New York Times or Brian Ray on the op-ed page, or Scott Dadich at Wired. And I learned that I could use, in many cases, typography to illustrate the things that were in my head using sort of graphic pun, stuff like that. I also love the immediacy of it.
Debbie Millman: In like two hours to do something for the New York Times when you’re working for the op-ed page, right?
Alan Dye: That’s right. So I would get a story in the morning, I read it, send over sketches by lunch, and then finals were due by 3:30 or four or something, and how exhilarating is that and how freeing is that? And you wake up the next morning and you’d see your work in print and then onto the next thing. It was really important work to me because it allowed me to exercise in that very immediate way. The process of making ideas, illustrating them, getting them down on paper, and then getting them out the door. And some were great, that I’m really proud of. Others, not so much, but that’s the lovely thing about it. In many cases, the daily nature of it.
Debbie Millman: We first met working together on the board of the New York chapter of AIGA, the Professional Association for Design. And at that point, you were leaving BIG to go work with Jack and Kate Spade to manage the overall brand aesthetic for both of those companies. And I believe this was your first in-house experience working directly on the client side. Was it very different from what you’d previously been exposed to?
Alan Dye: Yeah. I mean, it certainly was. And it’s a kind of funny thing now because going in house back then meant something very different.
Debbie Millman: Very different. [22:31]
Alan Dye: But I found it to be so appealing for a number of reasons. I mean, first of all, Katie and Andy Spade were amazing creative duo, and so obviously there was an appeal to go and learn from them. I think the other thing that was really appealing to me was up until that point, I was working at design agencies where we would care so deeply about the work that we were making. So maybe that was an identity program, a logo or packaging. But then once you saw that logo or that box out in the world, you understood that, oh, it’s defined so much by the context within which it lives. And if only I had the opportunity to design that store or that shelf or that sign out front or the website. If you could do all of those things, what would that mean? Also, I had a real fascination with and love for fashion, but the opportunity to go, I guess, in house and care so deeply about all of the things that make up a company or a brand, that was super appealing.
Debbie Millman: You also started to expand your capabilities beyond branding and advertising. You created films, a cool paper line. You published little art books made by the individual designers in the studio that you then sold in the stores. And for those, you said that there were no boundaries, no brief and no restraints. So it gave the designers a chance to be challenged. Was that a terrifying experience? A designer with no rules?
Alan Dye: Well, rules are helpful, but I think everyone had their own set of passions. Everyone deeply understood kind of the ethos of Kate Spade and of Jack Spade and the kind of sense of humor and the irreverence. So I think because we were careful about who was in the studio, everybody contributed all these amazing ideas.
Debbie Millman: That particular time in New York was a really special time in the sort of overarching New York design scene. It felt very much like the late eighties into the early nineties when the New York design scene was first really emerging and then sort of reemerged again. That was a very special time. And then after nearly three years working with Kate and Andy Spade in 2006, you surprised us all and were recruited to Apple. Tell us how that happened. Did you just sitting at your desk one day? Just pick up the phone. Hello, Alan Dye, we’d like to change your life.
Alan Dye: Well, I’ll tell you, we’ve got a couple minutes, right?
Debbie Millman: Yes, absolutely. [25:23]
Alan Dye: So there’s a few things here. First of all, I was very happily working at Kate and Jack Spade, with Kate and Andy. I do want to say it absolutely was a really special time in New York and at Kate Spade as well. I mean, we were making ads that didn’t have bags in them. We were making short films with directors that were about paper boys that had nothing to do with, it was a time of experimentation. And I think a time when we were actually having an influence on the world, and so many things that we did back then. I think that is, especially Andy and Katie were behind. The context is I was
really happy and loving in New York, and I was working with great people like yourself and Karen Goldberg, who was the president of the AIGA chapter when I was there, who again, I had all these unbelievable mentors and friends who were like family.
So I did got a phone call from Apple, and I recalled, and this still happens, by the way, when we call people, everyone thinks it’s a prank. So I had to do a little validation, but I started what became quite a long dialogue with the Apple design team. It was much more about getting to know one another and them getting to know me. And over the course of many months, I started to get a sense of what it might be like to design at Apple, to move out to California. But I had these reservations, and Debbie, this is where you come in.
