“Jobs, jobs, jobs” has for months been
the mandatory and obvious response of politicians when asked what they think the
economy needs. (Like Tora, Tora, Tora,
blah, blah, blah, and 9-9-9, it apparently doesn’t count unless said three
times.) Sadly true to begin with, the phrase took on additional sorrow last
month with the death of Steve Jobs, whose public persona had become synonymous
It already seems late to write
about him. Not only late but audacious. After weeks of commentary in every
media but Morse code, is there anything left to say about Jobs, whose
phenomenal leadership of his company made him admired, resented, but never
I think so—oddly, not because
there is so much still unsaid, but because the coverage to date has been so impressively
on target, stressing in most cases the stubborn insistence on quality and
design detail that have kept Apple ahead of competitors year after year.
It is an exquisite irony that one of
Steve Jobs’ most important contributions may lie in the perspicacity of the
tributes paid to him immediately after his death. These are not merely laudatory; every one I’ve read so far
contains substantive information and insights into both the man and the
company, and therefore into design. They have raised the level of popular
design discourse. For decades designers and fellow travelers have tried, often
in vain, to convince clients and the world at large that design is central to
our endeavors, not peripheral; and that designers therefore must be involved in
projects from their inception, not called in at the end for superficial
improvements. Resistance to this common-sense argument was so strong that the
case appeared impossible to make. Now, however, in looking back on what Jobs
did, many people are indicating that the message had been getting through all
The point is made crisply in the
last paean to Jobs that I’ve seen. It appears in the online newsletter Rob Forbes writes for his bike company, Public. An accomplished potter,
entrepreneur (he founded Design Within Reach) and urban cyclist, Forbes—like
Jobs—has design creds, business creds and street creds. He states simply, “Jobs did something that
no one else had ever done: he made great design mainstream. This will be his
Who knew? But for evidence, count the iPhones, iPods
and iPads in use around you, and the Apple logos displayed on the lids of
laptops being used in schools, colleges, libraries, coffee shops and airports,
and popping up in movies without benefit of product placement.
The mainstream acceptance Forbes
alludes to is reflected in the posthumous responses of the mainstream media.
Writing in The New York Times two
days after Jobs died, James B. Stewart describes having lunch in the early
1990s with Bill Gates, “who dismissed PCs as nothing but components held together by plastic and
screws manufactured on low-cost assembly lines, a commodity business with
narrow profit margins. The future belonged to software and semiconductor makers
like Microsoft and Intel, where the real innovation was going on.”
That sounded convincing to Stewart, who points out
that for awhile PCs were indeed commodities, resulting in IBM’s giving up on
the Thinkpad, Compaq’s being sold to HP, and Apple’s near collapse. Yet today
Apple is worth more than Microsoft and Intel combined.
Stewart, an unfailingly perceptive business writer,
says, “Of all Jobs’ accomplishments, this, to me, remains both the
simplest and the most astonishing. How did he take a commodity—to borrow from
the novelist Tom Wolfe, the ‘veal gray plastic boxes that once weighed so
heavily on both our desks and spirits’—and turn it into one of the most iconic
and desirable objects on the planet?”
For an answer Stewart turns first to
design and technology expert Don Norman, who explains, “Steve Jobs and Apple
never—ever—wanted to be a low-margin commodity producer. Even the Apple II had some charm to it.
It was the first personal computer that had professional industrial designers.
Before that they were designed strictly by engineers, and they were ugly. Steve
was always, if not an artist, then someone who was charmed by style. He had
this dream of something beautiful. If it was going to cost more, it didn’t
matter. This was in his genes.”
Stewart also cites MoMA’s design
curator Paula Antonelli’s delight in taking her 1990 Macintosh Classic “out of
that brown, padded carrying case with the rainbow-colored Apple
logo on it and putting it on my desk... it was like a little pug dog
looking at me. It wasn’t just something I worked with; it kept me company. It
had such personality and such life.... [Jobs] had an exceptional eye for
design, and not just an eye, but an intelligence for design... We don’t talk
just about the looks, but how objects communicate: The specific shape, how it
feels in the hand, under the fingers, how you read it in the eye and the mind.
This is what Steve cared passionately about.”
Competitors have speculated
from time to time about the secret of Apple’s success. I can reveal the secret:
They make cool products that work. Apple is as good an example as we have of the
efficacy of design, and it didn’t come about by accident. Not a designer
himself, Jobs used some of the finest designers in the world: Jonathan Ive,
Clement Mok, Hartmut Esslinger. Even when forced out of the company in 1985, he immediately retained Paul Rand to do the logo for his new creation NeXT. (Of course Rand also did the logo for Enron, which may say
something about the limits of logos.)
Jobs knew what designers are for. From
the beginning he insisted that “the biggest mistake we could make would be to
try to clone IBM.” This did not betoken a lack of respect for IBM, but merely a
realization that design integrity was essential to corporate integrity. Jobs
pointed out that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like; design is how it works.” And he knew—as his
products consistently demonstrate—that those qualities were not mutually exclusive.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
Can new technology be learned at any stage? No matter what type of keyboard he uses, Caplan’s words always compute.
Section: Inspiration -
professional development, personal essay, Voice
After 55 years of reporting on design, I.D. magazine
published its final issue this month. Former editor Ralph Caplan
shares his memories of how it began.
Section: Inspiration -
graphic design, print design, product design, history, Voice
The design profession has been forever changed by both the tools that Steve Jobs developed and the corporate philosophy that he embraced. Share your thoughts on his impact on you.
Section: Inspiration -
In memoriam, design educators, students
A designer and educator reflects on the loss of Steve Jobs, and what the creative community has gained through his legacy.
Section: Inspiration -
personal essay, In memoriam, design educators, students
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