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Freddy Anzures at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Image: Ankita Rao

An Original iPhone Designer Embarks on Life After Apple

Ankita Rao

Ankita Rao

Freddy Anzures worked under Steve Jobs to design the single most influential device of this century. Fourteen years later, he's starting on his next act.

Freddy Anzures at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Image: Ankita Rao

Freddy Anzures wanted me to know about an obscure Filipino engineer from the 1960s, Gregorio Y. Zara, who invented a “television-telephone.” He pulled out his iPhone to show me a picture of Zara with the invention. It never took off, Anzures lamented, but what Zara made was, essentially, FaceTime.

“I didn’t know about this guy when I was at Apple,” Anzures said. “It’s my responsibility to put shine on him.”

Anzures is a 42-year-old Filipino American who worked on the original design team of the iPhone, the single most influential device of this century. He designed some of the user interface features that have completely changed the way we use technology, including iMessage effects, Visual Voicemail, the original YouTube app, and the iPhone calculator. Anzures is also, notably, one of the brains behind swipe-to-unlock. His name is on dozens of iPhone-related patents obtained over the last decade. In other words, he is no small part of the reason why Apple has become the most profitable company in the world based on intuitive design.

But in the years since Steve Jobs died in 2011, five of the seven people in the iPhone’s original user experience design team, called the Human Interface group—including Anzures—have left the company. Now, Anzures is worried that, like Zara, his team’s contributions to the iPhone could be largely forgotten.

Anzures spoke at Carnegie Mellon in April. Image: Ankita Rao

I met Anzures in April, two months after he left Apple, when he was speaking at his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University. In his post-Apple reincarnation, Anzures is positioning himself to bridge the gap between culture and technology. Not in the sort of HR diversity way—though Asians are still the least likely group to be promoted into executive and managerial roles in Silicon Valley—but also to try and change the status quo, in which mostly rich white men are designing and inventing products for the entire world to use.

“There’s a colonialism aspect to it,” Anzures told me. “But I like the idea of breaking down power with technology.”

Ideas Were the Stars

It was supposed to be spring in Pittsburgh when Anzures returned to Carnegie Mellon University on April 1. But it was still below freezing, with a chance of snow, when he gave a TEDx talk to students.

Anzures didn’t discuss Apple. Instead, in a presentation titled “How to Put Your Heart in the Work Without Losing Your Soul,” he focused on the journey that started here at Carnegie Mellon, where he once studied industrial design in the late 1990s.

Dressed in black track pants and a velour sweatshirt, he talked about his first big design project in college: a humidifier that looked like something from the Japanese minimalist store, Muji. He talked about his yearlong internship at Converse’s headquarters outside of Boston, where he quietly pushed for a refocus on its classic shoes, instead of the line of sports sneakers the company wanted to compete with Nike and Adidas. He talked about designing a board game at Frog Design, the company that originally designed Apple computers, at his last job before joining Apple. His strength, he said, has been to “connect the unexpected.”

Anzures designed his own version of a household humidifier in college. Image: Freddy Anzures

Anzures had a fan club in the auditorium that day. His mom and dad, Leona and Federico, along with his brother, his sister-in-law, and their two-year-old daughter drove up together from Maryland to be there. Anzures’s friends, some old, some new, had also come, from New York and San Francisco, to support him. Imran Chaudhri, who led the Human Interface group with Bas Ording, and who recruited Anzures after meeting him at a 24-hour diner in the Bay Area, had come from California.

"If you look at the things Freddy and I worked on together, the approach came out of a camaraderie for each other—a friendship, a love,” Chaudhri told me. “I think people can feel it when they use the stuff. Some of these are long-lasting things that are still features in the products.”

Afterward, on the drive to the Ace Hotel, where the whole party was staying, we passed charming, colorful row houses, as well as Anzures’s old frat house. Anzures was visibly processing—thinking over his talk, asking people what they thought, and mulling over a little slip-up he had at the beginning. This day—also the day Apple was founded in 1976—marked the beginning of a comeback tour. His 14 years at Apple were over and something new had to start. Anzures had expectations of how the talk would go.

“I thought it would be a nice way to reconnect with the school,” he said, “but also a way to kind of come out about leaving Apple.”

But even though it was absent from both his talk and his plans for the future, he still thinks about his legacy at Apple. “I feel, to be part of the design team of the iPhone, you would hope the generation below would speak on behalf of you,” he told me. Instead, he said, it felt like he needed to justify his role at the company before he eventually left.

Anzures remembered the day he was tapped to work on the iPhone. His manager came in and said, after months of rumors, that a phone was in the works. He and Chaudhri had been working on MacOS’s iconic dashboard and widgets at the time, but were tapped to work on the phone. “When speculation and reality come together and you’re a part of that, you kind of get goosebumps,” Anzures said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I’m like the wizard right now. And it’s with Steve. Holy shit, what’s about to go down?’”

“It was the idea, and then the process.”

The design team, led by Chaudhri and Ording—one of the inventors of iOS text selection—was in constant dialogue with Jobs, experimenting with different aspects of his vision and seeing what would stick. They remember the creative freedom. And it wasn’t always a particularly sophisticated process. They would do things like duct tape Polaroid lenses and copper electrodes to glass to simulate a camera.

