We’re all about great packaging solutions and great product design. It’s why we love this iconic packaging series so much. We get to showcase companies, brands and products that have become instantly recognizable due to their smart and insightful design choices. That’s why it’s no wonder that Apple has made it onto this list.
What began as a computer company (started by Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs and Ronald Wayne in 1976) has morphed into a tech- and media-based giant that creates some of the world’s most valuable, useful and beloved products. Apple’s history is a long one, so we’re going to concentrate on its greatest hits here—that is, the products, choices and packaging that make this company so worthy of the iconic packaging mantle.
The Original Apple I
This is what started it all. Designed and hand-built by Steve Wozniak, it would be christened the Apple I by Steve Jobs and released for sale in 1976. To finance their plans and get the ball rolling, Jobs sold off his VW Microbus and Wozniak sold his HP-65 Calculator (look it up, that thing’s serious).
The Apple I wasn’t a full computer—it was just a single circuit board, etched and silkscreened. It was intended for users to build out the rest of the computer themselves, however they saw fit (including, of course, a keyboard and a monitor or even a TV). That’s why most pictures we see of an Apple I are actually the computers that have been built around the circuit board.
It was followed a year later by the Apple II. This was Apple’s first fully-assembled consumer product, including both a mouse and a monitor, and became one of the world’s first highly successful mass-produced microcomputers. Apple I users were offered discounts or trade-in credit to upgrade, and when the circuit boards ended up back in Apple’s hands, they destroyed them. That’s why it’s so difficult for collectors to locate Apple I computers now.
In 1983, the Apple Lisa—named after Jobs’ daughter—became Apple’s first GUI (graphical user interface) computer. Its high price, hampered performance and crash-prone nature made it unpopular, and the 1984 release of the lower-priced and superior-performing Macintosh computer sealed its fate.
The Macintosh Lineup
Development of the Macintosh computer began in 1979, when Apple employee Jeff Raskin endeavored to create an easy-to-use and low-cost personal computer. Raskin wanted to name it the McIntosh, after his favorite apple, however the final spelling shows he didn’t quite get his way. There are conflicting reports behind the reason for the change, but one of the most prevalent is that an audio equipment manufacturer, McIntosh Library Inc., owned the rights to the name and refused to give Apple permission to use it as well.
The Macintosh would work its way through multiple versions and refinements through the years, including the ambitious portable Macintosh in 1989 (which made a now-infamous appearance on the prime time drama Twin Peaks). Since then, the Macintosh line has become a prime example of iconic packaging and design. The practice of merging computer and monitor into one, maintaining sleek design lines, and the adoption of aluminum-and-glass casings has given Apple a design reputation that’s hard to match.
But before they’d become one of the biggest tech and media companies in the world, it would be the Macintosh’s first stunning form-factor change that set Apple on the road to innovation.
The Original iMac G3
Released in 1998, the iMac G3 was Steve Jobs’ first creation upon his return to Apple. Its new form factor as an all-in-one computer (keeping both the monitor and computing components in one housing) drew plenty of eyes and attention. It also arguably broke new ground, getting rid of all the varied connection ports computers have for peripherals and instead adopting the USB format (which was just starting to emerge in the market). These tactics have been credited with saving Apple from collapse.
Part of its charm were the color choices it offered to users. Launching with a Bondi Blue color, it expanded to five others a year later (Blueberry, Grape, Tangerine, Lime and Strawberry). Throughout its life cycle (the iMac G3 was retired in 2003), it offered seven other colors and patterns.
Its legacy is carried in the design philosophy that Apple (and its competitors) displays today—computers don’t have to be bulky, boxy and nothing but hard edges.
The i’s Have It
Design of the physical line of “iDevices” (iPod, iPhone, iPad) was spearheaded by Jony Ive, Apple’s now-CDO (Chief Design Officer). Their iconic looks and sleek, compact designs are the direct result of his belief that form and function should go hand in hand.
The iPod was released in October 2001, and though it wasn’t the first digital audio player on the market, it did change how people accessed and played digital music. During its lifespan it branched out into the Mini, the Shuffle, the iPod Classic, the Nano and the iPod Touch. As the adoption of smart devices with touchscreens and music players became the norm, almost the entire iPod lineup has now been retired. Only the iPod Touch remains in production.
Released in June 2007, the iPhone was the natural progression of adding phone tools to an iPod Touch. Though it again wasn’t the first device of its kind to enter the market, its features and toolsets (including its focus on camera technology) helped usher in the age of the smartphone and the ensuing mobile revolution. Every year, new iterations of software features and device forms are released, and the iPhone now comes in multiple sizes and color schemes.
In April 2010, Apple debuted the first-generation iPad, which prompted plenty of industries (and society as a whole) to adopt tablets as both productivity and media-consumption devices. Like the iPod and the iPhone before it, every year brings new size, connectivity and color scheme iterations. Recently, a stylus simply called Apple Pencil was added for illustration purposes and added functionality (it’s proven to be just as popular as the tablet that spawned it). And despite heavy competition, the iPad remains the most popular tablet computer on the market.
Modern Minimalist Packaging
Jobs’ and Ive’s design philosophy smartly extends into their views on packaging, believing that their products (and their presentation) should be beautiful inside and out. Setting out to create something as sleek, minimal and attractive as their computers and devices, they dove deep into the look, feel and function of product packaging.
One of Apple’s packaging designers spent months opening and closing boxes, over and over. Not only were they studying the packaging of their competition, they were testing out the hundreds and hundreds of box prototypes being created by the Apple packaging team. Clearly the intent was to create a truly unforgettable unboxing experience. Based on what we’ve seen, they’ve succeeded.
The boxes and containers that house their laptops, monitors, iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches are built without the inclusion of bubble wrap or packing paper-based void fill. Instead, inserts are created (from chipboard, molded pulp or plastic) to hold the product in place and keep it from touching other components, while laptops and screens are wrapped in a foam sheet (or temporary screen protector).
Even their shipping packaging is chosen to look good, using tuck top boxes, front lock mailers or pull-tab openings. Just like their entire device line, their packaging is unobtrusive, simple and clean—and yet instantly recognizable.
In recent years, Apple has taken heat over its perceived marketing and design dissonance—that is, plenty of critics say they promote innovation while only providing incrementalism. Whether this is truth or opinion, one thing is for sure—their products remain popular, useful and arguably drive change in how we use technology for entertainment, productivity and even the ways we make payments.
As one of the biggest companies in the world, it’s not surprising that Apple would develop products worthy of the iconic packaging mantle. And though many other brands try their hand at imitation, Apple’s devices, software and packaging still stands out from the pack. What other brands or products do you think are iconic in their own right? We’d love to explore them, too.