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

James Day

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.”

At that time, there was not much exciting happening in the realm of industrial design, Jobs felt. He had a Richard Sapper lamp, which he admired, and he also liked the furniture of Charles and Ray Eames and the Braun products of Dieter Rams. But there were no towering figures energizing the world of industrial design the way that Raymond Loewy and Herbert Bayer had done. “There really wasn’t much going on in industrial design, particularly in Silicon Valley, and Steve was very eager to change that,” says Maya Lin, the designer of Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, who met Jobs at the Aspen conferences. “His design sensibility was sleek but not slick, and it was playful. He embraced minimalism, which came from his Zen devotion to simplicity, but he avoided allowing that to make his products cold. They stayed fun. He was passionate and super serious about design, but at the same time there was a sense of play.”

In creating the case for the original Macintosh, which came out in 1984, Jobs worked with two young designers at Apple, Jerry Manock and Terry Oyama, who drafted a preliminary design and had a plaster model made. The Mac team gathered around for the unveiling and expressed their thoughts. Andy Hertzfeld, one of the software engineers, called it “cute.” Others also seemed satisfied. Then Jobs let loose a blistering burst of criticism. “It’s way too boxy, it’s got to be more curvaceous. The radius of the first chamfer needs to be bigger, and I don’t like the size of the bevel.” With his new fluency in industrial design lingo, Jobs was referring to the angular or curved edge connecting the sides of the computer. But then Jobs gave a resounding compliment. “It’s a start,” he said.

Every month or so, Manock and Oyama would come back to present a new iteration, based on Jobs’ previous criticisms. The latest plaster model would be dramatically unveiled, and all the previous attempts would be lined up next to it. That not only helped them gauge the evolution, but it prevented Jobs from insisting that one of his suggestions or criticisms had been ignored. “By the fourth model, I could barely distinguish it from the third one,” said Hertzfeld, “but Steve was always critical and decisive, saying he loved or hated a detail that I could barely perceive.”

One weekend, Jobs went to the Macy’s in Palo Alto and again spent time studying appliances, especially the Cuisinart. He came bounding into the Mac office that Monday, asked the design team to go buy one and made a raft of new suggestions based on its lines, curves and bevels.

Jobs kept insisting that the machine should look friendly. As a result, it evolved to resemble a human face. With the disk drive built in below the screen, the unit was taller and narrower than most computers, suggesting a head. The recess near the base evoked a gentle chin, and Jobs narrowed the strip of plastic at the top so that it avoided looking like a Cro-Magnon forehead. The patent for the design of the Apple case was issued in the name of Steve Jobs as well as Manock and Oyama. “Even though Steve did not draw any of the lines, his ideas and inspiration made the design what it is,” Oyama later said. “To be honest, we didn’t know what it meant for a computer to be ‘friendly’ until Steve told us.”

Jobs obsessed with equal intensity about the look of what would appear on the screen. In particular, he cared about the fonts—the different styles of lettering. When he had dropped out of Reed College as a freshman, he had stuck around campus auditing classes that struck his fancy, and his favorite was one in calligraphy. “I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great,” he recalled. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.” It was yet another example of Jobs consciously positioning himself at the intersections of the arts and technology.

Because the Macintosh had a bitmapped display—meaning that each pixel on the screen could be turned on or off by the microprocessor—it was possible to create a wide array of fonts, ranging from the elegant to the wacky, and render them pixel by pixel on the screen. To design these fonts, he hired a graphic artist from Philadelphia, Susan Kare. She named the fonts after the stops on Philadelphia’s Main Line commuter train: Overbrook, Merion, Ardmore and Rosemont. Jobs found the process fascinating. Late one afternoon he stopped by and started brooding about the font names. They were “little cities that nobody’s ever heard of,” he complained. “They ought to be world-class cities!” The fonts were renamed Chicago, New York, Geneva, London, San Francisco, Toronto and Venice. “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts,” Jobs later said. “And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”

