Needing Jobs

“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 with Apple.

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 successfully copied?

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 along.

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 legacy.”

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.