Debbie Millman: Really?
Alan Dye: Yes. So I recall I was struggling with this decision. My wife, Bethy and I were wrestling with it because it was a big life change.
Debbie Millman: And she also had a huge job in New York.
Alan Dye: She had a big job here in publishing. And one night she’s out to dinner with some of her dear friends, Debbie Millman, Emily Oberman, I think maybe Barbara Darwildy.
Debbie Millman: Yeah, Barbara, [27:20]
Alan Dye: I don’t remember exactly who was there. She comes home from dinner and she’s like, you’ll never believe it. I finally told everybody that you have this job offer from Apple. And we had been struggling with this, Debbie, and she’s like, they all looked at me and said, what? Are you crazy? You have to go. And so when I think back to those times and all the deciding factors, this was a big part of it.
Alan Dye: This is a big part of it. You played a big role.
Debbie Millman: That makes you me feel really, really happy. You were hired as an executive creative director, and I believe you initially were focusing on all things music. When I was looking at the dates now in hindsight, you started in 2006. Well, what happened in 2007? The iPhone was launched.
Alan Dye: Right.
Debbie Millman: Were you involved in that launch at all?
Alan Dye: Yeah. So that was a little part of it as well. They said there was these hints like, Hey, in case you need any convincing, we’re working on this product and we think you’re going to want to be a part of it. I mean, it was mostly you, Debbie, but there was this other little part of it.
Debbie Millman: Steve. Yeah. [28:28]
Alan Dye: There was this other part that said there’s this really exciting thing happening, and that was the iPhone. So I was originally brought out to really focus on marketing for iPod and iTunes, and then eventually took over marketing communications for the retail stores and the phone and all of our video works and brand communication, all of that. But without a doubt, it was a fire hose.
Debbie Millman: For those of us that remember, it really was a moment in time.
Alan Dye: It was.
Debbie Millman: That was before and then after. So talk about your attention to detail. How were you able to integrate the sort of elegance and finesse that you were doing in your branding work, in your design work, into an organization that had a very specific visual language, a very specific way of doing things? How did you integrate your own style into that?
Alan Dye: Well, it was interesting. I mean, I think in many ways it wasn’t about that, and that was something that I found a little bit of time. But there was this great liberty in not having to put your thumbprint on something, but rather to really focus on the story we’re trying to tell. And ultimately everything we do, and I learned this sort of day one, everything is in service of the product. The product is the story. There’s no sort of marketing on top of that. Of course, we tell stories that are really compelling about our products, but it starts with the product, if that makes sense.
Debbie Millman: Yeah. You had five years with Steve Jobs and worked with Johnny Ive until he left. What was it like working with these two men? Can you talk a little bit about what that dynamic was like?
Alan Dye: I can just speak in general and just say that I think that the thing that the most about is care and rigor and curiosity, a passion for design, a passion for products,
caring deeply, deeply, deeply about, I guess the user, the people that are going to experience them over all else. Design not being about a vaneer, but rather how something works. Obviously, Steve’s legacy is Apple. One of the great things we benefit from is all of the core principles and the ways of working and the respect for all the things I just spoke about is really what lives on to this day.
Debbie Millman: You were promoted to vice president of human interface design, I believe in 2012. What does human interface design actually mean?
Alan Dye: Great question.
Debbie Millman: Thank you.
Alan Dye: So human interface design at Apple is really, our team is responsible for designing how everyone interacts with our products, the experience of using an Apple product. And so we could call it interaction design. We like human interface because that’s really what it’s all about, is how people interact with Apple products. So of course, a big part of that is how our products look and how they feel, and maybe what’s on the screen. But again, we don’t think about it at that level first. In other words, of course we care about how things look, how the interface looks, but we really are mostly focused on what our products do, first and foremost, how they work. And so the most amazing part about what it is that we do is that we not only define how a product works, but also what a product is and what it ought to do. And that’s a really privileged position to be in.
