The tech industry is full of Apple critics. And with Apple there are certainly legitimate areas of operation and methodology to critique, the management of the App store being a good example. But one area that Apple gets right is product design. And it boggles the mind that CEOs of massive organizations that are in the business of designing great products literally don’t comprehend the value of design.

There’s been some talk this week about being an engineering driven vs design driven organization, with a revealing blog post from Douglas Bowman. This distinction aside, you can’t argue that Apple’s success stems from understanding the value of design.

The thoughtfulness displayed in every level of execution in most Apple products, from industrial design, to interface design, to engineering, not only provides value to their customers, but it leads to product innovation. This kind of win-win result of investing in design across all aspects of product development is something that all technology companies should be embracing. And while some companies such as Dell are starting to understand this, just this week Steve Ballmer displayed his blissful ignorance with this gem:

“Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment – same piece of hardware – paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that’s a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be.”

Design isn’t skin deep. Apple knows this. Ballmer? Wow, man. It pains me how oblivious you are. There’s nothing “same” about the internals of a PC vs a Mac, or the external design, or, most importantly, the productivity gains of working with OSX over Windows. And you can point to these distinctions with every successful product Apple has out there right now, from desktops to notebooks, iPhone to iPod.

Speaking of the iPod, let’s consider these words from Creative’s CEO, Sim Wong Hoo, following the launch of the original iPod shuffle in 2005:

“We’re expecting a good fight but they’re coming out with something that’s five generations older…So I think the whole industry will just laugh at it…I think it’s a non-starter to begin with.”

I don’t know who drove the design of the shuffle, whether the push came from marketing, engineering or what, but the end result of the launch was a device that embraced its simplicity from product design to marketing. No screen? No problem. The shuffle is about being random. Brilliant. Such a simple concept that was breathed into every aspect of the product design and marketing. How does the CEO of a major competitor not see the value in this kind of immersive and unified thinking?

The joke here is, as much as Ballmer wants to point to Apple’s logo as their differentiator, and Sim Wong Hoo laughs at the lack of features, these are the guys that aren’t delivering on the only promise we truly care about, a great experience. They’re so focused on features and price points they’ve completed neglected what it means to use their products.

By belittling these great collaborative design projects from Apple, these CEOs are saying to me that they’re either too stupid to understand what it takes to build a great product or they simply don’t care enough about their customer to help make their life easier or more enjoyable, which, ultimately, is what technology is all about.

I want any product I use to sing in every way, not have more features that are difficult to use, or be a cheaper product that’s a pain in the ass to service or support. So, here’s to great design.

Now, Apple’s not perfect by any means, but they get most of it right, and they’re hungry to keep innovating. Most importantly, they understand what it takes to build a great product. That ethos is expressed in Steve Job’s understanding of design:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!?’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Think about it this way, without the care to detail the engineering group puts into the Mac Pro, which is housed in a box big enough that Apple could clearly just toss a bunch of cables and fans into, there’s no way they’d have the engineering chops to figure out how to build an iMac, let alone a Macbook Air. These are devices that require design decisions to be made around expansion, cooling and size that require collective wisdom and collaboration between a multitude of disciplines. If any one of these areas of expertise is lax in their approach a product of this grace simply wouldn’t exist. And that, my friends, is what companies like Creative and Microsoft are missing.