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Steve Jobs and his art of simplicity

To Apple's Steve Jobs, design was not just a matter of aesthetics. It was also the experience of using products. His genius was in blending design and experience, tuning in to our complex lives and helping us orchestrate them. Just ask my mom.

By John Cary / October 7, 2011

New York

My fingers hovered over the smooth keys of my paper-thin MacBook Air as I read the first notice of Steve Jobs’s death Wednesday evening. A second later, my iPhone and iPad lit up like fireflies. As I sat there, staring at the three shiny screens in front of me, my heart instantly ached over the passing of a man I had never met, but I felt knew me.

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Many people communicate last wishes about their funerals, but perhaps no person in history has ever shaped the actual death announcement so definitively. Synced across our electronic devices, the moment was beautifully curated, as if Jobs had been designing it, even unintentionally, for years.

To Jobs, design was never for its own sake, and instead a means to something greater – the shaping of experiences. Aside from the innumerable accolades of Apple’s brilliant CEO as an innovator, a business hero, a visionary, he was also like you and me: a user, a consumer. And from that vantage point, he tuned in to our everyday experiences, helping us orchestrate our complicated lives.

There is no question that Jobs’s aesthetic innovations will be among his most enduring legacies, but the appearance of Apple products was actually the least of Jobs’s concerns. “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “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.”

Among countless other companies, fierce competitors like Blackberry, Dell, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung have attempted to adopt Jobs’s gleaming white, “less is more” approach. They dutifully streamlined and simplified wherever possible, though never with the same degree of success. For Jobs understood that the most worthwhile kind of simplicity wasn’t the product of simple thinking, but the result of acute observation, audacious demands, and a commitment to excellence at every turn.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Jobs reached for the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Our modern lives – filled with a cacophony of demands, relationships, and news, made pleasurable by music, the capacity to create and communicate – are inherently complicated.


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