Debbie Millman: Well, I was thinking about it and thinking about, I was doing a lot of research on what it means to be a human interface designer, so I could have a sort of fair conversation with you and know something about what I was talking about. And it kind of occurred to me that people interact with their devices, but their devices also interact with them. That relationship could be fraught as it sometimes is with me, as somebody who came to technology later in life, or it could be seamless and intuitive and easy. How do you account for the different ways that people interact with the design that you create?
Alan Dye: Well, first of all, I mean, we spend a lot of time using the products ourselves, and we think a lot about all the different users that will ultimately be using our products. We’re also very lucky in the sense that we’ve got a group of people who care very deeply about these experiences, many of whom have been with Apple for quite a long time. And so a lot of what we rely on besides hopefully our skills is intuition. And so we’ve learned a lot over time. We’ve learned a lot about people’s experiences. We’ve worked on these products for a number of years, and so I think we’ve gotten fairly good at starting to understand what people’s experiences might be with our products and knowing kind of how to design for that.
Debbie Millman: So when the app icons quiver, when you want to move them around the screen. That’s human interface.
Alan Dye: That is human interface. And this kind of might help to describe our team a bit more. It’s really all of the interactions you have with a product. So I’ll give you a few examples. You mentioned the icons moving, sort of jiggling to let you know that you can move them around. That’s very much a designed experience. We of course design all the icons. We design all the emoji, we design the typeface. That is our San Francisco typeface that we use in all of our interfaces, but we also design all of the animations, all of the sounds, all of the ways that products physically work together. So I’ll give you one example of something we’re really proud of that people don’t really think of in the same way that they think of maybe screen design, and that’s AirPods. We spent quite a number of years working on the AirPod project, which is essentially wireless AirPods.
And ultimately what is seen on the screen is actually, there’s not much to it, but we thought very deeply about what happens when you open up that case for the first time. What is the animated response that happens on the iPhone? How do people set it up? How do they pair? What happens when you first put it in your ear? Is there a sound that gets made to let you know that it’s connected? All of those small things that add up to an experience that hopefully doesn’t feel like a human interface designer was behind any of it. It just feels like, well, of course that’s the way it should be. How could it be done any other way? And yet a significant amount of work went into that. I mean, another good example I think is a few years back, we had this new technology that allowed for you to unlock your phone by scanning your face.
What that allowed for us to do from a physical form factor perspective is to remove the home button, because the home button at that point was serving as a means to unlock as well as to go home. So as a design team, we thought long and hard about, okay, well how do we replace this physical button, this button that people press hundreds of times a day? And it’s a muscle memory at this point. How do we replace that? So the team, of course, initially thought about things like a digital version of the home button. But we do what we try to do all the time and go back to core principles and think, okay, well, what would we do had we never had a home button? Well, I bet we wouldn’t want to waste that space, that valuable screen real estate with a digital button.
What if we came up with a gesture? And that’s how we iterated it for years to come up with this notion of a swipe gesture at the bottom of the phone to go home. And that’s, I think a good illustration of how we work as one studio. And I think this is what makes Apple very different. Human interface is part of one design studio at Apple. The other half is industrial design, and that’s the design of the physical products. And so we believe those two should be designed together, and that’s because we don’t know where one begins and the other ends.
Debbie Millman: I was going to say, how do you delineate? How do you delegate? [37:14]
Alan Dye: If you’re going to remove a button or add a button, well, why should you do that? What should it do? If you’re going to make a product, what is the experience of that product? What are the experiences that it provides? What does it do? And so we work as one studio.
Debbie Millman: So for example, with the little quivering apps, were there different ways in which you were signaling to people or that you were trying to signal to people that they could move these around? How do you determine what that ultimate design is going to be?
Alan Dye: So our design process is, I don’t think it’s very proprietary. I think it actually it resembles very much what my story about college.
Debbie Millman: Getting the bullshit out of the way.
Alan Dye: Sometimes we get it right early on, but most of the time I think the design process is an iterative one, and it needs to be. So we have a studio unlike any other, and we’ve got teams of designers caring so deeply about every one of these small details and iterating and sketching and trying new things out. That’s what ultimately leads to the final product. And usually we know it when we see it, and usually it takes a fair amount of iteration.
