INTERVIEW: A Few Words from the “i” Behind Apple Branding, Ken Segall

Ken Segall

Here are a few excerpts from our exclusive interview with Ken Segall, author of the bestselling book Insanely Simple and formerly part of Apple’s famous advertising and branding juggernaut. Before setting off for his successful writing and blogging career, Ken was the man who originated the “i” branding in Apple’s product names, beginning with the iMac computers in 1999. Today, the lower-case “i” is as ubiquitous to daily life as cereal.

Ken’s comments on Apple’s success, the late Steve Jobs and branding are fresh and insightful, as is his blog, “Ken Segall’s Observatory,” which many in the industry follow. You can read the full interview in Legacy Series Magazine, which will be on newsstands in November.

Q: First of all, Ken, why do you feel that Apple’s streamlined, simplified approach to product development made such a big splash at a time when the rest of the marketplace seemed more specialized and complex than ever?

A: You’ve actually answered part of the question already. The world is a very complicated place, so it’s only natural that simplicity stands out as it does. Apple puts major effort into distilling its products to the essence, so in most cases they have an intuitive nature — even though they are performing some very sophisticated functions. This same drive to achieve simplicity is present throughout all of Apple’s behaviors, including its advertising and retail operations. It’s in human nature to prefer a simpler approach, and Apple is mindful of this in everything it does.

Q: Could you review the 10 elements of simplicity that Steve Jobs espoused — and how what might seem obvious now was anything but when he first integrated them into Apple’s operations?

A: One of the interesting things about simplicity is that it seems so natural that you don’t always notice it. The point of my book, Insanely Simple, is that Steve had a way of looking at a wide range of things through this lens of simplicity. He’d make product design decisions this way, as well as advertising decisions, financial decisions, manufacturing decisions, and so on. There came a point when I realized that I was witnessing a pattern of sorts, that Steve was relentless about adhering to this notion of simplicity, and it guided his judgment in so many different ways. I felt it even more when I found myself working with companies that did not have a champion of simplicity like Steve. In those places, processes were far more complicated, projects took longer and cost significantly more — while achieving inferior results.

Q: You started the “i” naming series for Apple products. What did you have in mind when coming up with this naming concept? Did you ever imagine the branding goliath it would become?

A: Naming iMac was just another job on the table at the time. I thought it was a neat opportunity, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would turn into what it did. Steve just wanted a cool name for the computer he was betting the company on. We did note that the “i” was a foundational element and could be used in future products. After iMac came iBook, iPhoto, iMovie, etc. Keep in mind that in those days, Apple didn’t make any consumer devices, it just made computers. So it was way outside the scope of our thinking to believe that the “i” would become such a critical part of Apple’s product naming framework.

Q: What were some of your most enjoyable experiences while putting together and writing Insanely Simple? What do you hear most from readers when you make appearances or give talks about the book?

A: To get all the material for the book together, I poured through tons of documents. though it wasn’t all that long ago, you know the way it works — you come upon things that you had completely forgotten about, and they bring back some terrific memories. (Maybe a few painful ones as well.) Those memories spurred me to get in touch with various people to help fill in the gaps. So what I thought would be a relatively straightforward exercise in solitary writing became a journey of rediscovery.

When I talk to various groups, I’m always struck by the degree to which people are interested in the story of Apple and Steve Jobs. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Apple is fascinating to people in virtually every industry — because so many people own Apple products, and have followed Steve’s story over the years. So even though I may be speaking to organizations in industries that have absolutely nothing to do with technology, people are always eager to find out more about how Apple works, and how they might be able to adopt some of Apple’s principles in their own organizations. And of course there are always people in the audience who just want to know: “What was it like to work with Steve?” It reminds me of how fortunate I am to actually know the answer to that question. Steve truly is a historic figure.

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