The 6 Pillars Of Steve Jobs’s Design Philosophy
Beyond some phenomenal products, Steve Jobs helped define exactly what good design meant for the computer age. Here are his most enduring ideals.
[This is the second installment in a series of posts that we’re doing as we read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. Click here to read the first.—Ed.]
Everyone who cares, even modestly, about design can name a few decisive events that set them on that path. Steve Jobs was no different, but he was also extraordinarily lucky: The formative design lessons he got were so far ahead of their time that they would lay the groundwork for Apple’s success with the Macintosh, the iMac, iPhone, and the iPad. Here’s six of the defining design lessons that Jobs learned, and which imbued every product he created.
After all these decades, that memo is still Apple’s DNA.
1. Craft, Above All
Under Jobs, Apple became famous for a level of craft that seemed almost gratuitous: For example, on the “Sunflower” Macintosh of a few years ago, there was an exquisitely fine, laser-etched Apple logo. As an owner, you might see that logo only once a year, when moving the computer. But it mattered, because that single time made an impression. In the same way, Jobs spent a lot of time making the circuit boards of the first Macintosh beautiful—he wanted their architecture to be clean and orderly. Who cared about that? But again, that level of detail would have made a deep impression on the few people that would have seen the inner guts.
[One of the high points of Apple’s attention to craft: The phenomenal fit and finish of the iPhone 4]
So in a way, it’s not a surprise that this level of craft was one of the first design lessons that Jobs ever got, and he learned at the hands of his father. Again, quoting Isaacson:
Fifty years later the fence still surrounds the back and side yards of the house in Mountain View. As Jobs showed it off to me, he caressed the stockade panels and recalled a lesson that his father implanted deeply in him. It was important, his father said, to craft the backs of cabinets and fences properly, even though they were hidden. …In an interview a few years later, after the Macintosh came out, Jobs again reiterated that lesson from his father: “When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood in the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”
2, 3, and 4: Empathy, Focus, and…Impute?!
In the early 1980s, design was a niche profession, and “design thinking,” a process that emphasized empathy with user needs, hadn’t been fully articulated yet. But Mike Markkula—one of the first investors in Apple, one of the first grown-ups to work there, and another father figure to Jobs—managed to anticipate lessons that were decades away from being in common circulation. He was the one that wrote “The Apple Marketing Philosophy,” a memo that you can think of as the fundamental DNA of Apple over three decades:
Markkula wrote his principles in a one-page paper titled “The Apple Marketing Philosophy” that stressed three points. The first was empathy, an intimate connection with the feelings of the customer: “We will truly understand their needs better than any other company.” The second was focus: “In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.” The third and equally important principle, awkwardly named, was impute. It emphasized that people form an opinion about a company or product based on the signals that it conveys. “People DO judge a book by its cover,” he wrote. “We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software, etc; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; it we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.”
Markkula is talking about consumer empathy before Apple even has consumers.
In the context of the time, the idea of consumer empathy is truly remarkable. Keep in mind: If you wanted to find superb consumer electronics, you mostly looked to Japan. There, the attitude that prevailed for so many decades was that devices shouldn’t be designed for consumers; if they didn’t get them, it was their fault. It was that idea that led to so many bloated and weird Sony and Panasonic products over the years. Another thing to remember: Markkula is talking about consumer empathy before Apple even really has consumers! This is before the Macintosh, before the graphic user interface, and before the mouse. This was during a time when the people who used computers were freakishly engaged hobbyists. Their threshold for accepting a products quirks and flaws was enormous, and most computer makers took that for granted.
Not Markkula, not Apple, and not Jobs. The idea of understanding a consumer’s needs before they actually needed what Apple was making has remained a hallmark of the company throughout its history. The idea of empathizing with a consumer before a market was even developed set Apple on the path of perpetually looking forward to find how people would behave.
[The first iMac: A masterpiece of friendliness that set Apple on it’s path to dominance]
Maybe the biggest conceptual leap that Steve Jobs made in the early days of Apple was to recognize that high-tech devices could be friendly. Think back to the smiling Mac icon; compare it to the forbidding intensity of the IBM ThinkPad, which was designed by Richard Sapper for decades. Flash forward and compare the chipper polish of the iOS to the hard edges of Android. Throughout the years, Apple has made cutting-edge devices seem friendly, and that’s a design strategy specifically intended to appeal to novice consumers and anyone overwhelmed by the capabilities of a computer.
The funny thing is, Jobs learned that lesson, apparently, from household appliances:
One weekend Jobs went to Macy’s in Palo Alto and again spent time studying appliances, especially the Cuisinart. He came bounding into the Mac office that Monday, asked the design team to go buy one, and made a raft of new suggestions based on its lines, curves, and bevels.
Jobs kept insisting that the [first Macintosh] should look friendly. As a result, it evolved to resemble a human face. With the disk drive below the screen, the unit was taller and narrower than most computers, suggesting a head…”Even though Steve didn’t draw any of the links, his ideas and inspiration made the design what it is,” Oyama later said. “To be honest, we didn’t know what it meant for a computer to be ‘friendly’ until Steve told us.”