Chris Espinosa, another of the young engineers, found one way to satisfy Jobs’ demands when he was designing a calculator for the Macintosh. “Well, it’s a start,” Jobs said when he saw Espinosa’s first attempt, “but basically, it stinks. The background color is too dark, some lines are the wrong thickness, and the buttons are too big.” Espinosa kept refining it in response to Jobs’ critiques, but with each iteration came new criticisms. So finally one afternoon, when Jobs came by, Espinosa unveiled his inspired solution: “The Steve Jobs Roll Your Own Calculator Construction Set.” It allowed the user to tweak and personalize the look of the calculator by changing the thickness of the lines, the size of the buttons, the shading, the background and other attributes. Instead of just laughing, Jobs plunged in and started to play around with the look to suit his tastes. After about ten minutes, he got it the way he liked. His design, not surprisingly, was the one that shipped on the Mac and remained the standard for 15 years.

Although his focus was on the Macintosh, Jobs wanted to create a consistent design language for all Apple products. So he set up a contest to choose a world-class designer who would be for Apple what Dieter Rams was for Braun. The winner was Hartmut Esslinger, a German designer who was responsible for the look of Sony’s Trinitron televisions. Even though he was German, Esslinger proposed that there should be a “born-in-America gene for Apple’s DNA” that would produce a “California global” look, inspired by “Hollywood and music, a bit of rebellion and natural sex appeal.” His guiding principle was that “form follows emotion,” a play off the familiar maxim that it follows function. The look he developed for Apple products in the 1980s featured white cases; tight, rounded curves; and lines of thin grooves for both ventilation and decoration.

Jobs’ infatuation with design had a downside. The excess costs and delays he incurred by indulging his artistic sensibilities contributed to his ouster from Apple in 1985 and the gorgeous market failures he produced at his subsequent company, NeXT. When he was recalled to Apple in 1997, he had tempered some of his instincts and learned to make sensible trade-offs, but he was no less passionate about the importance of design. It was destined to make Apple again stand out in a market that was glutted by boxy, beige generic computers and consumer devices such as music players and phones that looked as if they had been designed in Uzbekistan.

When Jobs gathered his top management for a pep talk soon after his return, sitting in the audience was a sensitive and passionate 30-year-old Brit who was head of the company’s design team. Jonathan Ive—known to all as Jony—was planning to quit. He was sick of the company’s focus on profit maximization rather than product design. Jobs’ talk led him to reconsider. “I remember very clearly Steve announcing that our goal is not just to make money but to make great products,” Ive recalled. “The decisions you make based on that philosophy are fundamentally different from the ones we had been making at Apple.” Ive and Jobs would soon forge a bond that would lead to the greatest industrial design collaboration of their era.

Like most designers, Ive enjoyed analyzing the philosophy and the step-by-step thinking that went into a particular design. For Jobs, the process was more intuitive. He would point to models and sketches he liked, and dump on the ones he didn’t. Ive would then take the cues and develop the concepts Jobs blessed. In Ive, Jobs met his soul mate in the quest for true rather than surface simplicity. Ive, sitting in his design studio, once described his philosophy:

“Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”

That was the fundamental principle Jobs and Ive shared. Design was not just about what a product looked like on the surface. It had to reflect the product’s essence. As a result, the process of designing a product at Apple was integrally related to how it would be engineered and manufactured. Ive described one of Apple’s Power Macs. “We wanted to get rid of anything other than what was absolutely essential,” he said. “To do so required total collaboration between the designers, the product developers, the engineers and the manufacturing team. We kept going back to the beginning, again and again. Do we need that part? Can we get it to perform the function of the other four parts?”

Despite Jobs’ belief that industrial design and engineering should be part of the same process, sometimes there was tension, because Jobs had separated the industrial design team, led by Ive, from the hardware engineering team, led by Jon Rubinstein, who had initially been Ive’s boss. It didn’t help that the two men didn’t like each other and at times came close to blows during tense confrontations. At most other companies, the requirements specified by the engineers tend to circumscribe what the industrial designers can do when it comes to the outward appearance of the product. For Jobs, that process tended to work the other way. In the early days of Apple, Jobs approved the shape and outward appearance of the case of the Apple III and the original Macintosh, and then told the engineers to make their boards and components fit.

