Today a short video at Inc.com gave a quick overview of 5 Rules of Design from Steve Jobs. By coincidence I’m currently reading Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and have a long running interest in the history of early personal computing so I’m very interested in Jobs’ approach to design. Because of the astonishing brand success of Apple, Inc. and its historic role in the history of computing and personal electronics, there has been a large degree of mythologizing when it comes to Jobs. Many nerds are quick to point out that it was Steve Wozniak who invented the Apple I and Apple II, and they may deride Jobs as “just a business person” or “just a marketing person.” As with most topics, the truth is necessarily more complex and nuanced than that. But I’d like to dig in a bit deeper on the design philosophy of Steve Jobs because while the nerds are right about him in one sense as regards his coding and engineering chops, Jobs was a pioneer when it came to design and marketing.
Here are the five aspects highlighted in the video, and I don’t disagree with them but think they probably deserve a little unpacking.
Jobs often gets credit for “inventing” the Graphical User Interface (GUI) which was a primary selling point on Apple’s Macintosh computer. In fact, the Apple team picked up that idea from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which had come up with a mouse-driven GUI based operating system which used a portrait-oriented display so that the desktop matched the shape of a piece of paper — something that would have been intuitive for a copier and printing company like Xerox. But Jobs’ Macintosh team made many innovations to convert the GUI concept into a simple, easy to understand set of metaphors that users would intuitively understand. The idea that your screen represented a desktop, that documents went into folders, that unwanted items could be placed into the trash can — these are all really obvious today but were revolutionary at the time. The simplifications Jobs’ team made included allowing windows to overlap on the desktop, the ability to conduct most of the computer operations with the mouse and to take that mouse which they’d seen at Xerox and make it better.
The original mouse they’d seen had 3 buttons and didn’t handle diagonal movement well, but Jobs had his team reduce the buttons to a single one and to make its interface handle diagonal motion. The simplified mouse with its trackball and friendly, intuitive interface followed a philosophy which would continue throughout Jobs’ track-record with industrial design. The iPod, the iPad, the iMac, the iPhone — it was never as easy as just slapping a lower-cased “i” in front of the product name, the devices themselves were meticulously designed to be simple to use.
The Inc video describes the first Macintosh as being a friendly computer that looked like a face and even had a smiley face during its startup. In Isaacson’s book, there is a long section that describes the process by which the original Macintosh case was designed. Ultimately when the case design was patented the patent bears Steve’s name (along with Jerry Manock and Terry Oyama), despite the fact that he didn’t draw a single line during the design process. Isaacson quotes Oyama as saying, “To be honest, we didn’t know what it meant for a computer to be ‘friendly’ until Steve told us.”
There is much more to making a “friendly” design than having it look like a face. Friendliness is hard to even quantify, but it seems to be an emergent property of creating a product which is simple to use, reliable and has intuitive design interfaces. With the Macintosh, Jobs considered things like the speed of the startup time to be essential qualities. Andy Hertzfeld, one of the lead programmers on the initial Mac project, relates a famous story about how Steve related the importance of a quicker startup time by tying it to the concept of saving lives! He pushed his engineers to reach for goals that they might not have considered if art and beauty hadn’t been core values of their leadership.
By the time Apple reached the iPhone, Jobs had many design ideas in his head that had been looking for the right kind of components to execute. Even as early as during Macintosh development in the early 80s, the idea of a simple computer device with a touch screen had been on his mind. His push for simplicity and friendliness is evident in the iPad and iPhone interfaces with their thin form-factor. Even my parents have been able to figure out the iPad, and I can’t really think of a better proof that the device is friendly and simple than to point out that they’ve managed to send me an email with a photo attached.
