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How Steve Jobs' Love of Simplicity Fueled A Design Revolution

Passionate to the point of obsessive about design, Steve Jobs insisted that his computers look perfect inside and out

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Steve Jobs’ interest in design began with his love for his childhood home. It was in one of the many working-class subdivisions between San Francisco and San Jose that were developed by builders who churned out inexpensive modernist tract houses in the 1950s for the postwar suburban migration. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of simple modern homes for the American “everyman,” developers such as Joseph Eichler and his imitators built houses that featured floor-to-ceiling glass walls, open floor plans, exposed post-and-beam construction, concrete slab floors and lots of sliding glass doors.

“Eichler did a great thing,” Jobs told me on one of our walks around his old neighborhood, which featured homes in the Eichler style. “His houses were smart and cheap and good. They brought clean design and simple taste to lower-income people.” His appreciation for Eichler-style homes, Jobs said, instilled his passion for making sharply designed products for the mass market. “I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost much,” he said as he pointed out the clean elegance of the Eichlers. “It was the original vision for Apple. That’s what we tried to do with the first Mac. That’s what we did with the iPod.”

Distinctive design—clean and friendly and fun—would become the hallmark of Apple products under Jobs. In an era not known for great industrial designers, Jobs’ partnerships with Hartmut Esslinger in the 1980s and then with Jony Ive starting in 1997 created an engineering and design aesthetic that set Apple apart from other technology companies and ultimately helped make it the most valuable company in the world. Its guiding tenet was simplicity—not merely the shallow simplicity that comes from an uncluttered look and feel and surface of a product, but the deep simplicity that comes from knowing the essence of every product, the complexities of its engineering and the function of every component. “It takes a lot of hard work,” Jobs said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.” As the headline of Apple’s first marketing brochure proclaimed in 1977, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Jobs’ love of simplicity in design was honed when he became a practitioner of Buddhism. After dropping out of college, he made a long pilgrimage through India seeking enlightenment, but it was mainly the Japanese path of Zen Buddhism that stirred his sensibilities. “Zen was a deep influence,” said Daniel Kottke, a college friend who accompanied Jobs on the trip. “You see it in his whole approach of stark, minimalist aesthetics, intense focus.” Jobs agreed. “I have always found Buddhism—Japanese Zen Buddhism in particular—to be aesthetically sublime,” he told me. “The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto.”

He also came to appreciate simple interfaces when he returned from India to a job on the night shift at Atari, where he worked with his friend Steve Wozniak designing video games. Computer games, such as Spacewar!, had been developed by hackers at MIT, but at Atari they had to be made simple enough that a stoned freshman could figure them out. There were no complicated manuals or menus. The only instructions for Atari’s Star Trek game were: “1. Insert quarter. 2. Avoid Klingons.”

One of the few companies in the 1970s with a distinctive industrial design style was Sony. Apple’s first office, after it moved out of the Jobs’ family garage, was in a small building it shared with a Sony sales office, and Jobs would drop by to study the marketing material. “He would come in looking scruffy and fondle the product brochures and point out design features,” said Dan’l Lewin, who worked there. “Every now and then, he would ask, ‘Can I take this brochure?’”

His fondness for the dark, industrial look of Sony had receded by the time he began attending, starting in June 1981, the annual International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado. There he was exposed to the clean and functional approach of the Bauhaus movement, which was enshrined by Herbert Bayer in the buildings, living suites, sans-serif font typography and furniture on the Aspen Institute campus. Like his mentors Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Bayer believed that design should be simple, yet with an expressive spirit. It emphasized rationality and functionality by employing clean lines and forms. Among the maxims preached by Mies and Gropius was “Less is more.” As with Eichler homes, the artistic sensibility was combined with the capability for mass production.

Jobs publicly discussed his embrace of the Bauhaus style in a talk he gave at the 1983 Aspen design conference, the theme of which was “The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be.” He predicted the passing of the Sony style in favor of Bauhaus simplicity. “The current wave of industrial design is Sony’s high-tech look, which is gunmetal grey, maybe paint it black, do weird stuff to it,” he said. “It’s easy to do that. But it’s not great.” He proposed instead an alternative that was more true to the function and nature of the products. “What we’re going to do is make the products high-tech, and we’re going to package them cleanly so that you know they’re high-tech. We will fit them in a small package, and then we can make them beautiful and white, just like Braun does with its electronics.”

Jobs repeatedly emphasized that Apple’s mantra would be simplicity. “We will make them bright and pure and honest about being high-tech, rather than a heavy industrial look of black, black, black, black, like Sony,” he preached. “The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple.”

Jobs felt that a core component of design simplicity was making products intuitively easy to use. Those do not always go hand in hand. Sometimes a design can be so sleek and simple that a user finds it intimidating or unfriendly to navigate. “The main thing in our design is that we have to make things intuitively obvious,” Jobs told the crowd of design mavens. For example, he extolled the desktop metaphor he was creating for the graphical screen of his new computer, the Macintosh. “People know how to deal with a desktop intuitively. If you walk into an office, there are papers on the desk. The one on the top is the most important. People know how to switch priority. Part of the reason we model our computers on metaphors like the desktop is that we can leverage this experience people already have.”

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