Debbie Millman: How much testing with people do you do, if at all? Alan Dye: It’s a complicated question. We don’t do any sort of- Debbie Millman: Consumer market research.
Alan Dye: No, not around the design work that we do. We do a lot of testing around what we call human factors. So we are working to understand how comfortable things are, things like that, things that are really important for us to understand and make decisions in a really informed way. But we’re certainly not asking people what shade of blue they like.
Debbie Millman: Good. I understand that the move from your being in the graphic design area to the human interface group resulted in your reimagination of the look of the mobile operating system, iOS 7 in 2013. What was that jump in disciplines and skills like for you?
Alan Dye: When Johnny and I took over design more holistically beyond just industrial design, but also software design, he had a really clear vision for where he wanted to take the software design, and that was to move away from the sort of more glossy 3D look and feel to something much more, I would say minimal. And so I had a great relationship with Johnny. It was a very ambitious project to redesign an entire operating system in short order. So I came over and joined what was an exceptional team that was already off and running on this. Yeah, I was very lucky to be part of an amazing team.
And it was very much trial by fire because along the way, while I think I was bringing my point of view and my craft and my kind of graphic design skills to this amazing team, I was also very quickly learning about interaction design, how applications are designed, how we think about user experience at Apple. In a lot of ways, it was trial by fire, and I still had my day job, which was kind of a-
Debbie Millman: Oh wow. So you’re doing both at the same time. [40:37]
Alan Dye: I was still doing the Marcom work for iPhone and the rest of it, but it was a really special time. And how lucky are we as designers that we get to learn, right?
Debbie Millman: Absolutely.
Alan Dye: And for me, this is a really steep learning curve, but it was an amazing time, and I learned a lot from that team.
Debbie Millman: I read that the seventh iteration of the iPhone’s operating system, iOS 7, was much more than a redesign of the smartphone and tablet software. It was an inflection point at Apple, and you and your team had to rethink every interaction, every animation, and every function. And this is for me as an interviewer, the million dollar question when I’m talking to creative people. How do you reimagine something that hasn’t been invented yet? Where does that magic come from? How do you get together in a group of people or by yourself and invent something?
Alan Dye: Yeah. I mean, I think for us, and it goes well beyond the work we did on iOS.
Debbie Millman: Oh yeah, we’re coming to some big ones. [41:53]
Alan Dye: I think we have some curiosity. And I think that’s something we look for a lot in the folks we work with, the folks in the team. And so we’re all very curious people about what the future might hold. And working at Apple, it’s great because we have a lot of curious people around us who help show us the way and introduce us to things, maybe new technologies, that might enable something interesting in the future. And so we have these at sometimes very vague sense of an idea or an ambition or maybe an
experience we hope to create. A lot of what drives us is to make products that become tools. I think we’re a group of creatives who make tools for other creative people, even if creativity is creating a spreadsheet. And so we have these vague ideas, and then I have to say that, there’s probably a better way, but for us, it’s a process of making and iterating.
And in the hardware side, it’s making models on our side, it’s making prototypes and sketching and that rigorous iterative process. And through that process, we always discover really interesting things. A lot of times we end up with something that goes nowhere. But the really funny thing about that process is oftentimes we put something down, and more often than not, we learn something maybe somewhere else in the studio on a completely different project that that study helped us with. That’s why we believe so much in this process of making and iterating and exploring.
Debbie Millman: It’s a portal almost. For me, for example, when the iPad came out, I thought it was great. I did some reading on it. Then I was in Berlin, I met Oliver Jeffers. Oliver Jeffers is like, Debbie, I want to show you my new book. Turns on his iPad and all of the illustrations are there. He created them on the iPad.
Alan Dye: Yeah. Amazing.
