For Jobs, design is about more than aesthetics

Many people misunderstand the design genius of Apple. Sure, it's products look gorgeous. But Apple's great success with design is creating experiences that its customers crave.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
3 min read

commentary There are many people who think the genius of Apple's design--perhaps the greatest of Steve Jobs' legacies--is in the fit and finish of the company's products. And the fact is, they're wrong.

The sleek and symmetrical iPhone 4. Apple

There's no doubt that Apple makes beautiful objects. Its iPods, iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, and the rest of its vaunted product portfolio have their own unique design language. They're sleek and trim. The company's creative and elegant use of materials remains untouched by its consumer electronics rivals. The look of the iPhone, defined by its a seamless pane of glass, its chrome border, its perfect symmetry, sparked an avalanche of copycat devices that tried to mimic its aesthetic.

Virtually all of them failed. And the reason is that Jobs, who resigned today as Apple's CEO, understood that design wasn't merely about what a product looks like. In a 2003 interview with the New York Times' Rob Walker detailing the genesis of the iPod, Jobs laid out his vision for product design.

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''Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,'' Jobs told Walker. "People think it's this veneer--that the designers are handed this box and told, 'Make it look good!' That's not what we think design is. It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.''

The truth is that what sets Apple apart--the thing that really led to perhaps the most remarkable corporate turnaround in history--is that focus on experience design. The iPhone, for example, didn't soar simply because it looked cool. It thrived because of the seamless integration with iTunes, allowing users to easily download the specific applications they want to create a personalized experience.

In a book I wrote last year about product design, called "Design Is How It Works," I asked one of the leading design luminaries of the day, Tim Brown, about Apple's impact on design. Brown, the chief executive of the much sought-after design studio, IDEO, in Palo Alto, Calif., is someone who appreciates industrial design more than most. To him, though, Apple's impact on design isn't about aesthetics.

"One of the great things that Apple has done is getting industrial design out of the way and letting the experience take over," Brown told me.

Apple's success and Jobs' obsession with great industrial and experience design has led to one of the greatest epidemics of corporate envy in business history. Businesses have flocked to design studios such as IDEO, seeking help to create their own iPhone. Consultants have pored over Apple strategy, deconstructing it in order to reconfigure it to apply to clients businesses, hoping some of that Cupertino pixie dust might rain down. Forests have been felled by the library's worth of books and magazine and newspaper articles that try to explain to managers how to run their companies in a more Jobs-like way.

Apple, more than any other company, has helped make design one of the most critical business disciples in the 21st century. The company has used design to create the most anticipated, most loved, most copied products in technology. And yet, few companies really understand what makes those products so revered. They look beautiful, no doubt. But the success of Apple, and the design legacy of Steve Jobs, is that laser-like focus on creating great consumer experiences.

There are many Jobs quotes being recalled today as he steps down as Apple's chief executive. But the one that best defines Apple's success is clear: "Design is how it works."