After he was forced out, the process at Apple shifted to being engineer-driven. “Engineers would say ‘here are the guts’—processor, hard drive—and then it would go to the designers to put it in a box,” said Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller. “When you do it that way, you come up with awful products.” But when Jobs returned and forged his bond with Ive, the balance was again tilted toward the designers. “Steve kept impressing on us that the design was integral to what would make us great,” said Schiller. “Design once again dictated the engineering, not just vice versa.”

The first great design triumph to come from the Jobs-Ive collaboration was the iMac, a desktop computer aimed at the home consumer. Jobs had certain specifications. It should be an all-in-one product, with keyboard and monitor and computer combined in a simple unit that was ready to use right out of the box. And it should have a distinctive design that made a brand statement.

Ive and his top deputy, Danny Coster, began to sketch out futuristic designs. Jobs rejected the dozen foam models they initially produced, but Ive knew how to guide him gently. He agreed that none of them was quite right, but he pointed out one that had promise. It was curved, playful-looking and did not seem like an unmovable slab rooted to the table. “It has a sense that it’s just arrived on your desktop or it’s just about to hop off and go somewhere,” he told Jobs.

By the next showing, Ive had refined the playful model. This time Jobs, with his binary view of the world, raved that he loved it. He took the foam prototype and began carrying it around the headquarters with him, showing it in confidence to trusted lieutenants and board members. Apple was celebrating in its ads the glories of being able to think different. Yet up until now, nothing had been proposed that was much different from existing computers. Finally, Jobs had something new.

The plastic casing that Ive and Coster proposed was sea-green blue, and it was translucent so that you could see through to the inside of the machine. “We were trying to convey a sense of the computer being changeable based on your needs, to be like a chameleon,” said Ive. “That’s why we liked the translucency. You could have color, but it felt so unstatic. And it came across as cheeky.”

Both metaphorically and in reality, the translucency connected the engineering of the computer to the design. Jobs had always insisted that the rows of chips on the circuit boards look neat, even though they would never be seen. Now, they would be seen. The casing would make visible the care that had gone into making all the components of the computer and fitting them together. The playful design would convey simplicity while also revealing the depths that true simplicity entails.

Even the simplicity of the plastic shell itself involved great complexity. Ive and his team worked with Apple’s Korean manufacturers to perfect the process of making the cases, and they even went to a jelly-bean factory to study how to make translucent colors look enticing. The cost of each case was more than $60 per unit, three times that of a regular computer case. At other companies, there would probably have been presentations and studies to show whether the translucent case would increase sales enough to justify the extra cost. Jobs asked for no such analysis.

Topping off the design was the handle nestled into the top of the iMac. It was more playful and semiotic than it was functional. This was a desktop computer. Not many people were really going to carry it around. But as Ive later explained:

“Back then, people weren’t comfortable with technology. If you’re scared of something, then you won’t touch it. I could see my mum being scared to touch it. So I thought, if there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible. It’s approachable. It’s intuitive. It gives you permission to touch. It gives a sense of its deference to you. Unfortunately, manufacturing a recessed handle costs a lot of money. At the old Apple, I would have lost the argument. What was really great about Steve is that he saw it and said, ‘That’s cool!’ I didn’t explain all the thinking, but he intuitively got it. He just knew that it was part of the iMac’s friendliness and playfulness.”

Jobs and Ive proceeded to make beguiling design a signature of all future Apple computers. There was a consumer laptop that looked like a tangerine clam, and a professional desktop computer that suggested a Zen ice cube. Like bell-bottom pants that turn up in the back of a closet, some of these models looked better at the time than they do in retrospect, and they show a love of design that was, on occasion, a bit too exuberant. But they set Apple apart and provided the publicity bursts it needed to survive in a Windows world.

