Editor's Note: This article is part of a series that examines the lessons behind disruptive products through the lens of design.

Apple registered its store layout as a trademark in the U.S. four years ago, but the physical design of the retail space is only part of what makes the Apple Store so unique.

During a panel conversation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in May, Ron Johnson, former Apple senior vice president of retail operations, spoke about the process of designing Apple's first retail store from the ground up. The first step, he said, was creating a list of store characteristics that would lead to a great experience for consumers.

"Everything on the list was counterintuitive," Johnson said. "You've really got to let the imagination run, if you really want to innovate."

So where did Johnson's imagination take him? Here are three keys to his process of designing the Apple Store, all of which helped make it an iconic and truly unique retail experience for customers.

Be willing to start over from scratch.

Having spent 15 years in merchandising at Target, Johnson first designed the Apple Store using a traditional, product-oriented layout. Shortly before launching the stores, he realized the organization was all wrong, as Apple was focusing on activities such as music and movies, not just products. "You only get one chance to launch a store, [and] it's not about how fast you do it, it's about doing your absolute best," Johnson said. "You've got to be willing--if you rethink things--to have the courage to start again."

Hire people people, not sales people.

As the only retail executive at Apple when he joined in 2000, Johnson was in charge of not just the stores but also hiring the employees that would work in them. Rather than filling the Apple Store with salespeople, he focused on employees that could connect with customers by helping them with their problems. "At that time, everybody was going to Internet and telephone support, where it's efficient, but I just believed technology is hard, and you want to be able to talk to someone face-to-face if you want to learn," Johnson said. "You want someone who looks in your heart, not your pocket book." 

Create a place for communities, not customers.

One of the attractive features of the Apple Store that Johnson emphasized was a sense of belonging for people who didn't even want to buy anything. For example, some people bring their children to the store to play at the kids' tables, a design feature you're unlikely to find in many other stores. "If you were in a mall waiting for someone, you had to wait," Johnson said. "You couldn't do anything, so we created a place for communities to form where people could check their email and experience the Mac," Johnson said. 

Looking back on all the decisions that went into designing the Apple Store, Johnson said that following his intuition was the most important factor that led to the store's success.

"I started to imagine, 'If you were going to design a great experience for a customer, what would you do?'" he said. "I trusted my imagination."

What do you like the most about the Apple Store? Tell us in the comments below.