On the morning of my forty-first birthday, yesterday, I woke up to two things: A gift from the lovely first lady of Momo of a beautifully edited book of script typography and caligraphic design, and the news that co-founder and mentor of Apple, Steve Jobs, had died.
As John Stewart was to put it on that night’s edition of The Daily Show, some industry leaders we seemed to wring dry, watching them die old and in increasing irrelevance. But it feels as if Steve had a lot more to share with the world yet. “Like a space alien landed and left us a new piece of technology and an instruction manual before shooting back off into space again, just as we’re shouting: NO! WHAT DOES THE GREEN BUTTON DO?”
And you began to accept the idea that the iPhone was actually possible for humans to have developed. You gullible idiot.
It is said that he wasn’t an easy man to work with. A man with a drive for excellence. All I can say there is that I’ve always greatly appreciated the excellence and humanity in Steve Jobs’ work. And also that I am very easy to work with.
My whole creative career, wildly unremarkable as it’s mostly been, has been equipped and enhanced very largely by Apple. I still have no proper idea how to operate a PC; they are clunky tools of a bygone age to me, and have been since they were new. Macs are human, and always have been by comparison somehow.
I feel sure that many tech heads and devotees will be snapping on WWJD wristbands with the Mac start-up icon on them and frequently asking themselves in tricky situations, What Would Jobs Do, but I think the most duh-obvious thing he did always was think like a human. Like a squelchy bag of fluids and hormones and skin and bone that wanders around getting damn-fool notions into its head and responding to any number of often illogical ‘impressions’ and ‘feelings’ and lusts and fears.
Traditionally, engineers and IT designers seem willfully able to leave any such awareness at the door of the germ-vacuumed test lab.
You see, good design, boys and girls, always articulates a perfect equilibrium between form and function.
An engineer, so tradition goes, will problem-solve a new bit of tech in a brilliant way under the bonnet. But probably won’t then be able to close the bonnet. Not without sawing a bit off it, five minutes before the glitzy launch presentation. And never mind finding a place for the driver’s seat.
A creative, meanwhile, will design something highly intellectual and possibly beautiful – so long as their own sense of aesthetics isn’t too highly intellectual as well – but don’t expect it to have an engine in the first place. And don’t touch that bit, because it’s just for show and it’ll come off in your… and now you’ve ruined it, look. You sap.
A designer, however, is a zen guru of balance. He or she understands that the tool they’re designing should be transparent in its function – that it should not get in the way of the job one iota. They will also understand, though, that the simpler and more elegant that design is, the more secretly pleasing it will be for the bag-of-stupid-fluids highly impressionable shaved ape using it. The task may need to be done for objective, spread-sheetable reasons, but if the tool puts some unquantifiable joy into it for the tool wielder, he or she will oddly enjoy his or her work rather more – and so undoubtedly do it rather better. An ultimately bankable end result.
And let’s face it, it’s hard to think of bits of product design that embody this ideal more than some of Apple’s.
Has any industry giant created more emotional response from its product launches? More devotion in its fans? More sheer wow factor in its innovations? And has any international CEO worth squillions elicited so much respect and reposted quotes from his speeches as Steve Jobs?
Whether you love or resent the Apple story, you’d be pretty churlish and silly to deny he seemed to know his app from his elbow in business.
..And that Apple’s influence in changing the way humans do some things is frankly remarkable. Clever ideas are one thing, but in terms of Making An Actual Difference, delivery is everything.
..Though you may have to wait a devil of a time for shipment.
Plenty of folk were reposting Steve’s Stanford commencement address from 2005. Most of it is quotable, it seems. Stuff about following your heart and other guff you’ll dismiss in a cynical mood… except it’s coming from someone who’s belief in the way everything in life can help you learn more and do better actually lead him to become, well, Steve Jobs. Near legend.
..That being diagnosed with untreatable cancer after espousing a Death Focuses The Mind, Man philosphy for years, actually helped him focus the mind enough to go on and develop the iPhone and the iPad and beat the cancer.
..That being fired from his own company as a success-legend millonaire when he was still only thirty lead him to wander the Earth looking for new ways to follow his heart and rebuild it from being basically broken by the experience and so along the way found Pixar, arguably the world’s most original, warm-hearted, intelligent and successful animation company.
..That dropping out of college right back at the beginning of his adult life lead to him ‘dropping in’ on a calligraphy and typography course which opened his eyes to the beauty of letterform to such a degree that he built the concept strongly into the design of the remarkable little Mac SE that I first sat infront of with my mouth open in 1988. And which essentially set the whole tone for Apple’s game-changing cultural attitude.
At forty-one now, I may have demonstrated beyond doubt that I am not able to leave the lovely first lady of Momo alone long enough to bother with the sort of drive that will one day change the way humans do things, but Steve Jobs’ attitude has helped to change the way I do things.
I shall look at my wife’s inspiring birthday gift and remember him and his inspiring desire to make things better. More effective, because they are more elegantly human.
And I shall try to remain encouraged that when life seems to forever be deviating from the script, it may be writing a better, even a more beautiful, story.