How to design products you’ll love (inspired by Apple’s Jonathan Ive)

Introduction: I was recently talking with some local college students about “design”, and as an effort to show what design is, I used the creation of a coffee mug as a way of explaining the design process. If you’re interested in understanding design, and how to design products you love, this article walks you through the design process, using the same conversation.

Purpose of this article

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how to develop the design story and designs for a coffee mug. The purpose of this article is for you to design a coffee mug that you absolutely love. Don’t worry about what anyone else wants, just design a mug that you want.

Design story: The product’s primary function(s)

First up, you have to ask yourself, “What is the primary function/purpose (use case) of a coffee mug?” For me, the primary purpose of a coffee mug is:

  • To serve as a holder for hot coffee or tea, and to drink from

In this case that’s really two purposes, but I think they are both “primary”, that is, of equal weight.

Design story: Secondary functions

Next, you have to ask yourself, “What are the other functions (use cases) of a coffee mug?” That is, when using a coffee mug, how else do you normally use it? The first two secondary functions I come up with are:

  • Washing/cleaning the mug
  • Making the coffee/tea (adding sugar, cream, stirring)

Considering more functions/functionality, an important touchy-feely thing for me is that I like a warm mug, so I might also list something like, “Warm my hands”, or “Feel warm when cradled with two hands”, something like that. Now, technically speaking, is this really a “function” or “use case”? Some people might debate whether it is or not, but when you think about “a coffee mug that you absolutely love”, this must be a requirement.

Note: I often find myself holding my favorite mug while sitting in my reading recliner and enjoying the warmth of it. Since I’m designing this for myself, I know this. But if you’re designing a product for others, you would need to observe their behavior to know/learn this.

(As a brief aside, when using a Six Sigma design process, you can use something called an XY-Matrix to be more formal here. This lets you put weights on each requirement, rather than just listing them. See this article for more information.)

Design story: Constraints

Whenever you design a product you have to ask, “What constraints (limits) are there on the design?” Here are a few constraints related to the design of a coffee mug:

  • People want to use it in the dishwasher
  • People want to use it in the microwave

You might also add, “Don’t break easily”, such as, “Don’t break when dropped from a height of 4’ onto a hard floor”, or something like that.

Design story: Considerations

What other things do you have to consider when designing your perfect coffee mug? Off the top of my head, here are a few:

  • Materials: What materials should the produce be made of?
    • Glass
    • Ceramic
    • Plastic
    • Metal
    • Be open. How about using Graphene?
  • Size - What’s the best size for you?
  • Shape - What’s the best mug and handle shape for you?
  • Weight
  • Manufacturing - Can your mug be built easily?

This last item, “Manufacturing”, probably isn’t a big concern for a coffee mug, but it can be a huge consideration for other items, such as designing a smartphone, tablet, car, or other complex devices.

Love/emotion in design

Now we get to a fun part of the design process: What would make you love a coffee mug?

  • Size, shape, feel
  • Color
  • Artwork
  • Material(s)
  • Other?

My thoughts:

  • How about using an image of a place, person, or animal you love on the mug? I would probably use an image of Alaska, or one of my dogs
  • Note that an image, color, or shape can conjour up positive memories, which are a very strong emotion. Imagine a place you love, an animal you love, the first person you loved, your children, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice to be reminded of these things when you’re cradling that nice, warm cup of coffee or tea, or when you’re looking at it on your desk? Reminding people of positive, comforting emotions is a huge win in emotional design.
  • As mentioned, feeling the warmth of a mug on a cold winter evening while sitting in the reading chair is a big one for me
  • I want the mug to radiate warmth, but also it must not burn me
  • I like a mug that is larger than average because:
    • I drink a little more than average. A big cup means I don’t have to keep going back to the coffee maker.
    • A larger mug is easier to clean (I usually wash dishes by hand, and I have relatively large hands)
  • Question: Can a mug both (a) radiate heat and (b) keep the drink warm for a long time?
    • A Starbucks paper cup does this

One person writing about Jonathan Ive referred to these features as, “An extra something that taps into a product’s underlying emotion.”

Look at existing designs

What do they do well? What do they do poorly?

  • Assemble the mugs you like best; examine them, understand why.
  • Most coffee mugs have handles. Why? Are they necessary? Would you like a mug without a handle?
  • Do any new materials make sense here?

