If there’s a lesson that Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) has taught us with product strategy, it’s that industrial design matters. A lot.

Steve Jobs was always known for his perfectionist ways, to the extent where even the innards of Apple’s computers that would rarely be seen by mortal eyes needed to be designed flawlessly — a lesson he learned from his mechanic father. Add in his passion for Buddhist principles and affinity for Zen, and you arrive at an unparalleled drive for minimalist simplicity.

Jobs’ notoriously high design standards were also why his mansion in Woodside, Calif., was famously devoid of any furniture.

It takes two to tango
While much of Apple’s design prowess is frequently chalked up to Jobs, his longtime essential partner in crime was London-born Jony Ive, Apple’s senior VP of industrial design, who was knighted in his home country over the new year for his work. Sir Ive had always drawn much inspiration from design legend Dieter Rams, the German designer who crafted products for Braun half a century ago.

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Sources: designboom.com, Apple.com. Braun T3 radio (1958) and original Apple iPod (2001).

There’s no shortage of examples of this inspiration. Interestingly, Rams has said that “Apple has managed to achieve what I never achieved: using the power of their products to persuade people to queue to buy them.” He also considers his inspiration on Ive and Apple products a great compliment to his work.

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Sources: designmuseum.org, Apple.com. Braun LE1 loudspeaker (1960) and Apple iMac (2011).

From Rams’ own experience, he noted (before Jobs’ death) a requisite condition for success: “I have always observed that good design can normally only emerge if there is a strong relationship between an entrepreneur and the head of design. At Apple this situation exists — between Steve Jobs and Jony Ive.”

Sweet freedom
In Steve Jobs’ biography, he had told author Walter Isaacson that Ive was his “spiritual partner” at Apple and that he personally set up the organizational hierarchy so that Ive has complete operational freedom and no one can tell him what to do.

Now that Jobs has died, Ive’s role crafting Apple products will be accentuated. He also happens to have a knack for realising the unthinkable, much like Jobs’ famed “reality-distortion field” — it was his initiative to spend millions on highly specialized machines to include a tiny green light that appeared to shine through metal on Macs to indicate when the camera was on.

Lessons learned?
Competitors are now scrambling to crank up their game with industrial design. Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM) is trying to be “fun” with its design direction. The BlackBerry maker has even recently released a futuristic model designed by Porsche, the P’9981. That limited-edition device’s makeover was purely aesthetic, didn’t improve software or internal specs, and costs nearly $2,000.

Mobile-device makers are also following suit, and there’s a pretty clear distinction in the design language after Apple enters an arena. Apple and frenemy Samsung have been waging a high-profile war in recent years over blatant ripoffs.

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Source: CultofMac.com, before and after iPhone.

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Source: CultofMac.com, before and after iPad.

Even beyond the realm of smartphones and tablets, Intel‘s (Nasdaq: INTC) Ultrabook reference designs are overt in trying to mimic the success of the MacBook Air. This year should see an army of Ultrabooks whose designs emphasize thin and light.

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Sources: HP.com, Apple.com.

Hewlett-Packard‘s (NYSE: HPQ) Envy laptop lineup geared toward professional users is similarly a clear knockoff of the MacBook Pro, although the iconic PC-maker is hardly alone with its Apple design envy.

Or lessons copied?
Apple’s focused product strategy inadvertently contributes to a sense of conformity among its offerings (a stark irony when considering its famous 1984 ad), and having competitors mimic its designs does little for differentiation or competition.

Rival gadget and PC makers should now be painfully aware of the importance of industrial design. The main downside is that many of these OEMs are now simply imitating Apple’s design philosophy instead of focusing on developing their own distinctive blueprints. Doing so could potentially help them set themselves apart instead of eternally living in Apple’s shadow.

Too bad they haven’t realised that lessons learned don’t mean lessons copied.

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