Mark Little: The Man Who Helped Create The Apple Store
If you want to know about Mark Little (with children Olive and Finn) and company Eight Inc, perhaps the best place to start is a visit to your Apple store. The inviting open spaces and minimalistic design have become so ubiquitous that it might be easy to forget how revolutionary the stores were when they debuted in 2001.
There was a time before Eight Inc was working with Apple on their retail stores. In the 1990s, the sight of a small Apple area inside big-box retailers was so unappealing that users were abandoning the brand in droves in favor of the PC. The situation proved grim enough for Steve Jobs to decide on a dedicated, well-designed store that would further enhance Apple’s brand. For this, Jobs turned to design firm Eight Inc in San Francisco to create a customer focused experience that would be a key part of Apple's turnaround.
It was around then that Mark Little joined Eight Inc, a company founded by Tim Kobe in 1989. “I joined Eight Inc just as we were finishing up some work with Swatch and right as our work with Apple began,” he says. The work Mark and his six other colleagues did at the time for the Cupertino-based tech giant would offer a blueprint for designing a retail experience consistent with the brand's aspirations.
Today the company has grown to 170 employees serving clients across 12 studios globally. The firm has worked with leading companies such as Citigroup, Coach, Nokia, to name a few. Bisnow spoke to Mark to find out the firm’s core design tenants, expansion strategy and what it was like to work with Steve Jobs.
The day starts early. “With two kids, mornings usually feel like a combination of a rodeo and fire drill, wrapped up in a tornado,” he jokes. Between breakfast and the avalanche of necessary errands, Mark says keeping a clear mind is essential for creative problem-solving, though it can become a challenge.
His secret for starting the day properly: cycling whenever his schedule permits. “Getting out there before dawn is the best way to start the day with a clear mind,” Mark says.
Mark found architecture at a young age. In particular, the camping trips he took with his father left a lasting impression. The early dawn sunlight cutting through foliage provided essential lessons in the interaction of space, light and material, he says.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs also proved pivotal. “In high school I became good friends with a girl who lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” Mark says. The house proved a master class in design’s ability to invoke an emotional reaction.
Those experiences motivated Mark to pursue architecture in both undergrad and graduate school. They also were essential in shaping his view that the quality of human experience is the essential criteria for success.
“Ultimately, we’re designing simple, honest and relevant human experiences with emotion and purpose that change the way people think, feel and do,” Mark says.
To do this effectively, Eight Inc continuously investigates people’s attitudes and lifestyles. Serving foreign and multinational clients also means the firm has to be aware of global tastes as well as social conditions that influence human interaction and aspirations.
Furthermore, the firm regularly seeks out top talent from architecture, industrial design and communications design. Mark says that while design principles and talent shape the company’s projects, the client’s needs are the essential component.
“Be they a global brand, a real estate developer or a private client, our approach is always the same: define the needs, establish the experience principles and emotional pillars to address those needs, then run any design concepts and decisions through those filters,” he says.
That approach seems to have worked well so far. Among the many projects Mark worked on, Apple remains a highlight. “To have worked directly with Steve to design the Apple Store is something we’re very proud of,” he says.
“This was one of my first projects when I joined Eight Inc and it was an incredibly energetic time,” Mark says. "Our ongoing relationship with Apple is approaching 20 years now and continues to push our thinking in terms of how we approach design and how we adapt our approach as the client evolves and grows.”
Mark knows he can’t rest on his laurels, and believes Eight Inc.’s next challenge should be closer to home. “The Bay area is very conservative, architecturally speaking,” he says. “We’d love to find more local clients who are open to a fresh approach.”
Healthcare, especially urgent care and retail clinics, also provides an attractive growth area. Mark says there is so much innovation around medicine and treatments, but doesn't believe anyone has really cracked the nut on how to improve the patient experience in those smaller format settings.
So what keeps him excited about the future? “Our goal is to create experiences through design that inspire passion,” Mark says. “The result is a human-centered approach that transcends a mere styling exercise.”