As an example of this, the following image shows my favorite coffee mugs:

Here’s what I love about these mugs:

  • The burgundy/plum “Resurrect Art” mug is my favorite. I love the size, shape, weight, and large handle. Besides these features, I know that I bought it in a small coffee shop in Seward, Alaska, which brings back great memories for me. (I can even tell you the person who was working behind the counter when I bought this mug.)
  • For a long time the Starbucks mug was my favorite. It’s wider and less tall than the burgundy mug, has an interesting contour, and holds about the same amount of fluid.
  • The white “Dude, I Think This Whole Town is High” mug on the far left is a new favorite. The size is similar to the burgundy mug. The only thing that I don’t love is the handle, which could be curved more like the burgundy mug.
  • All of those mugs hold about the same amount of fluid as a “Grande” coffee at Starbucks, which probably by no coincidence is the size I usually order.
  • The small black mug in the back is the least-favorite of my regular mugs. On the positive side, I know I bought it in Los Alamos, New Mexico, so it brings back those memories. On the negative side, it’s a little too small, and the material inside the mug has an unusual “tacky” feel, which I don’t like. Note that this isn’t anything I feel while drinking, but rather I feel it when washing the mug -- a secondary use case.
  • The Krispy Kreme traveling mug is a new addition to the family, and it’s the first traveling mug I’ve had and kept. On the negative side, it doesn’t keep the coffee warm for very long.

Conversely, the following image shows a coffee mug I should love, but I don’t:

The KBHR mug has a lot of meaning to me on many levels -- I’ve watched every episode of Northern Exposure, and even have a website named -- but the mug is too small. Beyond that, I’m not blown away by its weight, the feel of its small handle, and I’d like to look at alternate colors.

(Note: Go back and look at the handles in the first photo. You can see why I love the burgundy/plum mug so much.)

Create and iterate

The next step in the design process is to start drawing designs and then create prototypes. In general, you want to consider everything written above, but now let yourself go in the design process. Try different ideas and see where they take you:

  • Create a mug like a small soup bowl (a wide mug)
  • Create a tall mug
  • Create different shapes, like a narrow top with a wide bottom. Create prototypes and feel them in your hands. Feel them with your eyes closed.
  • Think about different materials. What about a glass mug with a metal handle?
  • What color says “coffee mug” to you? White? Clear glass? A mug that changes color with the temperature of the coffee/tea?
  • What about a mug with its own warmer? That is, if you like a warm mug like I do, what if it had its own saucer that would help retain its heat?
  • What about a lid of some sort? A lid would certainly help the coffee stay warmer longer.

As an important note, don’t try to create just one mug. It’s important to experiment and iterate on your designs. During this process don’t just settle for “good”; if you like a design but don’t love it, be honest with yourself about why you don’t love it, and keep iterating until you get it right.

Sign your work

Do you really love your work? Are you incredibly proud of it? Imagine that you are going to sign your work and give it to your best friend, your boss, or someone you really want to impress, and then think again, “Do I love this?” If so, sign it.

If you could only pick one ...

Hopefully you’ve come up with one or more great designs. If you have more than one, things can get interesting. Imagine that resources are limited and you can only choose one: Which one will you choose? Why?

Jonathan Ive notes

Here are a few notes I’ve assembled from my articles on Jonathan Ive that may apply here:

  • Care deeply
  • Reduce and reduce — get rid of anything that isn’t absolutely essential
  • Iterate and iterate — create 1,000 prototypes if necessary
  • From and color defines your perception of the nature of an object
  • Solve a problem in a way that acknowledges its context
  • When designing a famous pen (a TX2), he observed that people fiddled with their pens all the time, and decided to give the pen’s owner something to fiddle with (the “fiddle factor”)
  • In regards to a Newton design: To most people a lid is just a lid, but Jony gave it special attention. “It’s the first thing you see and the first thing you interact with. Before you can turn the product on, you must first open the lid. I wanted that moment to be special.”
  • In design, details like buttons and latches that make a design pop have a name: They’re called jewelry.
  • “When we are at these early stages in design, when we’re trying to establish some of the primary goals — often we’ll talk about the story for the product — we’re talking about perception. We’re talking about how you feel about the product, not in a physical sense, but in a perceptual sense.”

Many of these quotes come from my article, My notes from the book “Jony Ive, The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products”, by Leander Kahney, and my collection of Jonathan Ive design interview quotes.

Two more coffee mug designs

I just came back from Santa Fe, New Mexico with two more coffee mugs. I like the size and weight of each of these mugs, but was really drawn to them because of their artwork:

Two new coffee mug designs from Santa Fe, New Mexico


In my opinion, and my experience, the steps listed here provide a summary of a typical design process. In this case I’m looking at industrial design, but the process is similar for other types of design, including user interface design.

If you’ve followed this process I hope that you’ve come up with your own great coffee mug design.