“It was a time when ideas were the stars,” Anzures said. “It was the idea, and then the process.”

For his part, Anzures said he looked closely at human behavior for ideas for the iPhone—natural movements and tendencies that could be channeled into design. His swipe-to-unlock design, which he worked on with Chaudhri, for example, was a response to figuring out how to solve accidental phone calls, i.e. the butt dial. He got the idea when he was sitting on an airplane and looked closely at the bathroom lock, which manually slides from green (unoccupied) to red (occupied). An old recording he had of his own high school combination lock would become embedded as the universal sound of unlocking an iPhone.

Of course, things weren’t perfect. Their team, a small group of largely long-standing employees, was still mostly white and male—Chaudhri and Anzures were the only people of color on the human interface design team. Steve Jobs, known for his volatility, wasn’t a flawless leader.

“I retired because of many reasons. And stress was one of them,” Brett Bilbrey, who worked on research and engineering projects at Apple during the iPhone’s release, told Motherboard editor and author Brian Merchant in his book, The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone. “It was a time of chaos, politics gone wild, fiefdoms.”

But the team still felt Apple was the most revolutionary technology company in the business, and possibly the most exciting place to work in the Bay Area at the time. “Apple was lucky to have people that loved each other so much, working on a project so key to its future,” Chaudhri told Merchant. “I can’t think of another collaboration like it I’ve ever had.”

Then the iPhone was released. That’s when things started to shift. “The success of the iPhone catapulted the company to have a different relationship with the world,” Anzures said.

Apple went from being big to really big. Merchant told me that the company started to become bureaucratic as a result, and that the iPhone’s design team grew from a few guys who could fit in one conference room to hundreds of people working on different parts of the phone. And, like most companies that suddenly dominate a new market, Apple lost touch with the fluidity of the design process, according to Merchant. “If you don’t need to take any chances,” he said, “you become less risky.” (I reached out to Apple multiple times but did not receive a response.)

Merchant said the old guard—by Silicon Valley measures, at least—started to feel like there was less room for creative growth, and a more strident emphasis on producing profit. “You got the sense they were chafing at the stagnancy of the culture,” Merchant said.

"We’re Big Brother now."

And so these engineers and designers, these people like Anzures who helped launch the first version of a device that upended modern society, started to leave the company. Because many of them didn’t get much public credit for their original work on the iPhone, the broader tech world didn’t seem to notice. Ording left in 2013, to take a job at Tesla—tired of spending his time defending patents in court, according to Merchant’s book. Chaudhri left in early 2017.

“It’s interesting to see how people perceive the company now versus then, how that has changed,” said one employee from the team in Merchant’s book. “It’s not that kind of Rebel Alliance vibe—we’re Big Brother now.”

He Was Drawing Superman

Later that day in Pittsburgh, we sat down to an early dinner at the hotel. On one end was the Anzures family, and on the other end, Anzures’s friends—a vintage clothes designer, a physician’s assistant, a DJ, Chaudhri—none of whom struck me as a specific “type” of person. It was a reflection, in certain, obvious ways, of who Anzures is.

His parents moved to Mount Rainier, Maryland, from the Philippines in 1976, when Leona was six months pregnant with Freddy. She and Federico both worked at Howard University in Washington, DC, doing administrative work and managing parts of the hospital. The husband and wife would go on to have three children; Freddy, the eldest, was immediately interested in the arts. “When he was young, like four years old, he was designing things,” Leona told me. “He was drawing Superman and he loved to do puzzles.”

In high school, Leona got him a job in the print shop at Howard, where he started experimenting with graphics and making slides for presentations—his earliest exposure to design.

Anzures grew up in Maryland after his parents immigrated from the Philippines. Image: courtesy Freddy Anzures

He’d come to find inspiration in music and films. He liked the action star Bruce Lee—liked that he looked a little like Lee, and cast off the Asian man stereotype. (“Lee wasn’t subservient,” Anzures told me. “He had a vision for his life, this ability to fuse martial arts and philosophy.”) He listened to A Tribe Called Quest and James Brown, and spent time tracing the songs sampled by modern musicians back to their roots. Later, he would learn to spin records—doing sets in San Francisco, and making mixes for his friends or his brother’s wedding.

By the time he got to Carnegie Mellon in the late 90s, Anzures knew that he was headed for a career in design. He was studious, he said, for the most part. He didn’t have tons of friends, but joined a fraternity known for its creative membership. College, and the city of Pittsburgh, home of Andy Warhol, offered a different canvas for his art. Later, when Anzures started working in Silicon Valley, it became apparent that there weren’t many other designers with this background. His immigrant upbringing, his interests spanning sneakers and music, the fact that he had never owned a computer until he worked at Apple—they all set him, and others like him, apart.

“The term inventor is not always associated with people who look like us,” he told me.

When I asked Anzures what happens when a company doesn’t value this kind of cultural representation in its design, he pointed at modern day Apple. “Just look at the products,” he said. “The products are a reflection of the creators.”

