October 12th, 2011

Like many people, I’ve been thinking and talking about Steve Jobs and Apple a lot this past week. There are too many ideas for one newsletter, so I’ll likely write more in the near future. Everyone who takes design seriously owes him, myself included. Most of my professional career in business has relied on Apple’s products, devotees, attitude, and inspiration. Apple was instrumental in creating a broad consumer market for good design.

Artek Alvar Aalto, Stool

Artek Alvar Aalto, Stool

If there were a silver lining to Steve Jobs’ passing, it would be the numerous discussions about the value (spiritual and financial) of good design in our culture. Jobs did something that no one else had ever done: he made great design mainstream. This will be his legacy. I have been reading comparisons of Jobs to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, but neither of them (nor any of the industrialists) kept design and aesthetics right at the core of their businesses.

None of the current tech geniuses at Google, Facebook or Twitter have design and aesthetics as integrated into their missions. Or if they do (or think they do), it is relegated to stepchild status – cleaning up after technology, function, and speed. All lack the caliber of design elegance that is part of Apple DNA. For many of us, there is no such thing as civilization without elegance, and Steve Jobs provided plenty.

DWR

“Design,” as a respected business discipline, is a very recent phenomenon. Even ten years ago “design” was not part of the business vocabulary. I know this well because I was trying to raise money for Design Within Reach about that time. In my meetings with nearly a dozen venture capital firms, nobody seemed to understand what I was talking about when I said that good design meant good business and that the US market would embrace it if it were made accessible. Design and aesthetics did not have a meaning to most business leaders beyond visual appearance – it was associated only with creative work, decorators, fashionistas, business card graphics, and hairdos. Certainly not with business success and profit.

Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990’s and led the most successful turnaround of any modern company, all based on design. Apple is now worth more than Microsoft and Intel combined. Credit also goes to Steve Jobs for making the business world a safe and welcome place for designers, creatives, and visually oriented people. The value of this may be unquantifiable, but it is hugely significant to a lot of us.

Paul Rand, IBM Logo

Paul Rand, IBM Logo

PUBLIC was founded on the principles of good design and with the belief that design is now a mainstream value. Jobs and Apple did not create this alone. He appropriated much from others such as Dieter Rams, Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames, and other significant modern designers. One of his lasting legacies will be as the person who brought good design to more people than anyone else.

I hope the myriad discussions and articles on Jobs, Apple, and design persist as relentlessly as Apple’s products come to the market.