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Steve Jobs Made Design Mainstream

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.

11 Responses to “Steve Jobs Made Design Mainstream”

  1. Howard Meister Says:

    “For many of us, there is no such thing as civilization without elegance, and Steve Jobs provided plenty.”

    Rob -

    I’ve found that one of the most elusive things to define is, elegance. We know it by examples (a theme played by Miles Davis, a lamp by Richard Sapper, an auto body by Pininfarina, this Mac I am typing to you on…), and we can circle around the word with others… economy of means, simplicity and integrity, and so forth. But pinning it down precisely remains difficult.

    Then there’s elegance’s notorious elder cousin, beauty. Another slippery one with excellence at its core. (Beauty is a kind of excellence, most often expressed aesthetically, and sometimes ethical excellence as well.)

    My favorite book by Freud is his _Civilization and Its Discontents_. In there he writes that beauty is “a sign and expectation of civilization”; he opposes beauty to suffering; and he writes:

    “Beauty, cleanliness and order obviously occupy a special position among the requirements of civilization.”

    Your line I quoted (above) made me think that beauty, cleanliness and order are requirements for there to be elegance as well. And that to the extent that manners provoke elegance of behavior in company, that elegance gives rise to civilization at the same time that it is an expression of that civilizing.

    Just sharing.

    Best-

    Howard

  2. Howard Meister Says:

    “For many of us, there is no such thing as civilization without elegance, and Steve Jobs provided plenty.”

    Rob -

    I’ve found that one of the most elusive things to define is, elegance. We know it by examples (a theme played by Miles Davis, a lamp by Richard Sapper, an auto body by Pininfarina, this Mac I am typing to you on…), and we can circle around the word with others… economy of means, simplicity and integrity, and so forth. But pinning it down precisely remains difficult.

    Then there’s elegance’s notorious elder cousin, beauty. Another slippery one with excellence at its core. (Beauty is a kind of excellence, most often expressed aesthetically, and sometimes ethical excellence as well.)

    My favorite book by Freud is his _Civilization and Its Discontents_. In there he writes that beauty is “a sign and expectation of civilization”; he opposes beauty to suffering; and he writes:

    “Beauty, cleanliness and order obviously occupy a special position among the requirements of civilization.”

    Your line I quoted (above) made me think that beauty, cleanliness and order are requirements for there to be elegance as well. And that to the extent that manners provoke elegance of behavior in company, that elegance gives rise to civilization at the same time that it is an expression of that civilizing.

    Just sharing.

    Best-

    Howard

  3. Scott Elliott-Brand Says:

    Hi Rob,

    With all due respect to both you and Steve Jobs (one of my gods), the original Apple Computer logo did not work, other than in a pure aesthetic sense. I worked for Apple Computer (technically an affiliate sales organization with only one customer – Apple Computer) and the the logo would not transfer the image cleanly when making black & white copies of sales materials and documents because there are no breaks between the color bands. It really was a mess! Try it for yourself and see. Not doubt that is part of the reason that the original logo was dropped (along with ‘Computer’) and the logo was updated and modernized to reflect the new Apple. Just a tidbit I remembered when reading your article and I thought I’d share it with you.

    Scott E-B

  4. Gino Zahnd Says:

    I like the sentiment in your post, Rob. Jobs’s passing has certainly spurred a good number of quality conversations in my world as well.

    However, I think you’ve missed the mark on several counts around what design is, particularly in the digital product world.

    Your definition likely comes from your background, but that definition isn’t applicable to software systems or digital products.

    This statement in particular bugs me (I’ve been a software designer for 15 years):
    “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.”

    In digital products, and certainly at Apple, people are obsessed with speed, function, and technology. They’re all part of and support good design, and without one of them, good design cannot exist. With digital products, speed is inextricably linked to performance, and performance is a huge part of an awesome user experience. The other huge part of that equation is good interaction design. Lastly, the visual interface, which is what people see, and likely what you’re referring to, is the beautiful skin on top of everything that makes the product.

    That is what good Design is: making something easy to use by solving problems through elegant interaction design, which sits atop fast code. And lastly there’s the aesthetic.

    To think of it another way, there are plenty of beautiful looking products that are awful to use.

    It’s true that Google’s success certainly isn’t based on beauty. It’s been ugly for a decade. But they have nailed speed, accuracy, and elegance on search. And in that regard, their design is better than any other.

    One thing to keep in mind: Apple is a hardware company that happens to make software. In that light, your comparison to Google, Facebook, and Twitter isn’t an, um, apples-to-apples comparison. It’s true that Google and others value data-driven design over what you’ve identified as design (example: http://stopdesign.com/archive/2009/03/20/goodbye-google.html), but their goals and often times their audiences are significantly different. The best example of this might be the utter failure of the Google Nexus phone. Google just doesn’t get hardware (and arguably, they don’t get much software outside search and mail).

