Steve Jobs – Patron Saint of Design

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mark1I had been pondering the power of design as a theme for my next post. I know what prompted this – the death of Steve Jobs. Like everyone else, his sad untimely death (we will always wonder what he may have given us in the next 20 years) made me think about his legacy and what lay at the core of it. What was Steve Jobs? He was a visionary, I suppose, in the sense that his vision affected the world we live in but only because his vision became manifest in the products he developed. I’m not sure he had any great world vision per se. He was an engineer – a description that is undervalued in the UK. He was an inventor – ditto. He applied his inventive engineer’s mind not to just any technology but to the technology that makes us work as a society – technology that helps us discover, create, play and communicate. But how to sum him up? I think he was a brilliant designer.

Everything else was just grist to his mill. His legacy is that he designed brilliant products that we all love.
That got me to pondering brilliant design and I was just about to put finger to keyboard when I read Paul Feldwick’s article about aesthetics in the September Market Leader. It is a gem of an article (wish I could attended that TEDx talk it was based on). I was about to lay out my view – hardly original – that brilliant design occurs where functionality and aesthetics meet when I read Paul’s insightful distinction between creativity and aesthetics. I would have in any event pointed out that Steve jobs brilliance lay more in how he assembled pre-existing technologies and in how he edged ahead in terms of functionality but absolutely trumped the competition in terms of aesthetics. Had I not read Paul’s article would I have used the word aesthetics? No, probably not – I’d just have pointed out that Apple products look and feel so beautiful you want to lick them.

Paul’s article gave me more to chew on. You should read it but in essence he makes the case that a) the value of ideas lies in the physical experience they produce (we don’t buy ideas, we buy products) b) creativity has become – or always meant – originality of idea c) aesthetics (perception through the senses) is more important as a driver of preference and choice.
If I were being picky I think Paul slightly downplays the power of creativity/originality in ideas in order to make the case for aesthetics but fundamentally I agree with him. He acknowledges that the semiotics for ‘aesthetics’ are not helpful, particularly in the functional/analytical world of business. I agree – perhaps we should talk about ‘brilliant design’ or maybe even ‘stuff that stands out and looks cool’. The point is that great design – the symbiosis of form and function – should be top of the agenda for any business – it is for Apple and that is why they have prospered.

Some people think Steve jobs was some kind of God. A little hysterical but I think I can understand why – he was a brilliant designer and his designs affected, directly or indirectly, the way we all live. I guess that is God-like.
This is normally the point where I like to get to the SFW (work it out). What should one do with this whimsy? Just before I do I want to make the case for whimsy. Another theme in my mind, one that I intend to write more about, is the need for serious marketers and business folk to spend more time thinking about the human condition. We are being hit by a Tsunami of data – there is so much already here and so much more coming that in future the core skill of business will be to turn data into intelligence (thank you Mike Bayler). It is more important than ever to counter balance this by a tenacious curiosity about what makes us tick as humans and communities. We have to rediscover the philosopher in us. We need to find time to read a great article about the power of aesthetics and not regard it as whimsy. It will make us better in business. One quick piece of evidence for this. Warren Buffet spends more time reading books than analyzing data (he has other people do that for him).

But back to the SFW (figured it out yet?) regarding brilliant design. Learning how to manage the design process is not part of the core training manual – most brand managers are crap at it. I know I was. I am in the process of building a new house. My wife is convinced I will make a hash of it. I am quietly confident because as I have tried to point out my career in marketing has eventually taught me something about managing the design process. Perhaps business should place more importance on developing this core skill in its marketers.

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