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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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.


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