[Some of Richard Sapper’s IBM ThinkPads. Not so friendly]
6. Finding simplicity for the future in metaphors from the past
As Isaacson writes on p.127:
Jobs felt that design simplicity should be linked to making products easy to use. Those goals do not always go together. Sometimes a design can be so sleek and simple that a user finds it intimidating or unfriendly to navigate. “The main thing in our design is that we have to make things intuitively obvious,” Jobs told [a] crowd of design mavens. For example, he extolled the desktop metaphor he was creating for the Macintosh. “People know how to deal with a desktop intuitively. If you walk into an office, there are papers on the desk. The one on top is the most important. People know how to switch priority. Part of the reason we model our computers on metaphors like the desktop is that we can leverage this experience that we already have.”
Jobs realized that for computers to be intuitive, their UI’s had to be based on metaphors.
There’s so much going on in that passage that it’s easy to skip over. The most obvious thing is that Jobs wanted his products to be simple above all else. But Jobs realized early on that for them to be simple and easy to use, they had to be based on things that people already understood. (Design geeks have since given this idea a clunky name: so-called skeuomorphic user interfaces.) What was true of the first Macintosh graphical interface is true of the iPhone and iPad—the range of physical metaphors, and, eventually, the physical gestures that control them, map directly with what we already do in the real world. That’s the true key to creating an intuitive interface, and Jobs realized it before computers could really even render the real world with much fidelity at all.
[An example of “imputing” Apples values on the smallest decisions: Jobs spent hours honing the window borders of the first Macintosh GUI. When his designers complained, he pointed out that users would look at those details for hours, so they had to be good.]
Steve Jobs’s talent lay in taking what he learned and absorbing it with a manic intensity, so that his principles didn’t just inform him; they consumed him. Jobs was both lucky and smart in that all of the lessons he got were additive—that is, you could fit them all together in a single, coherent design philosophy. Compare that to what happens when you engage with someone who has definite opinions about design, but no real philosophy behind it: It’s a maddening experience because the definition of what works and what doesn’t, what’s good and what’s not, can change so often in different circumstances. I’d argue that this has been the chief failing of most consumer electronics makers: There’s no deep-seated ideology behind their designs, so the products themselves never feel linked by what Jobs liked to call “soul.”
In the coming years, I can’t help but wonder what the next era’s defining lessons of design will be. I can think of a few that might be worthwhile: For one, in the age of virtual design that’s evaluated at a glance, first impressions matter even while the length of time given to first impressions grows ever shorter.
But I think that these lessons that Jobs intuited will always be with the profession. For example, take lesson #6, about creating simple UI’s: Even today, Facebook keeps an analog printing lab, with the idea that they’ll find the best metaphors for computer interactions in the real world. And design will always be about getting the details right while never forgetting how consumers actually live.
As I’ve said before, Steve Jobs was the most consequential figure in the history of design. The ideals laid out above, which he managed to join with unprecedented clarity and intensity, are the reasons why.
Cliff is the editor of Co.Design, and in the past has written regularly for WIRED, Popular Science and GOOD. Read more
Simple Genius: A Desk That Grows With Your Kid
Kids grow. Their belongings do not. Which sucks for parents who could be spending dough on a
hot new car college fund but instead have to buy new shoes, bedroom furniture, and the like every time their offspring sprouts a few inches.
Enter the AZ desk. Designed by Lyon-based Guillaume Bouvet, it includes a chair and writing surface that get taller as your child morphs from a shrimpy toddler to a full-blown adult. Even the writing surface “grows up,” converting from a kiddie-friendly chalkboard into an ergonomic table that could pass for something at mom or dad’s office.
Clever, right? Parents only need to buy one desk in 18 years, which means more money for, uh… college! Unfortunately, AZ is just a prototype. But Bouvet tells Co.Design that he plans to put the desk into production next year. We’ll keep you updated.
[Images courtesy of Guillaume Bouvet]
10 inspiring Steve Jobs quotes
Steve Jobs not only changed the way we interact with technology, but also inspired a loyalty that went beyond mere branding—he created a lifestyle for Apple customers. And, as NPR points out, helped shape popular culture.
Along the way, Jobs also provided inspiration on a variety of other topics. Many of these quotes come from The Wall Street Journal, which compiled them in August when Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple.
Conformity is boring.
“It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”
[from Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple, 1987, via The Wall Street Journal]
Sweat the small stuff.
“This is what customers pay us for—to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”
[via Fortune, January 2000]
Sometimes, focus groups aren’t the answer.
“For something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
[via Businessweek, May 1998]
What it means to be a creative person.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
[via Wired, February 1996]
Can you say this about your workplace?
“We’re just enthusiastic about what we do.”
[via Playboy, February 1985]
The importance of strong managers and coaches.