When flat-screen displays became commercially viable, Jobs decided it was time to replace the iMac. Ive came up with a model that was somewhat conventional, with the guts of the computer attached to the back of the flat screen. Jobs didn’t like it. There was something about the design that lacked purity, he felt. “Why have this flat display if you’re going to glom all this stuff on its back?” he asked Ive. “We should let each element be true to itself.”

Jobs went home early that day to mull the problem, then called Ive to come over. They wandered into the garden, which Jobs’ wife, Laurene, had planted with a profusion of sunflowers. “Every year I do something wild with the garden, and that time it involved masses of sunflowers, with a sunflower house for the kids,” she recalled. “Jony and Steve were riffing on their design problem, then Jony asked, ‘What if the screen was separated from the base like a sunflower?’ He got excited and started sketching.” Ive liked his designs to suggest a narrative, and he realized that a sunflower shape would convey that the flat screen was so fluid and responsive that it could reach for the sun.

In Ive’s new design, the Mac’s screen was attached to a moveable chrome neck, so that it looked not only like a sunflower but also a cheeky Luxo lamp. Apple took out many patents for the design, most crediting Ive, but on one of them—for a “computer system having a moveable assembly attached to a flat panel display”—Jobs listed himself as a primary inventor.

Jobs’ belief in the power of simplicity as a design precept reached its pinnacle with the three consumer device triumphs he produced beginning in 2001: the iPod, iPhone and iPad. He immersed himself daily in the design of the original iPod and its interface. His main demand was “Simplify!” He would go over each screen and apply a rigid test: If he wanted a song or a function, he should be able to get there in three clicks. And the click should be intuitive. If he couldn’t figure out how to navigate to something, or if it took more than three clicks, he would be brutal. “There would be times when we’d wrack our brains on a user interface problem, and think we’d considered every option, and he would go, ‘Did you think of this?’” said Tony Fadell, the team leader. “He’d redefine the problem or approach, and our little problem would go away.”

The iPod, and later the iPhone and iPad, were triumphs of Jobs’ original insight in the early 1980s that design simplicity was best accomplished by tightly wedding hardware and software. Unlike Microsoft, which licensed out its Windows operating system software to different hardware makers, such as IBM and Dell, Apple created products that were tightly integrated from end to end. This was particularly true of the first version of the iPod. Everything was tied together seamlessly: the Macintosh hardware, the Macintosh operating system, the iTunes software, the iTunes Store and the iPod hardware and software.

This allowed Apple to make the iPod device itself much simpler than rival MP3 players, such as the Rio. “What made the Rio and other devices so brain dead was that they were complicated,” Jobs explained. “They had to do things like make playlists, because they weren’t integrated with the jukebox software on your computer. So by owning the iTunes software and the iPod device, that allowed us to make the computer and the device work together, and it allowed us to put the complexity in the right place.” The astronomer Johannes Kepler declared that “nature loves simplicity and unity.” So did Steve Jobs. By integrating hardware and software, he was able to achieve both.

In the year since Steve Jobs died and my biography of him was published, I was struck by two conflicting reactions that the book provoked. Some people were put off by how petulant and abrasive he could be. But others, especially younger entrepreneurs or people who had run businesses, focused on how his petulance was linked to his artistic sensibility and drive for design perfection.

I believe that the latter interpretation is closer to the truth. Jobs was, at times, very demanding, indeed a jerk. But the world is filled with demanding bosses and jerks, most of whom never amount to much. What made Jobs special, sometimes even a genius, was his fiery instinct for beauty, his talent for creating it and his conviction that it mattered. And because of that, he was able to build a company that became the greatest force for innovative design—and the best proof of its importance—in our time.

Searching for a personal uniform, Jobs asked designer Issey Miyake for some black turtlenecks. He kept around 100 of them in his closet. James Day
James Day

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