Debbie Millman: And I was like, what? Because anytime I would go on a trip, I’d bring all my art supplies and carry bags of things, and Oliver takes out his Apple pencil and starts showing me how he’s making this art. And then I’m like, my life has changed. I told Oliver, that moment changed my life because then suddenly I learned how to do something that I hadn’t learned how to do before. And that was well into my fifties, changed my life, changed the way I make art. Do you know that these things are going to happen, or do you just hope that they’re going to happen when you make these devices?
Alan Dye: Well, of course we hope they’re going to happen, but I think our job is to make products and make platforms. And we’re so lucky because we have this incredible community of developers who take them even further and bring their own ideas to the table. So we certainly hope so. And by the way, we’re better off for it. I’m so happy you discovered. We have Oliver to thank, because I have loved seeing your artwork and your books, and makes me so happy.
Debbie Millman: Everything is made now in this manner, which is fundamentally different. I was always hampered by the fact that everything took so many supplies.
Alan Dye: Well, we still have a love for the physical.
Debbie Millman: Absolutely.
Alan Dye: But at the time, we love it when hopefully technology gets out of the way. If we can make tools that help you express your art, I mean, for us, that’s the ultimate goal, and it’s a huge compliment.
Debbie Millman: Absolutely. So I understand that you still sketch quite a lot and a lot of what you created for the Apple Watch was done with your sketchbook.
Alan Dye: Yeah, I mean, again, for me it’s how I remember things. It’s how I know think is through drawing. So I am a pretty active sketcher, and the Apple Watch, it’s a project that’s really near and dear to my heart because it was the first product that we made from zero with this sort of newly formed human interface team, we really had an opportunity to create an interface and a product from the kind of onset. And this gets back to the nature of ideas. I think Johnny had a ton of conviction around this idea that computing would become a wearable thing. The wrist seems like a really natural place for that to be. He had some amazing ideas around what it could enable, but it was still vague. It was a vague thing. And we spent a number of years thinking through what should it do?
How should it do it? And I’ll tell you one really interesting thing was we knew that if we were going to make a watch, and this sounds so simple, but it was important to us, it better tell time really, really, really well. And so what that really meant was we should really understand timekeeping and all the ways you can keep time. And the beauty of a digital watch is that you can have multiple faces. So what if we deeply understood timekeeping, whether that’s through the sun or through hands on a clock? What are all the different ways we can understand timekeeping and express that digitally in a watch? And if we can do that really well, what are the rest of the things that we could do?
And of course, the watch had all this amazing technology that we could start to build from in terms of its capabilities, but such an amazing project to be a part of. And again, it’s an example of something that we continue to iterate on. I mean, we just made some amazing announcements about a redesign of the UI and a lot of the functionality. Nothing makes me happier than walking around and seeing it on people’s wrists as well as nothing makes me happier than knowing it’s doing good for people.
Debbie Millman: Well, I understand that one of the original intentions was to allow people to disconnect from their phone and not feel like they had to be tethered to it all the time. That important things could just come through the watch. Is that still an important aspect of the watch?
Alan Dye: I think so for sure. I mean, one of the great things about the watch, and I do this all the time, is you can grab your AirPods and your watch and be out in the world
experiencing the world and not really feel like you’re missing anything because you’re still connected.
Debbie Millman: Is it true that when you first started working on the watch, the first watch prototype was an iPhone rigged to someone’s wrist with Velcro?
Alan Dye: We do all sorts of things. Solutions early on are very, very inelegant. But yeah, we work a lot that way. We have very inventive people building prototypes and anything we can do to replicate that experience as quickly as possible is a really big part of our process.
Debbie Millman: So last week was the Worldwide Developers Conference, lot of big introductions and announcements. Definitely want to talk to you about the biggest one, but I want to ask you a couple of questions about the newest iPhone. I understand that the newest iPhone leverages something called transformer language model, which is improved predictions. And I might not get the pronunciation of his last name correctly, or as Craig Federighi, is that right?
Alan Dye: Yeah.
Debbie Millman: Federighi. Apples senior vice president of engineering said, when you just want to type a ducking word, it’ll learn. So what provoked you to take the language predictions in that way?