Jobs’ focus on minimalism has a variety of possible roots. Isaacson argues convincingly that his father’s attention to detail and his lectures on furniture making, architecture and repair and maintenance aesthetics had an impact. Jobs had a serious interest in industrial design and the language of design, of fonts, of architecture and engineering. Throughout the book Jobs, Isaacson recounts how Jobs would be captivated by some design element and then use it in other places to great effect. What is curious though is how crippling this seemed to be when it came to making personal decisions about things like furniture or appliances. It also caused him some serious ship-date slippages as he got caught up in decisions about what color the walls or machines would be in his factories. Yet, that devotion to minimalism worked nicely with his desire for simplicity.
He famously got into a big dispute with Steve Wozniak during the Apple II design because Wozniak wanted an open design which would allow enthusiasts to add expansion cards to their Apple computers. Jobs wanted only two slots, Wozniak wanted eight. In that fight, Wozniak won and arguably the expansion options and open design led to the wild success of the Apple II. When Jobs ran the Macintosh project he deliberately tried to keep the case closed, even requiring a special long star-shaped screwdriver to get the case opened. (I still remember the excitement of getting one of these Apple tools and cracking open a Mac SE30 for the first time!)
Minimalism can be great for design, but it does tend to annoy creative types who want to modify or change their setup. I suspect the very, very closed design of the iPad and the increasingly closed design of the Macbook still derive from this design philosophy which is deeply embedded in the DNA of Apple.
“Precision” is a descriptive word — but what Jobs really seemed to thrive on was on obsessive attention to detail. A parable repeated multiple times in Isaacson’s book is Jobs being told by his father that a good cabinet maker would not put an ugly piece of plywood behind beautiful cabinets. Even though nobody would see it, the carpenter would know the ugly piece of wood was back there and it would shame him. No, the details mattered. In maddening examples, Jobs would spend days over color selection, over little details that would be ridiculous and unimportant to most people but which Jobs insisted mattered. Sometimes these would be genius, other times they would be folly. But unarguably Jobs cared about all of these details and that carried forward into the way customers viewed the products.
A couple of examples of this would be Jobs’ exacting control over the box-art on the original Macintosh. He had to fight for the full color artwork on something that many felt was just a box that people would throw away immediately. But Jobs knew that the box matters. People do judge a book by its cover. In a worse example, Jobs insisted on painting factory floor equipment which needed precise tolerances and by repainting them over the protest of his advisors he caused the machines to be less reliable. Sometimes function does need to be a more important consideration, but another aesthetic which was espoused by a designer Jobs hired was that “form follows emotion,” a clever play on the classic design concept that “form follows function.”
Projects often fall prey to scope-creep. Designs, in a similar fashion, fall prey to feature-creep. Keeping focus on the core features of a project is one way to prevent this kind of problem and I think it could be argued that Jobs had a singular focus on quality, I’m not convinced he had such a focus on limiting features. Throughout Jobs’ career inside and outside of Apple, he had so many interests and such a strong sense of self-worth and surety regarding his tastes, that many of his project hit shipping delays as his teams struggled to put in all the features he wanted. With the Macintosh project, he eventually changed one of his mottos to “Great Products Ship,” a reminder to his team that even if they met all his demands if they didn’t get the product out the door then it didn’t matter. He did focus on one thing obsessively though, and that was making his products insanely great. There are a variety of design lessons to be learned from Jobs, but keeping the myth out of the math is important when summing up his impact on the world of product design and industrial aesthetics. We need to remember the flops as well as the hits, the hard learned lessons as well as the easily quotable soundbites. Throughout his career Jobs would use what people called his “reality distortion field,” to push through his will and sometimes that had great outcomes, but sometimes it didn’t.
While many people envied Steve Jobs and saw him as a visionary, there are definitely lessons about product and design we can learn from him without needing to deify him. I’m most intrigued by trying to implement some of his design approaches in how I actually conduct business using his tools. For example, if I could just manage to get the desktop on my Mac to be as simple and uncluttered as the smooth and almost featureless gray metallic case in which it resides, then perhaps I could get better focus myself? Now that would be insanely great.