Apple’s iPhone Prototypes

July 31st, 2012

Due to Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung, a number of photos of iPhone and iPad prototypes have been released. On Sunday, Ina Fried posted even more sketches and images of prototype devices. If you haven’t seen them, they’re absolutely worth looking at.

There’s a lot to learn from these releases—the sheer number of unique designs is a reminder of how much work Apple puts into every single product before releasing it—but there’s one thing that struck me while looking at them: many of these earlier designs either have a resemblance to later versions of the iPhone, or are very much the genesis of those products. Designs Apple rejected for the original iPhone were used for later iPhone versions.

To see what I mean, click through AllThingsD’s slideshow to images 20 and 21. Also, see this prototype. The first two are quite reminiscent of the iPhone 4′s sandwich design, and the “purple” prototype is very close.1 These designs look like early prototypes made for the original iPhone before Apple settled on what became the iconic original.

That’s interesting, because from the outside, we tend to think of product design as a very linear process. They take one concept and continue improving it until it’s ready to release, and then build on top of the original design for the next version, and so forth. What these images show, though, is that is not at all how Apple’s design process works. Instead, Apple seems to go through several steps. First, they create a large number of potential designs, each very different. Then they select the best among them and develop each design further, and repeat the process. This narrows down the designs until a single one emerges and they refine it until they believe it’s ready for release.

This process isn’t exactly a surprise. But what’s fascinating to me is that designs rejected during the development process for an earlier version of the product may come back in future versions. That initial first step, where many unique designs are created, becomes the grist for the future of the product, a conceptual mine to return to for ideas. A particular design may have failed during an earlier product development process but could become the basis for development of a new design. Earlier rejected designs became the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, perhaps Apple’s most iconic iPhone version yet.

I don’t think that’ll be a revelation to people who do any kind of design work. You allow yourself to think freely and create a variety of stark paths toward achieving your goal. Re-purposing past, failed ideas should be familiar, too. I think, though, it’s instructive to look through these prototypes and see how few of them work as a completed product. Most of these never became an actual product. While pouring everything you have into a design, it can be frustrating to think that it probably will never become more than a sketch. It’s instructive to look at these designs and to think about that, though, because that doesn’t make them a failed design or a waste of their designer’s time. By exploring the problem from a different angle, the designer is thinking through the problem in a way they might not have if they stuck to a singular general concept. That angle, and the thoughts it engenders, could reframe the problem in such a way that another concept that feels close but just isn’t right can be made right. And in some cases, those “failed” designs could even be the basis of a future version.

It’s important, too, because there can be a strong resistance to give up on a design once it’s past a certain point. You’ve spent so much time with it trying to make it perfect that it’s very difficult to abandon it, even when you know you have to. That resistance can blind you to what’s necessary for a project to succeed, but it might be easier to do so if you know that abandoning the concept now doesn’t mean it’s lost forever. It could prove very, very useful in the future. That’s what I’ve learned from looking at these prototypes: make as many concepts as you can and don’t be afraid to abandon them when you know you need to. What didn’t work this time could form the basis for the best work you’ve ever done next time around.

  1. Image 35 is almost identical to the iPhone 3G’s final design, except it appears to be a bit thicker. This looks like a late design iteration for the iPhone 3G rather than an early iPhone prototype, so I didn’t include it in the discussion. []