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)
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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.


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