We have been bombarded lately with Steve Jobs’ quotes and stories of how his company’s products have changed people’s lives or even the world, as the media reacts to his recent death with a predictable eulogization into sainthood.
One of the most interesting trends I’ve noticed is how design and attention to detail are being identified as chief reasons for his success. It’s surprising to me, because there are plenty of designers with attention to detail out there who would make lousy business leaders.
Like any visionary that got things done, he was a complex character with a variety of skills that made him successful. I don’t buy the idea that he was a designer first and a CEO second. But it’s undeniable that he considered design to be very valuable to create relevant differentiation.
In a great interview conducted by Fortune back in 2000, when asked if his obsession with design was a born instinct, since what has always distinguished the products of the companies he’d led was the design aesthetic, he replied:
We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing. In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together.
On our latest iMac, I was adamant that we get rid of the fan, because it is much more pleasant to work on a computer that doesn’t drone all the time. That was not just “Steve’s decision” to pull out the fan; it required an enormous engineering effort to figure out how to manage power better and do a better job of thermal conduction through the machine. That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started.
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. Take desktop video editing. I never got one request from someone who wanted to edit movies on his computer. Yet now that people see it, they say, “Oh my God, that’s great!”
I don’t see enough innovation like that in our industry. My position coming back to Apple was that our industry was in a coma. It reminded me of Detroit in the ’70s, when American cars were boats on wheels.
To be able to instill into his employees the idea that “design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation” requires a lot more than attention to detail.
I wonder if his ascendancy into sainthood will ultimately help or harm the cause for better design. Everyone wants to become the next Apple, and the current over-simplification of what made him successful could be counterproductive.
Will it end up bringing a commoditization of design, in which objects look pleasant but lack soul? Because soul… you won’t find it by looking at the space between letters.