Alan Dye: Well, you’ve probably read a lot about large language models and generative AI. And I think this is just a good example of how Apple is using these new technologies in very useful ways. And in this case, it’s in auto correct, all of our favorite feature. And it’s quite amazing how much better it is now.
Debbie Millman: I found that it was just easier to type F apostrophe G, and then I got the word there, but didn’t have a-
Alan Dye: Like a good New Yorker.
Debbie Millman: So let’s talk about Apple Vision Pro. Apple Vision Pro was introduced to the world about a week ago. It is your first spatial computer. I’ve had the great fortune of having this new computer demoed. I’ve experienced it, but for our listeners, I was wondering if you can describe what a spatial computer actually is.
Alan Dye: Yeah. So Apple Vision Pro is, we’ve been interested in augmented reality for a long time. We’ve been shipping augmented reality for a long time. And spatial computing we think is the evolution of that. And that is bringing computing and digital experiences directly into your space. So this is very much not VR, we’re not taking you to some dystopian other place, isolated from the world around you. We’re actually allowing you to stay very much in your world, in your place, but bringing all of those digital experiences to you completely unbounded by a display. And then of course, as you felt, and I’m so glad you got in to see it, because you really have to see it, all controlled by somewhat magically by just your eyes and your hands.
Debbie Millman: Talk about the name. Most of Apple’s naming conventions have been very straightforward, the iPod, the iPhone. Tell me about the name, Apple Vision Pro.
Why pro by the way, and why vision? [53:13]
Alan Dye: Well, I think vision is a lovely name because it’s putting the digital world into your sight line, into your space. And vision is what this is all about. We don’t want to block your vision, we want to add to it. And so I think that’s how we got there. This is a full fledged computer. I mean, it is doing remarkable things in real time all the time. This is not a toy.
Debbie Millman: It’s game changer. This is a game changer. I mean, I experienced this yesterday. I felt like I went to another planet and came back, and now I have to try to describe what this future world looks like. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.
This headset that you are wearing, which is very easy and very light, it’s the the computer, that’s what it is. It allows you to view images and photos and movies with 23 million pixels. It’s also a computer with a web browsers and apps and programs that live in the air. They seem to just live in the air, integrate it into the rest of your life and world. It transforms the way you view movies.
It turns your environment into a personal movie theater with a screen that feels like it’s 100 feet wide. FaceTime on Apple Vision Pro unlocks new ways to connect and collaborate with who you’re talking to. You can see photos and videos in three dimension. It feels like you can re-experience memories, and it’s all controlled by the movement in your eyes and a tiny little tap of two fingers. How on earth did you make this? Just give me a little bit of insight, open the hood. Just give me a little bit of insight how you did this.
Alan Dye: Yeah. Well, first of all, this comes as the result of the most amazing teams of people across Apple. Only Apple could make a product like this. Some of the ideas were really hard to get to.
Debbie Millman: I would imagine.
Alan Dye: And maybe not even all that controversial. One of the big ideas we have is connection. Staying connected to your world, but then also connecting with those that aren’t with you. But then executing on that and doing that in a way that truly feels natural or bringing digital objects and content into your space in a way that it feels like it’s really there. And then allowing for you to interact with it. Just grab something and move it around just by looking at it and grabbing it.
Debbie Millman: Just by looking at it. Just by moving your eye from one little piece to another little piece, and it read your mind and tells you how to do that.
Alan Dye: I mean, this has been by far the most challenging design program we’ve ever had.
Debbie Millman: 5,000 patents.
Alan Dye: 5,000 patents. It’s incredible. I mean, everything in this product has been invented.
Debbie Millman: Why do we need this? Why do we need this product? What is it doing for the world?
Alan Dye: You mentioned it earlier, but the great thing is that it’s a computer. So the opportunities are limitless. The things you can do with it, I think people are going to use it for any number of, some people are going to be drawn to the entertainment. You talked about the a hundred foot screen. It is between the spatial audio and the display. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before in a theater or otherwise.
Debbie Millman: And it’s really hard to explain to someone that it’s unlike anything they’ve experienced, if there’s nothing to compare it to in terms of what they’ve experienced. And this was that sort of big question I was asking you before. How do you decide what big idea to pursue and to bring to life in a way that feels so important?
