Bob Baxley on design reviews at Apple and why it was never smart to surprise Steve Jobs

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Nov 20, 2019
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Never surprise Steve Jobs. Bob Baxley learned this lesson quickly in his former role as Director of Design for the Apple Online Store. Bob ran design reviews at the tech giant—made the most profitable company in the world by its design-obsessed co-founder and CEO—and he shared his insights with us on the Design Better Podcast.

Design reviews at Apple followed a rigid weekly structure, with a Monday team meeting discussing in-flight projects and deliveries for the week. Tuesdays had a two-hour team review where the entire design team showed what they were working on, and everyone commented and took notes. The rest of Tuesday and Wednesday were devoted to improving the work. Thursday’s structure mirrored the Tuesday full-team review, and on Fridays they sat with the VP and her executive team and reviewed the work from the week for another two hours.

Bob recalls it as a very intense process: “People had to show their work every 48 hours basically. I came to describe the process as a little bit like Saturday Night Live, where Monday we sort of threw around some ideas as to what we might think we’d have for the week. On Tuesday we sort of had like the initial run through the sketches. On Thursday we had a dress rehearsal, and on Friday was the show with the executive team.”

Despite its intensity, Bob says that it lowered the pressure because “…every Friday there was a new show. And so if we bombed on Friday or one of the sketches didn’t go well, it’s okay ’cause we’re back next week.”

Bob went on to lead the design team at Pinterest, but he didn’t bring this exact review process to the design teams there. He found that the rigidity of the process wouldn’t work in other environments. But he did take one key element from Apple: showing work early and often.

Bob recalled an interview with Steve Jobs from Wired magazine: “The interviewer was saying something like, ‘Your job must be so much fun, just to sit here and have these designers bring in all this great work. And you just get to kind of see it and comment on it.’ And he’s like, ‘No, it doesn’t work that way at all…if anybody ever brings in anything that surprises me, something’s wrong in the process.” 

Getting into a rhythm of showing your work all the time is critical to a good design process. As Bob says, “if you ever found yourself sitting at your desk by yourself with your headphones on stressing ’cause you felt like you had to figure it out on your own, something was really broken.”

We hear this same advice from design leaders at companies ranging from Google to Facebook to USAA. You might not be able to duplicate Apple’s design review process, but you can take the foundational concept of “show work early and often” with key stakeholders in your company if you’re not already practicing it.

At Facebook, for example, Geoff Teehan (Head of Design for Calibra) has a standing weekly meeting with their VP of product, to let designers show early work in progress and get feedback. At Mailchimp, Brandy Porter (former Director of Marketing and Brand Design) shared several practices to make design work more visible, including “coffee hours” for the entire company.

If you want more great interviews with design leaders like Bob, subscribe to the Design Better Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your audio, so you never miss an episode.

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