Seven Lessons Learned From Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was not a designer, at least not in the traditional sense. In fact, there was little he did do that was traditional, in any sense of the word. Having just finished his biography, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I have a new-found respect for the man who transformed not only the world of computers, consumer  electronics, music, movies, etc… but also had a profound effect of the lives of creative professionals — graphic designers in particular.

The book has countless tales of Steve Jobs’s quirks, tantrums, and various eccentricities (I stopped counting the number of crying tantrums somewhere around 10…), but what it makes clear is that he knew what what he wanted and would stop at nothing to get it. He demanded the best of everyone, and showed people the impossible could be done… while always staying ahead of the curve.

Much has been said of Jobs before and since his untimely death on October 5th, 2011. I would like to take a moment and write a few thoughts about what I’ve learned from Steve Jobs:

Work with the best people
Throughout the course of his career, Jobs noted that poor performers drag the whole team down. There’s simply no point dealing with sub-par players. As an employer, surround yourself with the best… you’ll benefit, as will they. For us, this can also be applied to clients. No use spending time trying to convince the brilliance of your design if they’re incapable of appreciating it. Working with the best led Jobs to seek out legendary designer Paul Rand to design the NeXT logo.

Follow your passion
There’s no point working on things that don’t interest you. Period. This goes for designers as well as clients. There’s nothing worse for a designer than to work hard for something when you know the client doesn’t place much value on it.

Every detail matters — even the ones you can’t see.
Years ago, I remember buying a G5 Tower and adding RAM to it myself, marveling at the innards of the machine. I called over Sheri to show her the inside of a computer, and we were both transfixed. I have no idea how computers work, really, but was awestruck at the organization of the circuit boards, processors, the way that the fans could be slid in and out, and such. This turns out to be a classic Jobsian trait: everything matters. Design is not a surface affair, it’s the compete integration of inside to outside, hardware to software, etc. As designers, we understand this intrinsically from the detailed proposals we write at the outset of a job, to the care that we take in preparing files to send off to the printers and developers. Every detail counts, and the craft you put into things shows through.

Form over function.
This is actually completely counter-intuitive, especially for a maker of gizmos… why wouldn’t you simply build the best product, who cares what it looks like? Yet that’s not the way it works. The very first Macintosh — which was gorgeous to look at and intuitive to use — was woefully underpowered. Jobs knew that if something is not intriguing, it’s never going to garner the attention to pick it up in the first place. This applies to graphic design and advertising: if it’s not compelling, no one will notice you. Of course, if the content isn’t good, it won’t succeed. Jobs rarely disappointed in this regard. (The original Mac was in fact underpowered and had poor sales — a catastrophic mistake that Jobs would never make again).

Focus is the most important thing a company can have.
When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he was baffled at how engineers had run amuck with endless variations of mediocre Macs. He finally asked people, “What would I tell my mother to buy?” a question no one there could answer. Then he drew a grid on a white board with 4 quadrants: Consumer/Professional/Desktop/Portable. He forced the company to simply focus on the best product for each of these, which produced the iMac.

For us, focus is equally important. We must balance the right mix of clients to take on. We need to maintain our promotional efforts with the same vigor and enthusiasm as our client work. We set yearly goals by which we measure our progress. We know which projects are best to take on, and which to pass on. We’ve seen how colleagues try and take on the world and do it all, only to implode due to their lack of focus.

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
I love this quote, and think I will use it to tell all our new hires what to expect at MSLK. We definitely embrace the notion that great work is not a far-off thing in the distance, but something that is expected.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
This is MSLK to a “T” — we spend countless hours stripping away the superfluous in order to get to the essence of any message we’re communicating, whether visually or in creating a campaign message. Jobs understood that making things appear simple and easy takes complex and hard work.