"What’s reinvigorating this company is two things: One, there’s a lot of really talented people in this company who listened to the world tell them they were losers for a couple of years, and some of them were on the verge of starting to believe it themselves. But they’re not losers. What they didn’t have was a good set of coaches, a good plan. A good senior management team. But they have that now.”
[via Businessweek, May 1998]
Take note, small business owners.
“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”
[via Fortune, November 1998]
Traditional media remains vital.
“I don’t want to see us descend into a nation of bloggers. I think we need editorial oversight now more than ever. Anything we can do to help newspapers find new ways of expression that will help them get paid, I am all for.”
[D8 conference, via All Things Digital, June 2010]
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
[Stanford commencement speech, June 2005]
Words to live by.
“Stay hungry, stay foolish.”
[Stanford commencement speech, June 2005]
Underground art welcome on the underground
Art should belong in the public arena right? What better canvas than a subway train? Wrong? It wasn’t long ago that subversive artists were “doing” their art in these places… illegally. These artists [admittedly not all were artists] were the scourge of the New York and subsequent subways. Now they’re emerging as recognised artists throughout the world. Although some prefer to remain incognito. They’re even legal in some underground railways. And above ground they’re celebrated as enriching cities like Melbourne. Where their works have become tourist attractions with bus tours showing the way. And so they should be. Try these wonderful creations found in Amsterdam. Talk about enriching otherwise boring and ugly environments.
Million Dollar Design were selected by the Amsterdam Public Transport Company to transform one of the old “Zilvermeeuw” subway cars into art [and their work has lived up to their name]. They were one of 40 artists that were selected to create a new subway carriage interior. “With our design, the common dark gray atmosphere of the underground has been transformed into a colorful underwater world. Mermaids swim along, an octopus hides under an umbrella and a turtle takes you on a journey into the unknown. The subway consists of two differently designed so-called ‘bins’ (compartments). One has a predominantly green color which reminds you of the deep underwater, where strange little creatures are floating around. The other which is purple, suggests that it’s closer to the surface, where small fish are flirting with the sparklings of the sunlight onto the water.”
It’s public-minded community art projects like this that make the mundane of cities into exciting, moving, living, giving, enriching environments. Worth living in. Worth sharing with the world. So what about us? Our cities shaping up for the Rugby World Cup? I don’t see much like it on our trains, buses, underpasses… yet?
Textile Field by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec
French designers Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec have laid a stripy field of fabric inside the Raphael Court of the V&A museum as part of the London Design Festival. You can see an animation of the project over on Dezeen Screen.
The Textile Field installation covers 240 square metres of the gallery floor and encourages gallery visitors to lie down when looking at the renaissance artworks.
The colourful stripes of fabric by textile brand Kvadrat are wrapped over lengths of foam to create the cushioned surface.
Here’s some more details from the Bouroullec brothers:
‘The Raphael Cartoons are really important pieces, but in a way they are kind of difficult to look at because they’re from such a different time,’ says Erwan Bouroullec, of France’s most accomplished design team, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec.
Offered the chance to create a design intervention almost anywhere in the V&A, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec chose the Raphael Court, built specifically to house seven enormous works by Italian painter Raphael. Typically, the Bouroullecs have picked a space that is both an extraordinary opportunity and a substantial challenge. This remarkable gallery was built in 1865, when Raphael’s reputation as the greatest painter of all time was at its peak. As such, the space reflects the Victorian reverence for the Renaissance painter.
‘It has this quality of a church,’ says Erwan Bouroullec, ‘a really wonderful volume, but then in a way it makes you feel too small – a sense of sacré – holiness.’
Creating an installation capable of transforming such an august space without destroying that sense of reverence was not going to be an easy task, but the Breton-born brothers have a reputation for work that is, as designer Jasper Morrison has said, ‘thoughtful and disciplined, with a real spirit and poetry’.
Since being spotted by Giulio Cappellini at the 1997 Salon du Meuble, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec have created designs for Issey Miyake, Vitra, Magis, Kartell, Established & Sons, Ligne Roset, Axor, Alessi and, more recently, Flos and Mattiazzi. But one of their most creative partnerships has been with the innovative Danish textile manufacturer Kvadrat. Their special role with Kvadrat has been about designing textile systems that can be deployed quickly to radically transform spaces, subtly altering the visitor’s experiences of them. As Anders Byriel, Kvadrat’s CEO says: ‘We like to be involved in projects wherever people interpret space in new ways and the Raphael Court is just an amazing space.’
Textile Field is their most ambitious collaboration yet, taking over 240 square metres of the gallery floor, with gentle undulations of soft fabric, creating an expansive coloured foam and textile lounge that invites visitors to spend time relaxing in front of the artworks in a much less formal way than usual.
Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec have created a space that closes the formal distance between the viewer and the artwork. ‘We have decided to provide a kind of furniture element that helps people to relax their bodies and so relax their minds,’ says Erwan Bouroullec. ‘And then, maybe, the meaning will come.’