There's a splendid article in MIT's Technology Review on The Secret of Apple Design. It confirms a lot of what I've always thought about Apple's industrial design prowess but couldn't put into words.
The article argues that Steve Jobs improved Apple's industrial design not because he's a great designer, but because he protects the work of the company's designers from being watered down by committees and compromises.
In the article, former Apple design director Bob Brunner (himself a fantastic designer) describes what happened at Apple before Jobs' return:
"The businessman wants to create something for everyone, which leads to products that are middle of the road.... It becomes about consensus, and that's why you rarely see the spark of genius."
But the issue's more than just decisiveness vs. bureaucracy. I think Steve Jobs also has very good taste in hardware. I watched the Apple industrial design folks up close for almost ten years, under both Brunner and Jonathan Ive. The groups produced a huge variety of product concepts, ranging from sublime to downright ugly. The bureaucracy pre-Jobs (including, alas, myself) generally picked designs that were nice but prudent -- easy to produce, low risk, not too expensive.
Steve Jobs picks the pretty ones. The ones your average risk-averse business manager would look at and say, "gee, that's nice, but..."
Steve sometimes goes overboard (remember the G4 Cube, a triumph of gorgeous shape over practicality; or the magnesium fetish of the NeXT computer?). And I think his taste in software interfaces isn't as good as his taste in hardware, which is why the current Mac interface is (in my opinion) tarted up like a teenage girl just learning to apply makeup.
But Steve usually chooses very well in hardware -- and even when he does make a mistake, since he's Steve no one can punish him for it.
I've been trying to figure out what lesson this gives to CEOs at other companies who are jealous of Apple's gross margins. The obvious (and useless) advice is that you need to have taste as good as Steve Jobs, and trust your gut. The trouble is that most of us don't have the design taste of Steve, we have the design taste of Larry King.
There is another alternative. Hire someone with good taste, and then back their choices vigorously when everyone else tries to compromise them. Go watch the movie Amadeus. If you can't be a Mozart, be a Salieri -- recognize and use the genius in others.