She comes from the New York fashion world; he’s a musician-turned-Mac geek. She loves to mix vintage and modern; he prefers completely contemporary. She cares about an object’s tactile qualities; he wants to see it perform. And together, Leigh Ann and Andrew Green have melded brains and beauty into an entire suite of sweet computer gear.
As cofounders of the Mac accessories design firm Twelve South, this husband-and-wife team focuses on bringing to market smart add-ons that not only boost functionality but look as sleek as their high-tech counterparts. And with just a handful of cool and carefully thought-out concepts—from the BassJump portable subwoofer to the SurfacePad laptop control panel cover—the development duo has taken a juicy bite of the Apple retail industry.
“We noticed that no one was focused on creating accessories for the Mac that were truly unique. There were only PC peripherals that had been made Mac compatible and colored white,” says Andrew, who previously designed products for Griffin Technology and Charleston-based DLO (now part of the Philips Group). So he and Leigh Ann booted up their own company in early 2009. Later that fall, the partners launched their first products, including the BackPack adjustable display shelf and the BookArc vertical laptop stand, which soon brought a following from Apple executives, as well as its users and converts. “We didn’t even have official samples when we first showed our ideas to Apple, but they liked our homemade prototypes,” laughs Leigh Ann.
It’s no wonder their creations have proven user-friendly, since first and foremost the Greens are users. “We make stuff we need,” says Andrew. “We’ll identify a problem—or an opportunity to improve a feature—that inspires us to develop solutions.” Like when they noticed many users kept their laptops closed while connected to a full size keyboard and monitor, cluttering the desk and taking up far too much valuable space. This keen observation led to the BookArc, a sleek stand which holds a laptop vertically off the desk and out of the way.
So just how do these designers turn their brainstorming brilliance into innovative tech accessories? Surprisingly enough, not on a computer. Their ideas come to fruition through good old-fashioned craftsmanship. For each viable concept, the Greens build a prototype by “any means necessary”—straws, Play Doh, chopsticks, you name it—to visualize the concept. (They fashioned an origami paper version of the Compass iPad stand using a cut-up manila envelope and a brad.)
The model then gets passed around the eight-person office for feedback and tweaked as needed. “We react to touching, feeling, and seeing it in the space, something you can’t get on a CAD program,” says Andrew, who thinks their lack of formal design training has not held them back. “The final product has to be sleek, simplistic, and beautiful. If it isn’t beautiful, it’s not the solution that we want.”
From there, it’s all about communication with factories in China and India. The couple will send “look-and-feel” items and samples with the direction that the product “should feel like this,” while also ensuring that the makers know what the product should accomplish. “We engage them and make sure they understand as many levels of the idea as possible,” explains Leigh Ann. “And they often bring insights on how to better construct the concept.”
In January 2010, Twelve South came out with the BookBook—a hip hardback laptop and iPad case that resembles a well-worn vintage tome—and “the response was overwhelming,” says Andrew. Oprah Winfrey even declared the creation one of her favorite things. And with the promise of more cool new contraptions coming this summer, Twelve South has helped itself to one great, big slice of the Apple pie.