Like everyone else in the world, I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. It’s very readable, if not a little repetitive. And one point I disagree with got repeated the most.
“Steve Jobs,” he writes, “managed to see the big picture while still focusing on the littlest details.”
True, Jobs would set production back months if a bevel wasn’t correct. He labored over Pantone chips to make sure the original Macintosh was just the right shade of beige. He owns the patent to those glass stairways you only find in Apple stores. This was a man who obviously thought a lot about design.
But is design really a little detail?
Our relationship to color, form, scale, contrast, and patterns are part of our hard wiring. These are highly developed faculties and how we interact with the world, even when we are choosing a desktop computer.
As recently as the late 90s, there was an untapped market of consumers who viewed computers as unnecessary and intimidating and felt overwhelmed by the thought of choosing one grey box over another. Jonathan Ive, the lead designer at Apple, had a solution: give the iMac a handle.
This handle was expensive to produce and served no practical purpose, but he believed it would convince people to take an extra look at the iMac. One could easily imagine any other CEO saying, “No one is going to think, ‘that computer has a handle, and now I want to buy it.’”
Rationally, they’d be right, but that’s not how our decision making process works. We don’t form opinions in a linear, articulate way. Decision-making is the result of hundreds of nebulous factors being checked against our lifetime of experiences and distilled to a feeling. The voice in our head is not us thinking, but the result of us thinking, and will almost always serve to reinforce the decision we’ve already made.
After all, ‘words’ are just another set of patterns and patterns are the true language we read. And that’s why the iMac needed a handle. The handle communicates an invitation to touch. It sends a message of accessibility, reassuring the consumer that they won’t break it. It says that iMac is fun, friendly, nothing to be scared of. And it says all this instantly and intuitively.
Fifteen years later, Job’s taught me—a designer who focuses mostly on visuals—a lesson as well.
When I first saw the iPad, I wasn’t impressed. When I first held the iPad I realized what made it great. It wasn’t about what it could do; it couldn’t do anything we hadn’t seen before. Instead, it was about what we could do. For the first time ever, I was able to sit comfortably on my couch and lean back with the internet. With that small shift, from hunching towards a laptop to leaning back with an iPad, the iPad became the first device to live up to the promise of a personal computer.
Steve Jobs knew something that very few people in tech, or anywhere, truly understand. People, not just computers, have operating systems. He knew those “little details” were the big picture.
An inviting handle. How you sit. What small details. What a big picture.