    I do agree that Apple’s visual designers, and their MarCom group are second to none (although the recent leather themed apps in Lion are atrocious…). But they’re providing the aesthetic beauty on top of the actual products – they don’t drive the product design, though.

    In this context of product design (speed, function, usability, beauty = Design), Henry Ford was absolutely concerned with design; he was obsessed with all of these things. He was a fervent believer in the merits of rationality and simplicity, and those two things were the core of everything he did. Those two things are also the fundamental building blocks of design.

    The thing to remember about Henry Ford is that the Model T was an artifact of the larger thing he was designing: mass production systems, the roots of which are still used today. His designs immeasurably improved the human condition. That’s good design.

    Thomas Edison was arguably one of the very first design-focused inventors, and nearly every product he designed improved the human experience. In my opinion, his design work had far greater impact on humankind than anything Jobs did. Most of what Jobs did relied heavily on what Edison did, in fact.

    Examples of products/systems Edison was directly involved with designing?

    • Making a safe and viable incandescent light, and the system to carry the electricity. He lit the world.
    • Phonograph. He helped us listen to music.
    • Telegraph systems. He helped us communicate.
    • Electric heating systems. He made it easier to stay warm.
    • The alkaline battery. Endless…
    • the talking motion picture. Entertainment!

    … and on and on and on.

    Anyway, it’s good to see how Apple and Steve Jobs have affected and inspired different people in different industries. It also never ceases to intrigue me in how different people define “design.” It’s definitely true that Jobs brought the idea of Design™ to the mainstream, and for that I think we’re all grateful.

    Speaking of design, I’d love to see PUBLIC bikes with fenders that are 6″ longer. That would be a huge design improvement for human feet and toes on rainy winter days. :-)

  5. reid Says:

    What about Tesla Motors? A 17 inch touch screen is going into a production car. Never before has a car been produced so close to concept.

  6. Frank Says:

    Rob,
    Excellent statement, thanks. I have a bag full of Apple products with me most of the time, from the MacBook Pro that I am using right now, to an Ipod I use at the gym, and an Ipad I use as a presentation tool when visiting clients. I love the design of all those products. But I also admire the drive and vision of an individual. His commencement address at Stanford is probably the most obvious example of his personal vision.
    Frank

  7. Dickon Says:

    Rob,
    Thanks for the thinking, could you explain further how you differentiate Design and Aesthetics? Given your rich background and experiences I’d be interested in how you define both and how they work together.
    Cheers

  8. Mark Says:

    Hi Rob,
    A fantastic legacy + a tragedy to die so young in his mid 50′s .

    I have read many tributes and am curious, did Steve Jobs design anything? “Seeing the potential of” isn’t the same as designing the products. He deserves all the credit in the world for his leadership and role in the promotion of great design , but as design matters so do the designers.

    I read that 44 year old Jonathan Ive was the lead on the design of iMac, titanium and aluminum PowerBook G4, G4 Cube, MacBook, unibody MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Wow. I wish Jonathan the power to continue to design great products without champion, and leader Steve Jobs.

  9. Duncan Says:

    @Dickon:

    I know your question is directed towards Rob, however I couldn’t resist saying something.

    For me design is not veneer or window dressing, but includes functionality, usefulness, & aesthetics wrapped up into one tidy package. It has depth buried in DNA. It has personality like a human being, it speaks to us.

    When we see copycat people, that want a quick solution to compete in a design environment, too much of the time it is wrapped up in marketing ploys and is pretty superficial. Sort of like post WWII American car manufacturers changing a nose & tail fin design every six months to appeal to customers fickle tastes. Good design makes good things even better, changing tail fin designs does none of this.

    Aesthetics, I would describe as that wispy, ethereal, fleeting content that describes what a group of people in a certain time & environment came to value & appreciate. Different cultures are going to have vastly different ideas about what constitutes aesthetics. I could give many examples across cultures industrial & per-industrial, but I’ll stop here.

    Cheers,

    Duncan

  10. Susan Says:

    Great piece Rob – last night I went to see Mike Daisey’s one man show / monologue at the New York Public Theatre – The Agony and the ecstasy of Steve Jobs. If you haven’t seen it, and you’re in NYC – go. It’s brilliant. It also raises many questions about Apple (and other companies) production lines…and their use of child labor and abuse of workers in China in factories like FoxCon. Compelling…I’ve always been a big fan of Apple and their design philosophy but I’d like to see some more attention paid to how products we consume are being produced.

  11. Duncan Says:

    (a theme played by Miles Davis, a lamp by Richard Sapper, an auto body by Pininfarina, this Mac I am typing to you on…)

    Thanks Howard!

    I know all these works so well, but after I read that statement, I’ve been literally thinking about it all week, and walking around with a knowing, subtle, aesthetically appealing smile on my face:)

    Maybe I’m nuts or just a hopeless romantic, but I see it like a blank canvas, or movie screen, with one image after another floating by like poetry or music. We don’t need a lot, just beauty, and it’s there for us if we just open our eyes to the world around us.

    Why make the world more complicated than it needs to be?


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