Saturday, January 14, 2012

Designer Spotlight: Steve Jobs

I've been reading Walter Isaacson's new biography of Steve Jobs, and it's a fascinating, unvarnished look at a very complex person. With a fierce drive that was both left-brain and right-brain, Jobs created groundbreaking tools that advanced technology, but which were also beautiful to look at and beautiful to use. He was an uncompromising perfectionist, and a man of style and taste. So I thought that today I would mention some of his own takes on design.

When the AppleII case was being designed, Steve Jobs looked at more than two thousand shades of Pantone beige and was not satisfied with any of them. He actually wanted to create a new shade of beige, but was talked out of it by Mike Scott, Apple's then-president.

Jobs scoured Macy's for product designs and fell in love with the Cuisinart (the image above is the vintage machine that he would have studied). He brought a Cuisinart back to the Apple headquarters and explained that he wanted a machine that looked "friendly." "User friendly" is a phrase that would become synonymous with the Macintosh, and white would become Steve Jobs' color of preference.

Ansel Adams   |  Moonrise, Glacier Point, 1948

At his first house, Jobs had no chairs, but he hung Ansel Adams photographs on the wall and sat on the floor next to an antique Tiffany floor lamp.

Courtesy of the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass   |

Steve Jobs was a great admirer of Louis Comfort Tiffany, and he was so intrigued by Tiffany's ability to mass-produce fine art, that he took the whole Macintosh team to visit a Tiffany exhibit. He wanted them to know they were not just great programmers — they were artists!

Bill Atkinson, one of Macintosh's lead programmers, came up with the algorithm that would allow the Macintosh to draw circles and ovals. Jobs said that drawing circles, ovals and squares wouldn't be good enough, that users would need to draw squares with rounded corners. When Atkinson scoffed, Jobs took him outside and within three blocks pointed to about 18 examples, including a No Parking sign. Atkinson was sold and programmed a tool for making squares with rounded corners.   |

At the time that the casing for the Macintosh was being designed, Steve Jobs was driving a Porche 928. He said he wanted the computer to look like the classic car. I don't see the connection, but if you look at the back of the Porche, you'll definitely see the back of those later, colorful iMacs.

Calligraphy by Hermann Zapf  |  Champion Papers

While at Reed College, Steve Jobs audited a calligraphy class. He loved the beauty of script, and it is one of his legacies that today we have many handsome computer type fonts from which to choose.

Incidentally, it was Steve Jobs who championed WYSIWYG (pronounced "wiz-ee-wig"), which is an acronym for "What you see is what you get." Older readers will remember when computer type was reversed from black screens!

And now, back to my reading ...


  1. It is interesting how many of Jobs' innovations arose from observing the quality in the world around him, not just from engineering skill or from some innate sense of fitness or creativity. This seems an object lesson for those who feel that should only study or accept what they feel is 'directly useful' to them, although this is preaching to the choir for readers of this and similar blogs.

    On the flip side, I'm not sure that a house with no chairs comes under the rubric of "user friendly".
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. Mark the book sounds just as fascinating as the man himself! Than you for sharing these insights into on of the most creative minds of the century!


    Art by Karena

  3. Hello Mark:
    What fascinating snippets into the life and mind of Steve Jobs. He certainly was an original thinker and seemed to us to have the canny ability to reduce everything to its simplest terms which makes his designs so perfect in our view.

  4. A nice and concise overview of Steve Jobs, a man I knew next to nothing about - except that I knew he had something to do with computers and Apple. (I know next to nothing about technology. But I think I know a bit more about design.)

    Thanks, Mark. He sounds like he was a fascinating man. Maybe I'll take a look at his bio...

  5. Hello, Parnassus - Aside from being very smart, from an early age Steve Jobs was very observant. He grew up with adoptive parents who encouraged everything he did and who indulged him to a fault. His adoptive father stressed craftsmanship in all things, and though he was relatively unschooled, was a huge influence on Steve.

    Two factors lead to Jobs not having furniture in his first house. First, he was enamored of Zen Buddhism, and he enjoyed practicing the tenet of less is more, and second, he was such a perfectionist that he had a hard time making up his mind when he looked at furniture. The book does say that Jobs appreciated and eventually owned the furniture of Ray and Charles Eames.

  6. Hello, Jane and Lance: I think you have found the perfect description of Steve Jobs' success. He was tremendously incisive and knew what people wanted from technology. I think also that he saw the big picture far into the future. I read somewhere that he considered remote controls terribly outdated and was working on something to supercede them.

  7. Hello, Yvette - Steve Jobs had so much more of an impact than just designing the Apple computer. As the biography's book jacket says at the very beginning, "Walter Isaacson has written a riveting story of the roller-coaster life and searingly intense personality of a creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers (Apple), animated movies (Pixar), music (iTunes, iPods), phones (iPhones), tablet computing and digital publishing (iPad).*

    *The parenthesises are mine. I would add that if you are not a Macintosh user, whatever computer you are using has been greatly enhanced by industry standards (innovations) that came from Jobs.

  8. What a beautiful post Mark. :D

    P.S. On your profile, so many of your favorite things are my favorite things too! nice to find kindred spirits on this here beastly web.

  9. Thank you, Windlost! My blogging has brought me in touch with the nicest people.

  10. Every time I use my Apple computer I am grateful to Steve Jobs. Sometimes I try to help a friend out with her computer, not an apple, and then I am even more grateful.
    Because I appreciate good design, the Apple fulfils that area too.

  11. Hi, Rosemary - Boy, oh boy, does your comment strike a chord! Recently a non-Apple friend asked me to look at her computer because her printer was cutting off part of a document. No problem, I thought. Something like that could have been quickly resolved ten different ways on my computer. The short story is that I was completely stumped by the incredible limitations of her system. Experiences like that really make one appreciate the Apple.

  12. I love the ways Steve Jobs has made my life easier. This just proves that our exposure to different things in life will color our future decisions. They can only be better from the diversity of our lives. Thanks Mark!

  13. Hi, Theresa - You might be interested in viewing (if you haven't already done so) Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. It speaks to your comment:

  14. Hi Mark,
    Artist who have the ability to use both sides of their brain, are remarkably successful in a commercial/industrial context. S. J. was probably one of the best example of this type of individual.
    It strikes me that you use both sides of your brain as well.

  15. Thanks for the compliment, Anyes! If it's true that we use only 10 percent of our brain, does that mean that I use only 5 percent from each side?!