Steve Jobs and the business of design

The Apple co-founder proved that design is a key business strategy for the 21st century. It's something that many other executives are still trying to figure out.

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
4 min read

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to give a speech at a conference in Seattle full of designers. I was one in a long list of speakers, asked to opine about the design processes at companies that consistently do design well. It's the theme of a book I wrote, "Design Is How It Works."

At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June 2007, Jobs sits down on stage to do a hands-on demo of the Leopard version of Mac OS X, the sixth major release of the operating system. James Martin/CNET

It was impossible in that speech to avoid referencing Apple and Steve Jobs. After all, the title of my book is a quote from Jobs himself. But the funny thing is that just about every speaker at the conference made reference to Jobs too. Often multiple times. So much so that an attendee joked that if we all took shots of alcohol every time Jobs' name got mentioned, we'd have an awfully drunk audience at the end of the conference.

You simply can't overstate the impact that Jobs, who died yesterday, had on design, and the impact design has had on business because of him. More than any other executive, Jobs proved that design is among the key strategic differentiators in a global economy that's increasingly becoming commoditized. His life was so full, and his ingenuity so great, that Jobs will leave many legacies. But certainly high on that list will be the impact of great design on the bottom line.

Jobs taught corporate America, and really the business world writ large, that design could create value, if done right. But that last clause is really the key because most companies, while they want to create beautifully designed and easy-to-use products, don't really understand how to do it. It's hard.

"I can't tell you how many product briefs we get saying we want a product that's as good or better than the iPhone," John Barrett, the chief executive of the Seattle design consultancy Teague, told me in an interview for my book. "That's a five-alarm brief for me. Those folks don't get it. An iPhone is not a product. It's a manifestation of a culture."

Jobs infused Apple with a culture that nurtured great design. It's hardly intuitive for executives, many of whom rise through the finance ranks of their companies. They're often skilled at extracting costs from balance sheets by refining supply chains or benchmarking manufacturing processes. That's important. But those executives are often uncomfortable with creating a design culture that requires basing many key product development decisions on taste rather than market data.

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Taste is something Jobs honed over the years. A reporter once asked Jobs what market research went into the creation of the iPad.

"None," Jobs replied, in one of his most celebrated quotes. "It's not the consumers' job to know what they want."

That thinking is often anathema in product development. Too many companies have a "prove-it" culture where product ideas get squashed because there isn't enough market research to guarantee the success of the idea. Executives reared in finance often want data from industry analysts showing the potential market size. They need the security of knowing that customers will want to buy their new product.

Of course, that squelches innovation, something Jobs understood instinctively. Before 2007, there was no market for a touch-screen mobile phone that connected seamlessly to a marketplace where users could personalize their device with just the right applications. But Jobs' taste told him that the iPhone would be a success.

And while Jobs gets due credit as one of the pioneers of the personal computer industry, his tastes included arts and humanities as well as technology. When Jobs gave Stanford University's commencement address in 2005, he talked about the impact a calligraphy class during his days at Reed College had on him.

"I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great," Jobs said. "It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating."

Jobs didn't pursue calligraphy to refine his ideas for computers. The Mac was still years away. But understanding calligraphy informed his taste.

"Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me," Jobs said about the calligraphy class during the commencement address. "And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography."

That attention to seemingly every tiny detail might seem like fetishes to those who don't appreciate design. But collectively, Jobs' attention to fonts, to materials, to user experiences are what make customers crave Apple products. That focus on great design turned Apple into the most profitable, most valuable technology company in the world. Jobs, more than any other executive, proved design is a business strategy worth pursuing.