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What’s the Secret Behind Apple’s Success?

Northumbria Lecturer Rafiq Elmansy explores Apple’s winning approach to strategic innovation.

There’s no doubt about it: there’s an emotional relationship between consumers and Apple products. In the 2020 edition of MBLM’s Brand Intimacy Study, the company was ranked by consumers as one of the top three global companies that they felt they were unable to live without.  

But what is it that makes Apple products different from their competitors’ offerings? How do they manage to consistently lead the market through creative design and innovation? 

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Using Design Thinking to Fuel Innovation 

Apple’s history has not been without its challenges. In 1985, Steve Jobs left the company and a chaotic era ensued for over a decade when it struggled to achieve market success due to increasing competition from IBM and Microsoft. Over this period, Apple suffered from a lack of clear strategy and vision, resulting in a large number of failed products. But then, when Steve Jobs returned to the fore in 1997, a new approach began to permeate through the company. Design thinking seemingly turned its fortunes around.  

As we’ve previously explored, design thinking is both a methodology and a strategic design process that we’re passionate about here at Northumbria University. It encourages companies to solve complex problems in a user-centric way – focusing on understanding consumers’ needs first before creating constructive solutions to meet them. As Tim Brown, Northumbria University alumnus and executive chair of IDEO, defines, “it draws from the designers’ toolkit to integrate the needs of the people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success.”   

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Think Different! 

Steve Jobs applied design thinking by focusing on:

  • People’s needs and desires, rather than the needs of the business
  • The design first, rather than the engineering of products; considering both the form and the function of a product to create simple, holistic user friendly experiences
  • Building consumer brand empathy

Sir Jonny Ive, another Northumbria alumnus and the former chief designer of iconic Apple products such as the iPad and iMac, comments: “deep in the culture of Apple is this sense and understanding of design, development and making. Steve used to say “quality is more important than quality. One home run is better than two doubles.”’ It’s a methodology the company continues to live by today to supercharge its success. 

Apple’s Design Thinking Process 

In his book, “Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired - and Secretive - Company Really Works”, Adam Lashinsky explores how Jobs’ transformed Apple’s internal processes to focus on design thinking from initial ideation to sales. Limited not just to the design team, the mindset was adopted by the whole company - right through to sales – to help everyone to think about solving problems more strategically. Lahinsky outlines this process in ten steps:


  1. Idea formation: Focusing on creating products that solve everyday problems through a user-centred process, the company first looks to achieve a deep understanding of their customers before discussing new product ideas and making initial sketches.
  2. Product start-up creation: Once the product is defined, there is an internal start-up phase to focus on the new product’s development. A separate team is freed up from the company’s regular structure to focus solely on the development process.
  3. Prototyping: This is the stage of creating the new product mockup. Sometimes called “10 to 3 to 1”, first the design team has the complete freedom to explore creative ideas by creating ten concepts. Three concepts are selected as finalists, and then one final product is selected to move through to the next stage.
  4. Apple’s New Product Process (ANPP): Once the prototype is selected and Apple agrees to start production, the ANPP document is created. First introduced during the development of Macintosh desktop computers, it describes the production process in detail and maps its different stages.
  5. Weekly Executive Team Review: Every Monday, the executive team meet to discuss production, reviewing small parts of the process on a weekly basis.
  6. Peer Design Meetings: In addition to the weekly executive meetings, peer review meetings run between the design team and the engineering team to focus on improving the design of the product and fuel creative ideas.
  7. Production Management: The engineering product manager (EPM) and global supply chain manager (GSM) are responsible for the production process.
  8. Product Testing: Once the beta product is created, it's taken back to Apple’s HQ in Silicon Valley for review and testing. It then goes back to China for amendments - a process that repeats again and again in order to reach Apple’s high-quality standards.
  9. Packaging: Packaging of the product is designed and tested on the new products - a stage which is subject to intensive testing in order to achieve the best consumer experience.
  10. Rules of The Road: Before the product hits the shelves, a Rules of the Road document is created which evaluates the whole production process and each milestone within it. It’s a top-secret document which ensures the overall quality of the product’s design and the production process.  


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Turning Company Failure Into Market Success 

Apple’s history provides a clear lesson about how design and innovation can turn a company on the brink of failure into a market leader. Design thinking helps Apple to place consumers at the very heart of their strategy, providing a practical lesson that successful products are not just generated by a great team, but come to life through an excellent design process. During this process, enough space is given for teams to consider creative ideas seriously as a business opportunity. While some business executives believe that the creative production process is an expensive ‘nice to have’, Apple’s results provide a clear example of how it can contribute to an exceptionally strong bottom line. 

Interested in discovering more? Visit to learn about Apple’s design process and the company’s approach to innovation.

Be More Apple 

Design Thinking is at the heart of our online Design Management Masters. Over the duration of the course, you’ll explore live design thinking case studies and learn to apply creative solutions to organisational problems to create new opportunities  –  just like Apple. To find out more about how we’re helping our students to become more strategic innovators, take a look at the course page.  



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