Anzures during the early iPhone days at Apple. Image: courtesy of Freddy Anzures

Voice-activated products like Siri, he noted, would have been created differently had they been designed for a diverse population, not adapted into accents and languages after the fact. As reporter Sonia Paul noted in Wired, voice recognition technology still hasn’t been fed enough data to understand the full breadth of accents in a country like the US. These kind of cultural lags aren’t just about sensitivity—the technology itself tends to suffer too.

Apple has come under increasing scrutiny by some in the tech industry for failing to deliver new groundbreaking devices. Whereas the company revolutionized the way we live with the iPhone and iPad, innovation now comes in dribbles, and often behind other companies. It has sold many millions of Apple Watches, for example, but it didn’t feel like society-shifting technology when compared to the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Popular YouTuber and tech critic Marques Brownlee, aka MKBHD, called the HomePod the “dumbest smart speaker.” Recent design changes to the iPhone like removing the headphone jack are met with either frustration or shrugs.

“When you hear a bad album from a band, you know the band wasn’t getting along,” Anzures said. He compared Let It Be, which the Beatles made during a time of infighting, to Revolver, considered one of the band’s best albums. “Every part of the creative process is a reflection of the people who were part of it.”

Tech Companies Don’t Need Somebody Like Me

Even as he put in long, intense hours at Apple, Anzures continued to tinker on passion projects. He woke up at four in the morning—his most productive hours, he said—to find the time. He continued to DJ, and edited Wax Poetics, a quarterly music magazine dedicated to funk and jazz. He designed album covers and posters for events. Now, with his time at his own disposal there is more room for experimentation.

Post-Apple, Anzures feels like he’s everywhere at once. He’s shuttling between New York and San Francisco. He’s setting up an art gallery called Family Affair, near the famous Groove Merchant record store in Haight-Ashbury, where he lives. He’s the designer-in-residence at Caffeine, a startup creating an interactive music streaming platform. And he’s the creative director of Urban Legends, an imprint at Universal Music Group that creates anniversary editions of hip-hop and soul music.

Album covers that Anzures designed.

Every project he is working on ties to some part of his past. Caffeine was started by fellow ex-Apple employees, Ben Keighran and Sam Roberts. Family Affair is a physical space that serves as an extension, in some ways, of Wax Poetics, whose editor-in-chief, Andre Torres, invited Anzures to work with Urban Legends. This, like returning to Pittsburgh, is part of Anzures’s plan: to reach back through different facets of his life and maintain relationships in a completely new way.

And it’s all centered around the role he wants to establish as a liaison between tech and culture. “Culture is really being delivered these days through technology,” Anzures told me. There’s obvious ways, like Spotify and Instagram and music streaming services, he said, and less obvious ones, like the way languages and sounds are delivered through apps. “When you don’t have people culturally sensitive or aware of how things of culture can be infused in technology, then you have a generation that isn’t going to feel that or see that through these devices,” he said.

That sense of responsibility extends beyond culture. Anzures is wary of the obsession with artificial intelligence and machine learning, and is intent on restoring humans to the process of designing everyday devices. He doesn’t want to make products that are more about novelty and status than utility. To that end, he plans to work with former Google employee Tristan Harris, who founded the Center for Human Technology, an organization that examines the psychological and societal impacts of technology, which is often built to be as addictive as possible.

“These devices are so in service of social media—of needing validation,” Anzures said.

Anzures with his family at the Warhol Museum after the TedX event at Carnegie Mellon in April. Image: Ankita Rao

He said he is encouraged by the new generation of users, the ones practically born swiping and pinch-zooming. The teens and tweens who seem more sensitive to what value their devices add to their lives than previous generations. Back at the Ace Hotel, Anzures hypothesized that the same generation that has spawned gun reform marches and eschews Facebook, is the one that will decide which products make sense—the ones that don’t just add to the noise of social media and a 24-hour news cycle. And they will need people who have lived through the transition to work with them.

“Tech companies don’t need somebody like me,” Anzures said. “Now it’s time to move forward, see where the people are, collaborate.”

As the sun set in Pittsburgh, Anzures capped off the day by hosting an after party at the Warhol Museum, a beautiful, semi-industrial space situated at either the end or the beginning of a bright yellow bridge, depending on which way you’re going.

He is worried about his work disappearing, “as if someone hit ‘clear history’” on their browser

He set up a table for his friend to DJ, hooking up the controller and speakers while his niece spun around the dance floor. If this was Anzures’ comeback tour, it would only make sense that music was at the center of it. “This is his passion,” his mom, Leona, told me, as guests began trickling in from the TEDx talk earlier that day. “He works hard, he really does.”

Still, Anzures said he is worried about his work disappearing, “as if someone hit ‘clear history’” on their browser. Apple, after all, is notorious for its tight-lipped culture. But I get the sense that there are more people like him around. People who take the time to source the original track sampled in that one Beastie Boys song. People who trace FaceTime back to a little-known Filipino engineer like the late Gregorio Zara.

“I’m invisible. And thats been cool—there’s freedom in anonymity,” Anzures said. “But I have to take the Daft Punk helmet off now.”