The lesson of Apple: design matters

One man's relentless quest for simple, elegant design in everything from unseen circuit boards to hip retail outlets was evident in the very first Apple computers.

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It was early 1984 when my wife and I unboxed our first Mac. Even in those days, the little computer had a design simplicity everyone from Cupertino, Calif., to rural China now associates with Apple: spare graphics, simple instructions, friendliness just this side of being cloying. When you booted up the beige unit, a Mac icon with a smiley face appeared. Cute, yes. But computers circa 1984 were unfriendly, buggy, mystifying machines that only a special priesthood knew how to operate.

The Mac cost us $2,500, which would be $5,400 in today’s dollars. It had negligible memory. It couldn’t even connect to the Internet because there was no civilian Internet. We were nevertheless sure that the future had arrived. The Mac was light enough to heft with one hand. All the code was hidden beneath a “desktop” with “icons” you moved with a “mouse.” I’ve put quotes around those words because they were new concepts in 1984. They hadn’t been focus-grouped. We didn’t know we needed them. But they made sense immediately.

The programs were primitive. MacWrite let you format a document. MacPaint let you design a graphic. That theoretically eliminated professional typists and print jobbers. But early “desktop publishing” (another novel idea) had a homespun, made-on-a-Mac quality. You wouldn’t have wanted to send out Mac-generated wedding invitations.

The early Mac also had a few simple games, a rudimentary tool for balancing your checkbook, and odd features like “FatBits” in which you could tweak images at the pixel level. FatBits was as aimlessly amusing as popping bubble wrap, but it introduced amateurs to the world of computer graphics. (Hey, I just clicked a pixel!)

Over the years, early adopters endured ribbing from friends and co-workers who couldn’t believe we would settle for Apple’s manifest limitations when we could have power (IBM), programming variety (Microsoft DOS), or a much cheaper price (Dell). As things turned out, of course, Apple is now the king of all media. Even die-hard PC lovers carry iPhones or listen to iPods or at the very least buy songs at the iTunes Store.

The story of Apple is the story of its founder -- his vision, discipline, and inventiveness; the near catastrophe that befell the company after he was ousted; and its spectacular triumph after his return. It is a tale that has already passed into legend, a case that will be studied in MBA programs for generations to come.

There are many threads to the Apple saga. They all lead back to Steve Jobs and his view that design is a discipline to be relentlessly pursued at every level – from circuit boards to plastic housing, supply chains to software, advertising to retail sales.

All of us have reason to be suspicious of design. We’ve seen enough pouty fashion models, costume jewelry, and extravagant-looking/cardboard-tasting baked goods to know that appearances can be deceiving. Mr. Jobs showed how when design permeates a product it taps into something deeper. In Leander Kahney’s 2008 book “Inside Steve’s Brain,” onetime associate (and later rival) John Sculley describes a meeting between Jobs and one of his heroes, Polaroid inventor Edwin Land. Each man talked about how he could envision his baby (the Mac, the Polaroid camera) as a real thing before it was built.

“Both of them,” said Mr. Sculley, “had this ability to – well, not invent products – but discover products. Both of them said these products have always existed, it’s just that no one has ever seen them before.”

There are plenty of beautifully designed products not sold at Apple Stores. What has been inspiring about Jobs is that he has hewed to a simple, functional, friendly design ethic for an entire career. That’s not easy. The norm in everything from cars to websites to Swiss Army knives is to add features and services to satisfy every taste, to build Baroque cathedrals where once a simple house of worship stood. It takes a Jobs to enforce design discipline. That can produce great beauty and functionality, not to mention wealth.

Such geniuses are rare for a reason. The very large and messy enterprise called humanity can only tolerate so many artists and autocrats stamping their feet and demanding that others see the underlying vision they see. Every generation has a handful of such geniuses. We are better off for them – and probably better off that we aren’t all that way.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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