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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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.”


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