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.

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.

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.

Jobs understood that, in turn, we needed tools that didn’t mirror our increasingly complicated lives, but just the opposite – tools that oriented us, accompanied us, made our lives less heavy to heave around. Within his little black and white boxes we found that our days, our networks, our ideas, were more containable, and at the same time, ever expanding.

Industrial designer Yves Béhar captures Jobs well: “He has given a large portion of the population a way to engage in our daily digital culture,” Mr. Béhar wrote yesterday in Forbes. “Thanks to his tools, we are all a part of an ever-growing creative class.”

Jobs democratized design and technology – previously viewed as costly luxuries – across cultures and generations. I can’t help but think of my mom, a nurse and mother of six from Milwaukee, Wis. Not a day passes without a typed missive, photo, or video captured on and sent from her iPhone to one of us kin, no matter where we are in the world. Apple products have made her feel more connected and more alive than ever – an artist, a jokester, photographer, videographer.

It’s done much of the same for my two year-old niece, who has her own, precarious way of holding her mom’s iPhone with her pudgy little fingers. She lights up, captivated every time the iPhone comes to life.

Jobs was the master of that moment, which he built into a world stage of Apple’s product unveilings.

“He always talks about how wonderous it will be to use something, to actually live with it, and hold it in your hands,” wrote Fast Company’s Cliff Kuang at the time of Jobs’s resignation in August. “If you listen to Steve Jobs’s presentations over the years, he comes across not as the creator of a product so much as its very first fan – the first person to digest its possibilities.”

The architect of gorgeous gadgets and intuitive interfaces, Jobs was even more so an anthropologist of the good life. He wanted his designs to transform lives – how we work, how we learn, how we love, travel, create, communicate, and live. He believed they could.

Ironically, the success of his mission was never so obvious as that fateful moment that his death reverberated across his network of life-altering inventions, and into our hearts.

John Cary is editor of Public­Inter­est­ and author of “The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients.” He writes and speaks widely on architecture, design, public service, and social justice.

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