Tim Kobe, the designer of Apple stores and founder of Eight Inc.
Tim Kobe, the designer of Apple stores and founder of Eight Inc.

‘Sustainability should be the baseline in all design’

Tim Kobe, the designer behind the iconic Apple stores, and founder of San Francisco-based design firm Eight Inc, talks about sustainable design, Steve Jobs, his proposed plans to rebuild Notre-Dame and the future of the retail experience in an interview with Mint

When Apple Inc. opened its first store at Tyson’s Corner, Virginia in 2001, it marked a rare innovation in physical retail. The airy glass cube that showcased just a handful of products, like artworks in an exhibit, heralded a new age in design, underlined the tech company’s values of openness and accessibility, and reflected the store designer Tim Kobe’s belief that “design is change".

Design is not a style but a strategy that can improve the way businesses work and think, insists Kobe, who is in India for the Hyderabad Design Week, a five-day city-wide festival of design that started on 9 October, and is organized by the Telangana government in partnership with the India Design Forum and the World Design Organization.

Often referred to as “Apple’s best kept secret", Kobe grew up in California’s Shasta Lake area where his family owned a marina, and earned a degree in environmental design from the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.

In 1989, he set up a design company, Eight Inc., in San Francisco, and has since worked with clients such as Virgin Atlantic, Xiaomi, Citibank and Nike, to improve their businesses and ensure that they stand out from the pack. Today, Eight Inc. has offices in eight cities, including Tokyo, New York, London, apart from Singapore where he’s currently based.

Kobe is also among the few designers who have submitted proposals to the French government to rebuild the Notre-Dame cathedral’s roof and spire, which were destroyed in a fire in April. In a nod to the minimalist style typical of Apple stores, Kobe wants to rebuild the structure using glass.

In an interview, Kobe spoke about the importance of design in creating human experiences, his time with Apple’s founder Steve Jobs, plans for Notre-Dame, and the future of retail design. Edited excerpts:

Can design, business and innovation intersect to create a meaningful human experience?

The simple answer is absolutely. But I think more than meaningful human experience is this intersection that actually defines human progress. I think any condition that does not support equality and equal access is one that represents a problem, and design in my view is the key to unlocking the positive potential of any challenge.

What are the design factors that drive successful human interactions?

All design is contextual. For successful human interactions to occur, it requires a relationship. So, it’s difficult to have a generic answer. But there are attributes that typically represent successful experience. They include serving a human need, and expressing the values of those in the relationship. It needs to be simple. In other words, it needs to contain only the things that are essential to success. It should be technologically engaged. The offer is distinguished from others. It should serve a purpose, be activated by human engagement. It needs to recognize that it’s part of a dialogue, and should enhance the relationship.

How do you incorporate sustainability into your designs?

Sustainability should be baseline in every design. Most people don’t know this, but the first Apple stores were designed so that the materials could be broken down into their component parts and recycled if we ever closed or changed a store. It was not something that Apple talked about or made public. But it was simply a baseline part of the value system of the company. Companies that are irresponsible to the needs of society are ones that society will ultimately reject. So, to ignore sustainability means you do so at your own peril.

What’s your philosophy of retail design? Do you take e-commerce into account when designing retail experiences?

Our approach to retail is much like other forms of design. The basis has to be founded in positive human outcomes. When we see positive human outcomes, we typically see positive business outcomes. The traditional way of thinking about retail in an omni channel world is outdated. It’s only understood by those who have lived in a pre-and post-iPhone world. Unfortunately, if you look at digital natives, their experience with technology is that it must be seamless and it’s fundamentally not that unique to them as it may be for millennials or older generations. Generation Z only is concerned about technology when they don’t have it. A bit like oxygen. It must be ubiquitous and always on. Today, when we look at retail or any other forms of engagements, we really see a mono channel experience. Mono channel would mean that we are engaged both physically and digitally simultaneously and that the future of retail is not omni channel-specific but experience-driven.

Your idea for Notre-Dame’s reconstruction involves glass. The iconic Apple building you designed is all glass as well. Why glass?

We have used glass in many different projects. We are attracted to the idea that great architecture has always been informed by light. Today, we have the opportunity to create structures in ways that didn’t exist 15 years ago. In terms of the application of the material for Notre-Dame, we believed that it was the most poetic way to represent both the past and physical form of the original design, while adding a fundamentally ephemeral quality to the portion of the building that recognizes the loss sustained in the fire. For Apple, it was a pinnacle of technological achievement both in the original cube and those that followed as well as in the structural application of glass and the numerous stairways. The use of glass in this way positioned Apple as a progressive technological leader.

What was it like working with Steve Jobs?

The opportunity to work with Steve over 12 years was an incredible privilege. I miss that relationship very much. Many people have different interpretations of Steve, but to me, he was somebody who was incredibly balanced in both rational as well as intuitive thought processes.

I think his insights made him a customer experience savant. His way of thinking was typically challenging for those who worked in either a logic mode or an intuition mode, but only those who could operate in both ways of understanding were comfortable working with him.

You’ve worked with major companies like Apple, Nike, Virgin Atlantic and Citibank. What’s your end goal as a designer?

Our goal as designers has to be having the most impact for the most people. Projects that have large impact or help people through a design solution are the most interesting and most challenging.

One of the most difficult things that people can do is go through change, and design is change. Thomas Friedman talks about our age of acceleration, and, in this age, those who are best equipped to deal with rapid change, I believe, come from the creative communities.

Do retail stores have a future in the era of e-commerce?

It’s a common misconception that e-commerce is killing retail. Retail is not dead, only bad retail is. Retail is one of the most competitive business categories, but it is also massively over-built.

There will be a reconciliation and only retailers who understand we’re now living in a mono channel world will be able to survive. To think of e-commerce and bricks and mortar as two separate channels does not recognize the reality of people and technology.

What will the retail experience of the future be like?

I think it will have to do what retail has always had to do, which is attract, engage and connect with people. Companies who compete only on mind share will miss the opportunities that exist today for share of emotion. The old consumption models will be transformed by ones who are the most relevant and connected to the needs and desires of people. These will be the ones who succeed.

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