Alan Dye: Yeah, I mean, I think it comes back to core principles and the values we wanted to bring through in the product. I mentioned to you before, one of them was connection. So we worked really hard at allowing people to stay connected to the world that they’re in. That’s why this is very much an AR product. That’s why we worked so hard to make it such that when you put it on, what you see is your world.
Debbie Millman: And people see in and it just looks like you’re wearing goggles. It doesn’t cover your eyes.
Alan Dye: We created a user interface, our first user interface for the rest of the world. So a product that has a UI that is actually meant for those around you. So if I’m wearing them and you walk up to me, I can look up at you and you can see my eyes. I mean, this is a huge deal for us and took literally years of invention to come up with the EyeSight displays because we believe so fundamentally that you should not feel isolated. And so we spent a lot of time thinking about things like connection with those around you, but also connection with those that are in other places. And so obviously a lot of the work we were doing was during the time of COVID, and we were very obsessed with how do you bring people into your space digitally in a way that feels really authentic?
And I would see, for example, my kids, they would be having FaceTimes on their phones with their friends, but it wasn’t transactional. And what I mean by that is they might just have FaceTime open, sitting on their bed, facing up at the ceiling and they’re doing their work or what have you. But every once in a while they would check in with their group of friends on their group call. And I thought, that’s really interesting. And so we get a lot of that, but so much better when we can bring people in and be with them digitally and to have them sitting next to you.
And that the sound is so incredible because of what we’re doing with the digital ray tracing. It truly sounds like those people are sitting next to you in your space. So you’re asking, how do we get to some of these ideas? A big part of it’s like, what are those goals that we want this product to be able to meet for people. Another one was being able to relive moments in their lives in really meaningful ways. And so with this product, because we’re capturing a stereo image through two cameras that are eyes width apart, we’re able to capture video and photos in essentially 3D, and play them back to you in this product at life size.
Alan Dye: And when it’s your content, it’s quite profound and emotional and nostalgic. When we first started working on this and seeing some of this, it almost made a lot of us quite sad that we didn’t have this product when our children were younger or maybe when our parents were around. And so we’ve been so lucky this week we’ve been out here in New York sharing, we launched this last week and sharing it with some folks, and it’s been really great to hear people’s responses because they haven’t been the typical responses that you hear from folks interacting with technology. It’s been much more about people feeling an emotional response, a very human response, sort of buzzing with ideas for how they think they’re going to use it for their own creativity or their own experience. And that’s been really heartening to hear.
Debbie Millman: I’m really, really interested in seeing what people that might have certain disabilities that result in their not being able to use their arms or their legs are going to be able to do with this product because the immersive quality.
Alan Dye: That’s right.
Debbie Millman: For somebody that has locked in disease, for example.
Alan Dye: That’s right.
Debbie Millman: Only can use their eyes. I think it’s going to change the world for so many people that have restrictions that are things that they can’t control, and now can.
Alan Dye: We think about designing for accessibility in all of our products, and Apple has a great history of this, but we think about that from the very beginning. And this product is very much no different. We’ve known from the beginning that this can be a profoundly powerful product for everybody. And the idea that you can drive the
interface with just your eyes is a really big one. And so what do I mean by that? I guess right now the way that it works is your eyes almost act as a cursor.
When you look at buttons and things, they sort of glow and then you tap your fingers together to select, but we don’t even really need you to tap your fingers. And we have this feature called Dwell that you can turn on whereby you can just stare at a button and essentially we’ll bring up a little timer and you can look at the green check mark, if you will, and select the button. No need for any controllers or physical objects or even to be able to top your fingers together. So it’s going to be quite a powerful tool for everybody, and that makes us extremely proud.
Debbie Millman: Similar to the question that I had about how do you know how people are going to evolve and iterate the products you bring out? And the iPad was my example. In 2007 when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone, there were 11 apps at the top of the phone. I’ve been really looking at that photo a lot in the last 48 hours because one would’ve thought with his need for symmetry and elegance, they would be 12, not 11. Why were there three rows? Four, four, and three. So it was clearly asymmetrical, clearly uneven, that four at the bottom. And lots of folks speculated that this was space for what was to come, which was obviously the app store, which also changed the way we use our devices.
