“Eichler did a great thing,” Jobs agreed, which featured homes in the Eichler style. “His houses were smart and cheap and good. They brought clean design and simple taste to lower-income people.” His appreciation for Eichler-style homes, Jobs said, instilled his passion for making sharply designed products for the mass market. “I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost much,” he said as he pointed out the clean elegance of the Eichlers. “It was the original vision for Apple. That’s what we tried to do with the first Mac. That’s what we did with the iPod.”
Distinctive design—clean and friendly and fun—would become the hallmark of Apple products under Jobs. In an era not known for great industrial designers, Jobs’ partnerships with Hartmut Esslinger in the 1980s and then with Jony Ive starting in 1997 created an engineering and design aesthetic that set Apple apart from other technology companies and ultimately helped make it the most valuable company in the world. Its guiding tenet was simplicity—not merely the shallow simplicity that comes from an uncluttered look and feel and surface of a product, but the deep simplicity that comes from knowing the essence of every product, the complexities of its engineering and the function of every component. “It takes a lot of hard work,” Jobs said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.” As the headline of Apple’s first marketing brochure proclaimed in 1977, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Jobs’ love of simplicity in design was honed when he became a practitioner of Buddhism. After dropping out of college, he made a long pilgrimage through India seeking enlightenment, but it was mainly the Japanese path of Zen Buddhism that stirred his sensibilities. “Zen was a deep influence,” said Daniel Kottke, a college friend who accompanied Jobs on the trip. “You see it in his whole approach of stark, minimalist aesthetics, intense focus.” Jobs agreed. “I have always found Buddhism—Japanese Zen Buddhism in particular—to be aesthetically sublime,” . “The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto.”, Jobs confides.
One of the few companies in the 1970s with a distinctive industrial design style was Sony. Apple’s first office, after it moved out of the Jobs’ family garage, was in a small building it shared with a Sony sales office, and Jobs would drop by to study the marketing material. “He would come in looking scruffy and fondle the product brochures and point out design features,” said Dan’l Lewin, who worked there. “Every now and then, he would ask, ‘Can I take this brochure?’”
His fondness for the dark, industrial look of Sony had receded by the time he began attending, starting in June 1981, the annual International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado. There he was exposed to the clean and functional approach of the Bauhaus movement, which was enshrined by Herbert Bayer in the buildings, living suites, sans-serif font typography and furniture on the Aspen Institute campus. Like his mentors Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Bayer believed that design should be simple, yet with an expressive spirit. It emphasized rationality and functionality by employing clean lines and forms. Among the maxims preached by Mies and Gropius was “Less is more.” As with Eichler homes, the artistic sensibility was combined with the capability for mass production.
Jobs publicly discussed his embrace of the Bauhaus style in a talk he gave at the 1983 Aspen design conference, the theme of which was “The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be.” He predicted the passing of the Sony style in favor of Bauhaus simplicity. “The current wave of industrial design is Sony’s high-tech look, which is gunmetal grey, maybe paint it black, do weird stuff to it,” he said. “It’s easy to do that. But it’s not great.” He proposed instead an alternative that was more true to the function and nature of the products. “What we’re going to do is make the products high-tech, and we’re going to package them cleanly so that you know they’re high-tech. We will fit them in a small package, and then we can make them beautiful and white, just like Braun does with its electronics.”
Jobs repeatedly emphasized that Apple’s mantra would be simplicity. “We will make them bright and pure and honest about being high-tech, rather than a heavy industrial look of black, black, black, black, like Sony,” he preached. “The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple.”
Simplicity and Elegance has its Cost too– Jobs’ infatuation with design had a downside. The excess costs and delays he incurred by indulging his artistic sensibilities contributed to his ouster from Apple in 1985 and the gorgeous market failures he produced at his subsequent company, NeXT. When he was recalled to Apple in 1997, he had tempered some of his instincts and learned to make sensible trade-offs, but he was no less passionate about the importance of design. It was destined to make Apple again stand out in a market that was glutted by boxy, beige generic computers and consumer devices such as music players and phones.
“Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can understand them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity.
Jobs’ belief in the power of simplicity as a design precept reached its pinnacle with the three consumer device triumphs he produced beginning in 2001: the iPod, iPhone and iPad. He immersed himself daily in the design of the original iPod and its interface. His main demand was “Simplify!” He would go over each screen and apply a rigid test: If he wanted a song or a function, he should be able to get there in three clicks. And the click should be intuitive. If he couldn’t figure out how to navigate to something, or if it took more than three clicks, he would be brutal.
The iPod, and later the iPhone and iPad, were triumphs of Jobs’ original insight in the early 1980s that design simplicity was best accomplished by tightly wedding hardware and software. Unlike Microsoft, which licensed out its Windows operating system software to different hardware makers, such as IBM and Dell, Apple created products that were tightly integrated from end to end. This was particularly true of the first version of the iPod. Everything was tied together seamlessly: the Macintosh hardware, the Macintosh operating system, the iTunes software, the iTunes Store and the iPod hardware and software.
This allowed Apple to make the iPod device itself much simpler than rival MP3 players, such as the Rio. “What made the Rio and other devices so brain dead was that they were complicated,” Jobs explained. “They had to do things like make playlists, because they weren’t integrated with the jukebox software on your computer. So by owning the iTunes software and the iPod device, that allowed us to make the computer and the device work together, and it allowed us to put the complexity in the right place.” The astronomer Johannes Kepler declared that “nature loves simplicity and unity.” So did Steve Jobs. By integrating hardware and software, he was able to achieve both.