And yesterday when I was experiencing the Apple Vision Pro, I not only got the sense that I was experiencing this sort of mind blowing brand new innovation, I also got the sense that there was lots of room for more to come. And I know you can’t talk about future innovations, but will there be a way for third parties to integrate their own content into Apple Vision Pro? So I was like imagining, wow, maybe I can have my podcast and I can be in this room and then people could put the device on and see me talking to my guest. And not on YouTube, not in some goofy, ugly interface, but in this really elegant a hundred foot theater.
Alan Dye: Right. Well, I mean, think one of the reasons why we just introduced this last week at our developer’s conference. We got, I mean it’s crazy, 30 million developers out there. And one of the reasons why we introduced it when we did, because we want exactly that. We rely on our developers to come to the table, experience these amazing technologies, and then bring their own ideas to it. And so that’s a lot of what we’ve been doing in New York, talking to creative people and getting their… At the beginning of the conference, we had this video with the bubbles over developers’ heads, and we want to encourage that for this product and we’ll absolutely have.
Debbie Millman: We’ll talk about the podcast idea.
Alan Dye: Exactly.
Debbie Millman: Alan, I have two last questions for you. Oh, sure. I know you can’t talk about what you’re going to be working on in the Apple pipeline, but can you talk at all about what you’re working on right now?
Alan Dye: Sure. I mean.
Debbie Millman: That didn’t sound quite as enthusiastic as I’d hoped.
Alan Dye: No, we’re deep at work. Let’s just put it this way, we’re not done with yet with Apple Vision Pro. I mean, we’ve got lots to do there. We’re very much in the process of finishing that product as well as the rest of the software that we hope to ship later this year that we introduced last week. And then one of the most amazing things is, it’s worth spending a little bit of time on this team that we’ve got, because we’ve got the most amazing design studio full of the most curious and passionate and talented designers in the world. And I hope it’s not too much hubris there, but I really believe in it.
Debbie Millman: Oh, absolutely. And whether it’s Arem Duplessis or Bobby Martin or Jeff Close, I mean, I know so many people from the SVA community and the New York City community that have gone on and are doing amazing things.
Alan Dye: And it’s great because the studio itself is made up of all these different disciplines, and when we bring them all together with any sort of ambition or any sort of ideas, it’s pretty amazing what comes out of it. And I guess the crazy thing about being at Apple is without getting into specifics, I’m always so excited about what’s next. And there’s always something on the table. And I think you got a glimpse of this week with Vision Pro that makes you say, oh gosh, I can’t look at my display again. Now I see what the future might be like.
Debbie Millman: This is my last question for you today. Steve Jobs famously stated that some people say, give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Steve believed that his job at Apple was to figure out what people are going to want before they even know they want it. What do you want people to think about when they think about Apple products in the future? What is the legacy of this company?
Alan Dye: Well, that’s a big question. I’m not even sure if I should be the one answering that, but I can certainly say, from my perspective, I hope they see that we’ve made products that inspire creativity, hopefully help people live a better day, hopefully make people, in some ways healthier, maybe inspire people to do great things like what you’ve
done with the iPad and the pencil, and hopefully make products that in some small way, bring people some joy. I think that’s a big part of it. We care deeply about this. And it’s a huge privilege to be in a position in some ways with this amazing team that we’ve got make products that find their way out into the world. So we take that really, really, really seriously.
Debbie Millman: Alan Dye. Thank you so much for joining me today on Design Matters. Thank you for making design matter in everything that you do. For more information about Alan’s work, you can simply go to apple.com. This is the 18th year we’ve been Podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we could make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.
Speaker 2: Design Matters is produced for the Ted Audio Collective by Curtis Fox Productions. The interviews are usually recorded at the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, the first and longest running branding program in the world. The editor-in-chief of Design Matters Media is Emily Weiland.